Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Keeping a spiritual journal or scrapbook

Now write what you have seen, what is and what is to take place. – Revelation 1: 19 (Photograph © Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Patrick Comerford

Introduction

I am the sort of a man who writes because he has made progress, and who makes progress by writing. – Saint Augustine, Epistle 143: 2-3.

Journaling can be a powerful tool for spiritual formation and spiritual growth. As a wise man once said: “A life worth living, is a life worth recording.”

What purpose is served by keeping a journal? Well, there are nearly as many reasons for keeping a journal as there are people who do it.

Anne Frank kept her diary while she was locked away in hiding in Amsterdam. To this day and for many more generations to come, she shares a world, a life, at an era where human dignity and freedom for some was a crime. Her diary keeps it fresh in our collective memory. It is a timeless record of emotions, actions and reactions.

Explorers charted their days, their travels, the glorious and the gory episodes as they made their way into unknown territories.

Today, journal keeping is growing in popularity, the why and what discussed openly on on-line forums, groups and amongst cyber friends offering one another insightful and encouraging thoughts and discussions.

Journal keepers empower themselves. One person who journals has written: “I write in my journals to help to ‘set the day straight.’ By writing things down, it helps me to sort through the day. It also helps to let the angry go and remember the good times … On a more pragmatic note, my journals also serve to jog my memory and inspire me when I am writing a memoir, novel, or screenplay.”

Journaling and prayer

Journaling is a form of prayer. In it, you express your thoughts in writing instead of orally or silently. It is not like a diary – you don't use a prayer journal to record daily details – but more like a travel record of your spiritual journey.

Journaling can take many forms. It can be written as letters to the Trinity, Jesus, your soul, or a saint. It can be poetry. It could be a point form list of thoughts, or a meditation on a subject.

What is journaling?

A journal is not a diary in the normal sense.

Of course a journal is a diary of sorts. But, while a diary records the events of a day or week, a journal focuses on the feelings and emotions of the period in question.

A journal is a helpful way of keeping up with our spiritual journey. A spiritual journal is different from a regular journal. It is a written record of personal reactions to spiritual matters.

Over the years, a personal spiritual journal can be helpful in discovering God’s active work in your life.

You could keep your journal with your Bible to record import new insights, prayers from the Bible that have been helpful to you, and meaningful passages from spiritual books you are reading.

The importance of a spiritual journal is that it gathers strength in helping the person who journals with daily spiritual life, especially if you write often in the journal. A journal of spiritual materials grows more powerful as it is used.

Your journal will be unique. Instead of being an approach to writing that emphasises your life and how you relate to the world around you, you are documenting your inner relationship with God. This includes writing down what you believe “God” is or what God means for us.

But there is no single way to use a journal to deepen your prayer life. There is no right or wrong way. No-one will read it but yourself.

Before you start

First of all, buy a journal that has a feel of importance about it. Go to a decent bookshop and buy a journal that is properly bound. This type of journal has a feel of permanence to it, and it will last.

Beginning a journal

You may find it helpful to include entries by date. This allows a quick retrieval of materials that have previously been entered.

What should I include in my journal?

Do you already write down your thoughts, your innermost feelings, the joys and the pains embedded deep in your heart? Does it help for you to “verbalise” in words your plans and your promises? What about those forgotten events?

There are no rules about keeping a journal. You will find guidelines, suggestions, ideas, inspirations, and examples from other people. Making someone else's experience the rule for your own journal changes it from spiritual development into an exercise in rule-following.

Virtually anything can go into a journal – it is the receptacle for your thoughts, hopes and dreams, fears, struggles, doubts and questions, happy memories ...

You may wish to register your anger over a particular experience or dialogue with yourself about how good it felt when someone affirmed a gift of yours. Your journal is the place where you can be fully honest with your feelings, with yourself.

Don’t restrict yourself in what you write in your journal. It is a raw and powerful way of communicating with yourself and with God in you.

A helpful way to begin a day entry is to write a brief sentence to record and briefly describe events which are taking place in your life that day. Describe anything which comes to your mind. State the facts in recent experiences as briefly as possible and make them a matter of prayer concern.

You may write into your journal Bible verses, sermon notes, or phrases that have a special meaning for you.

You might like to explore your feelings as you study the Bible.

Experiences that have been meaningful to you should be added.

New awareness of God’s revealing himself to you should be included.

You might transcribe and include quotes from books that are meaningful to you.

Of course you can include any thoughts that come to your mind.

You should note any images that touch your life. Examples might include a bird on the window ledge, a fox or a squirrel on the grass outside, or rain patterns on the pane of glass. In this building, it may be the sound of the heating gurgling through the pipes in your room, or, after 11 p.m., the sounds made by other residents, and how you feel about that.

Make a special note of feelings you have. Write how you feel about events, persons, ideas, and relationships.

What books are you reading? Keep a list of books you read. Write phrases from these books in your journal. Or you might write your reflections on a movie you’ve seen, the spiritual significance of music you’ve been listening to.

Note “anything that rings a bell in your life” in your journal.

Every month, summarise the month. What were the key events that happened in the past month?

Sometimes you may look back on what you have written and squirm, thinking, “How could I have written that?” But don't cross out earlier writings– you wrote what you wrote because it expressed what you felt at a particular time. Respect your earlier feelings and thoughts. If you resort to “correcting” your journal as you look back on it, you will sanitise and minimise any learnings and insights you might otherwise gain from your journal.

How should I begin?

Some write with daily devotion; others write only sporadically as the need to express lights upon them. Some record a mundane account of events; others highlight one or two events and launch into an essay of emotion about the event.

Write fast, write everything, include everything.

Write from your feelings, accept whatever comes to mind, and note it in your journal.

As you begin, ask yourself: “What is the most important thing going on in my life right now?”

You might like to begin with an image: “This period of my life has been like a narrow bridge.”

Try to write all “the feelings” you have in one day.

In addition, you will find it helpful to keep photographs, news clippings, and notes of world events, of church events, perhaps even of sporting events and family events, that are important to you. For example, I keep tickets – tickets to the opera, to the cinema, to archaeological sites, to museums, boarding passes for flights. And when I come across them years later, it’s like remembering a smell that can never be recorded, a touch that can never be felt again, a voice that may never be heard again, and making it real once again for one special moment.

What devices should I use?

Feelings, descriptions, reflections (re-looking at the past), images, thoughts, and “whatever comes to mind” are among the things that should be included in your journal.

You might keep lists of events, past happenings, or important events that have happened in your own life. I always keep a record of flights, of church services of been to and taken part in.

Dialogue with yourself. Carry on an imaginary conversation with yourself. Talk to yourself and listen to yourself. This can be helpful.

In summary, your spiritual journal is the key to developing your spiritual life. Work hard with it and your life will be greatly enriched.

When?

If you are not already journaling, then I would suggest that you will need to allow yourself the gift of at least half an hour each day for the first week. After the first week, you may find that this is too often for you and that you prefer writing in your journal every second or third day.

It is quite likely that you might find there is little to say on one day and heaps to write or talk about on another day.

Half an hour is a only an approximate guide and you will find your own pattern that suits you. But be sure not to short-change yourself and give up early on. Apply yourself earnestly in dialoguing with God and with yourself about your day.

Where?

Your room may be the best place – there is a good scriptural reason for doing it there, I suppose. But wherever it is, it needs to be a place free of interruptions and disruptive noises.

How?

Begin by marking this time as a time of prayer, a time for you and God. You may find lighting a candle helps mark this as a prayer space and time. Some of you might like to place the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, an icon or sacred image on the desk before you, . Or you might sing a reflective song to yourself, or have some sacred or classical music on in the background.

Then take some time to think back over your day. Reflect on the things you did well as well as acknowledging the weak spots in the day. Ask yourself, where did I let myself down today? What could have been the more preferable path to have taken? How might I improve on my actions tomorrow in light of this learning?

Allow yourself to take credit for what you did well in your day, giving yourself a pat on the back. Describe your feelings to God, what it is like to feel the things you experience. And feel free to express the anxieties, anger or fears as much as the happy and joyous moments and dreams during the day.

What now?

Wrap up your time of journaling by looking back over your journal entry for the day. Let yourself appreciate the presence of God in your day – in the good and the not-so-good moments.

Finish by reminding yourself once again of the one thing you will attempt to do differently tomorrow and affirming yourself in what you did well during this day.

Your journal and your prayer life:

How about taking your journal to the chapel or some other place you feel comfortable about praying in? Spend a few minutes bringing yourself into the presence of God before writing about it.

Spend a few minutes each night writing about how well you were a mirror of the love of Jesus throughout the day, and how you could do better.

Write your own prayers to God, to God as the Trinity, to members of the Trinity, to Jesus …

Finding a focus:

If you are a beginner at this, or you are new to journaling, it may be a good idea for you to focus on something specific while journaling. You might use the Lectionary readings of the day, or other Bible verses you may be studying. When you are more familiar and comfortable with prayer journaling, this may not be necessary.

Reflect on the verses you have chosen, reading them over and over until you feel that you get a message from them. Again, this message could take many forms. Then simply write that message down in your journal (any notebook can be used for this purpose).

There are pre-planned journals with readings for reflection and questions for you to answer included, and you may find these helpful. You can usually find these in the religious books section of bookshops.

But do not be afraid to try experimenting with many different ways of journaling your experiences and thoughts until you find one that is comfortable. Don’t be surprised if a different way works better in a few months. Don’t be afraid to change when change is appropriate, and don’t be afraid to keep experimenting.

As you gradually fill your journal, or your second or third journal, be sure to keep them. In a few years or months, you can flip back and see how you have grown in your spiritual life.

Blogging, journaling and spiritual formation

How does blogging compare with journaling? Blogging has connections to journaling. But, while the journal is a private affair, a blog is public. A blog moves the journal past the merely personal and inward pursuit and invites others into the journey, becoming a communal process. Theological reflection is necessarily a communal process, and so blogging can be a bridge between journaling and the process of reflective theology.

Paul Fromont, in a reflective project for the Journal of Contemplative Spirituality on blogging as spiritual formation, found that blogging can be a spiritual practice, a creative component of a personal (or communal) rule or rhythm. He wrote: “It creatively recovers and re-mixes several traditional ‘practices’ such as: study, journaling and self-examination, discernment (recognising and responding to God); community; lectio divina; spiritual friendship, pilgrimage; the sharing of resources; service, encouragement, guidance and prayer. Blogging too requires intentionality and discipline.”

Mike Riddell, in Beyond Ground Zero, writes about “cybermonks” in what he calls an exercise in poetic imagination. But while blogging may be a form of journaling, is it equivalent to or a natural modernisation of the spiritual discipline of journal writing?

In the spiritual discipline of journal writing, the intention is to have a dialogue with God and oneself. There is no third party eavesdropping in. In journaling, one can be as open as humanly possible and be reception to the working of the Holy Spirit. Blogging on the other hand is public. Even when you make your blog private, you cannot be sure that your privacy will be respected. Is it be possible for me to conduct an intimate conversation with God when I know strangers will be reading what I have written? What may be even worse is the temptation to “play to the audience,” a temptation that I am certainly aware of as a blogger and one of the reasons for not having a counter on my blog pages. Playing to the audience, to the public, to the readers you imagine you have, can be a harmful sort of spiritual formation, growth and development.

Scrapbooks as journaling

A journal could include, or be primarily made up of drawings, photographs, pieces from nature (e.g. unusual leaves, stones, etc ... ) that have true worth in your soul.

It could include quotations from poetry that you find inspiring.

It may include cuttings from newspaper, a prayer or reflection clipped from a service sheet, a quote from a sermon, a book review, a book cover that reminds you of a book you’ve read, a ticket from the cinema for a movie that was moving, a bus or train or plane ticket that reminds you of a place of special pilgrimage, a prayer card or a postcard.

Some concluding notes

Your journal may become a treasure over time as you document your spiritual explorations and discoveries. You might add special poems, inspiring pictures, or even letters written from dear friends. You can add whatever you wish.

Allow yourself to write whatever bubbles to your mind’s surface. Don’t censor yourself. Most of all, enjoy yourself. Hopefully, you will come to know and love the person writing your journal ... and in that you will be rewarded more than you might imagine.

What if I’m not comfortable with journaling?

Some of you will ask: What if I’m not comfortable with journaling? Some people find journaling works for them, but others will not get as much out of it. Either way, you are being asked to begin with this exercise so that you become familiar with it. You may decide to move onto or back to different prayer styles. But you might then find you can use your journal to talk to God and to yourself about how you experience each type of prayer, noting highs and lows, joys and struggles.

You will find that the journal becomes a significant gauge of your progress in this journey, and you may well appreciate not stopping with the conclusion of this unit.

Dealing with some difficulties

Occasionally some things will play on our mind and we can find ourselves berating ourselves over a perceived mistake in our day. If such an occasion persists, more journaling will hopefully assist you in reconciling your struggle. If not, you may wish to approach someone you trust in order to discern this further. Some people find a Spiritual Director very helpful in this regard. We may explore the role of a Spiritual Director later in this unit.

Confidentiality

Finally, any journal is a powerful tool for the self and as such is confidential. Make sure you mark your journal well so that people know emphatically that it is private. So now, all you have to do now is choose an appropriate and appealing blank book to be your journal.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This paper is based on notes used for a seminar on the Year III course, Spirituality for Today (TH 3029), on Tuesday 7 October 2008 and for the Year II course, Spirituality for Ministry, on Wednesday 15 October 2008.

Introducing the Johannine Letters

The Basilica of Saint John on the hill of Ayasoluk, overlooking Ephesus and the site of the Temple of Artemis. Saint John is said to have lived here after his exile on Patmos ended, and tradition says it was here that he wrote his Gospel and Epistles. (Photograph © Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Patrick Comerford

Introduction

In our Bible studies in our tutorial group this year we are looking first at the Johannine Epistles and then at the Book of Revelation.

I have shared with many of you how my first adult experience of God pouring out his love into my life was at the age of 19 happened for me when I walked into the church attached to Saint John’s Hospital in Lichfield. It was an experience of being filled with the Light and the Love of God, and so the Johannine writings have had a special meaning for me ever since: “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all … if we walk in the light as he is in the light, then we have fellowship with one another” (I John 1: 5, 7).

In recent years I have been privileged too to visit Patmos, where the Book of Revelation was written, to pay a number of visits to Ephesus, which appears to have been the centre of the Johannine Community addressed in the Johannine Letters, where John is said to have moved after his exile on Patmos ended and where he is said to be buried, and to have visited many of the places associated with the Seven Churches of Revelation.

The grave of Saint John in the Basilica of Saint John on the hill of Ayasoluk, overlooking Ephesus and the site of the Temple of Artemis (Photograph © Patrick Comerford, 2008)

These are short Epistles, but it is surprising how familiar they are to so many parishioners in the Church of Ireland. Think of how familiar they are with those words from I John 1: 8-9 used as sentences to introduce Morning Prayer I and Evening Prayer I:

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us; but if confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (The Book of Common Prayer, 2004, The Church of Ireland, p. 84).

Or these words from I John 2: 1, 2 after the absolution in Holy Communion 1:

“Hear also what Saint John saith, If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation of our sins” (The Book of Common Prayer, 2004, The Church of Ireland, p. 186).

For the first few weeks we will look at the Johannine Letters, and then we will look at the Book of revelation, which is one of the more difficult yet one of the most intriguing and fascinating books in the New Testament.

The ‘Catholic Epistles’ or ‘General Letters’

The last seven letters of the New Testament, as well as the brief letter cited in Acts 15, are usually called the “General Letters” or “Catholic Epistles” – not because they were written to or by the Roman Catholic Church, but because the word “catholic” means “universal.”

Alone among the ‘catholic epistles’, II John and III John are addressed to a specific individual or community, but the others are addressed to a more “general” readership. Unlike Paul’s letters, these epistles are not named after the recipients or recipients of the letters but after the apostle who wrote them, or to whom they are attributed, since the authorship of some is disputed today.

The Johannine Letters

The three Johannine Letters reflect a common community setting that is quite different from that implied by the Gospel according to Saint John.

In Saint John’s Gospel, the Johannine community is a minority that has been excluded from the Jewish synagogue and still faces hostility from people with ties to the synagogue (see John 9: 22; 12: 42-43; 16: 1-4a).

When we come to Epistles, we find a community that has been divided in its interpretation of the thoughts and concepts found in the Fourth Gospel.

Raymond Brown argues strongly that the Johannine community was centred on Ephesus, south of Smyrna in Asia Minor.

While the Fourth Gospel is concerned with the relationship between Christian faith and Jewish tradition, I John is now concerned with the proper testimony about Jesus embodied in the Christian tradition itself (see I John 1: 1-4).

The author does not oppose Jewish claims to interpret the tradition of Moses, as Saint John’s Gospel does, but opposes the teaching of former members of the Johannine community who have broken away (I John 2: 19; I John 4: 1; II John 7). The emphasis of this Epistle is on the physical reality of the coming in the flesh of Jesus (I John 1: 1-3; 4: 2).

A division has arisen within the community, and both the author of the Epistles and the secessionist leaders he is challenging appeal to a common Johannine tradition. The “elder” or presbyter who writes the letters knows that people could easily be misled by false teachers. The dissident teachers apparently emphasise the Divine Jesus of the Gospel but deny the significance of Jesus’ human reality and death on the cross as sacrifice for sin (1: 7; 2: 2; 3: 16; 4: 10; 5: 6).

The author of the three epistles challenges the dissidents’ claims to sinlessness by insisting that this a gift that we receive from God through Christ (I John 2: 1-2).The Holy Spirit, which members of the community have received, will confirm that the writer’s teaching reflects the true Gospel (2: 20, 27; 4: 13).

Those who have violated the fundamental commandments of the Johannine tradition, the mutual love between Christians (John 13: 35; 15: 12), are not sinless (I John 2: 3-9; 3: 22-23; 4: 21; 5: 2-3). Their apostasy and false teaching is a deadly sin, idolatry, which separates them from the communal prayer for forgiveness (5: 15-17, 21) and makes them agents of the demonic attack on the faithful, which apocalyptic traditions had prophesied for the end-time (2: 18, 22; 3: 4-5; 4: 1-5).

Claims to perfectionism, denial of the significance of Jesus’ coming in the flesh, rejection of the saving power of Jesus’ death, and schismatic preaching among established Christian communities are all features of second-century Gnostic teaching. Since I John does not provide evidence of the peculiar teaching of the secessionist opponents, one cannot identify them with any known gnostic group. The conflict may have arisen over the true meaning of the Johannine Gospel prior to the emergence of the well-defined gnostic groups.

As part of the canon of Scripture, I John rejects any gnosticising interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, and so assisted in the acceptance of the Fourth Gospel as part of canonical scripture.

How the Epistles relate to the Fourth Gospel

Initially, many in the Church resisted including the Fourth Gospel in the canon of Scripture, in reaction to its use by Gnostics and Docetists. However, the three Johannine Letters act as a corrective to the interpretations these groups placed on the Gospel, and so Saint John’s Gospel was eventually included in the canon.

The Fourth Gospel and three Johannine epistles have many similarities in their writing style and in their vocabulary.

However, there are some notable differences:

● The Prologue of I John does not emphasise the incarnation of the Word; instead, it emphasises the word (message) of life which was seen, heard and felt in the human career of Jesus.

● Features that are attributed to Jesus in the Fourth Gospel are attributed to God in I John. For example, God is light (1: 5; c.f. John 8: 12); Compared to John 13: 34, in I John 4: 21 and II John 4, it is God who gives the commandment to love one another

● The Epistles have a lower Christology than that of the Gospel.

● There is less emphasis in the Epistles on the Spirit as person. For example, the term Paraclete is used in the Gospel for the Spirit, but this is never the case in the Epistles. Instead, Christ is the Paraclete or Advocate in I John 2: 1. In addition, there is a warning in the Epistles that every spirit is not the Spirit of Truth or the Spirit of God, and so spirits must be tested (see I John 4: 1, 6).

● In the Fourth Gospel, we have a realised eschatology. And so, the final eschatology in I John is stronger, with more emphasis on the parousia as the moment of accountability for the Christian life (see I John 2: 28 – 3: 3).

● The parallels with the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially in the vocabulary, are closer in I John than in the Fourth Gospel.

Some of these differences give the Johannine epistles a feeling of being more primitive than the Fourth Gospel. However, these differences may also reflect the author’s claim to be presenting the Gospel as it was “from the beginning” (I John 1: 1; 3: 11). Some commentators argue that hese differences may suggest that the Gospel and the Epistles may not have had the same author.

Authorship

Most scholars think that the three epistles were written after the Fourth Gospel. Raymond Brown places them in the decade after the body of the Gospel was written by the Evangelist (ca 90), but before the redaction of the Gospel, which may have been just after the year 100.

Brown says it is possible to distinguish at least four figures in the Johannine School who were responsible for the Fourth Gospel and the three epistles:

● The Beloved Disciple, who was the source of the tradition.

● The Evangelist.

● The Presbyter of the Epistles

● The Redactor of the Gospels.

I John

Introduction

I John is the fourth of the “catholic” or “general” epistles. This epistle may have been written in Ephesus between AD 85 and 90. It is traditionally attributed to the same author or authors of the Gospel according to Saint John and the other two epistles of John, II John and III John.

But I John is not actually a letter or epistle in the traditional sense. Instead, it is a treatise or sermon written to counter heresies that taught that Jesus did not come “in the flesh,” but only as a spirit. It also defines how Christians are to discern true teachers: by their ethics, their proclamation of Jesus in the flesh, and by their love.

Summary

At times, I John appears to be repetitious and without a clear plan.

It is normally divided into three parts, preceded by a prologue and followed by an epilogue, or five parts in all. But Raymond Brown prefers to divide it into the Prologue and two main parts, with each part set off by the statement “This is the message” or “the Gospel” (angelia, message):

1, The Prologue (I John 1: 1-4) comments on the hymn that is the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel (John 1: 1-18).

2, Part 1 (I John 1: 5 – 3: 10), in which the Gospel is defined as “God is Light” and which stresses the obligation to walk in the light.

3, Part 2 (I John 3: 11 – 5: 12), in which the Gospel is summarised as “We should love one another,” and in which Jesus in held up as the example of love for one’s brother and sister.

Authorship

I John is traditionally held to have been written by Saint John the Evangelist (Saint John the Divine), and tradition also held that it was written in Ephesus, at a time when John was in advanced age.

The content, language and conceptual style indicate that I John, the two other letters attributed to Saint John (II John and III John), as well as the Fourth Gospel, had a common author.

I John is not written as a letter, but II John and III John are alike in letter format, especially in their Opening and Closing. In addition, I John and II John share many similarities in their content. These can be seen especially in II John 5-7, which emphasises the commandment to love one another (I John 2: 18-19), and condemns the deceivers (antichrist) who have gone out into the world (I John 2: 18-19).

So, although the writer of I John does not identify himself, most commentators and scholars think that the presbyter composed all three Johannine epistles.

While the writer of I John does not identify himself, II John and III John indicate that the writer is an elder or presbyter (II John 1; III John 1) with authority in the Johannine community. It is possible that II John and III John are the work of the same “presbyter” and that they may have been written about the same time.

Whether the author was the Apostle John himself, someone who wrote under his name and spoke for him, or whether a body of authors contributed to the writing of all four Johannine texts could be debated.

However, the three Epistles and the Gospel of John are so closely allied in diction, style, and general outlook that it is difficult to deny their common authorship, although some modern scholars argue that the common author or authors did not include John himself.

By the end of the 2nd century, I John was thought by some to have been written by the author of the Fourth Gospel, while II John and III John were thought to have been written by another member of the Johannine circle. For example, Eusebius (History 3.39.4) makes a distinction between John the Disciple and John the Elder.

The recipients

Travelling emissaries from this elder or presbyter apparently maintained contact with a number of Christian communities in the same region (III John 10). This network of churches provides the context for the claim that I John represents the tradition that has been passed on by the official witnesses (the “we” named in I John: 1-4).

I John is addressed to members of the Johannine community (“my little children”, 2: 1; “beloved,” 2: 7).

Purpose

I John is not a letter or epistle, but an exhortation interpreting the main themes of the Fourth Gospel in the light of secessionist propaganda which was attracting a number of followers away from the Johannine community.

The author wrote the Epistle so that the joy of his audience would “be complete” (1: 4), that they would “may not sin” (2: 1), and that those “who believe in the name of the Son of God … may know that you have eternal life” (5: 13).

Both I John and II John are distinguished from the Fourth Gospel by their change of focus.

In the Fourth Gospel, the “Jews” are the principal adversaries. However, they are absent from the Johannine epistles. Instead the attention is on those deceivers who have seceded from the community (I John 2: 19; II John 7). By doing this, they have shown a lack of love for their former brothers and sisters.

The author points out a number of grounds on which he condemns them:

1, Faith: The secessionists deny that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (I John 2: 22-23), and negated the importance of Jesus by not confessing him as the Christ come in the flesh (4: 3). They appear to have taught that salvation comes solely from the entrance of the Son of God into the world, so that the historic life of Jesus Christ has no salvific importance. In particular, they have neglected the atoning, bloody death of Christ, which the author of the epistle emphasises (I John 1: 7; 2: 2; 4: 10; 5: 6).

2, Morals: They boast of being in communion with God and knowing God, but at the same time they are walking in darkness and not keeping the commandments (I John 6; 2: 4). And they claim not to have sinned (I John 1: 8, 10; 3: 4-6). Having denied the importance of what Jesus did in the flesh, they now seek to deny the importance of what they have done in the flesh since becoming children of God. We are told that the true children of God do not sin (3: 9-10; 5: 18) and keep the commandments, especially the commandments to love other Christians (I John 3: 11, 23; see also II John 5). The children of God must walk in purity and love, following the example of Jesus, God’s Son (I John 2: 6; 3: 3, 7; 4: 10-11).

3, Spirit: The secessionist leaders appear to have claimed that they were teachers and prophets who were led by the Spirit. But the author disclaims the need for teachers (I John 2: 27) and warns against false prophets (see I John 4: 1). The Spirit of Deceit leads the antichrists, while the Spirit of Truth leads the author and his followers (I John 4: 5-6).

Who was the author condemning? It appears that I John might have also been rebuking a proto-gnostic named Cerinthus, who was described by Irenaeus as an opponent of John and who denied the humanity of Christ. Others suggest that I John is condemning a group of Docetists who are also condemned by Ignatius of Antioch ca 110

The purpose of the author (1: 1-4) is to declare the Word of Life to those to whom he writes, in order that they might be united in fellowship with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. He shows that the means of union with God are: (1) on the part of Christ, his atoning work (1: 7; 2: 2; 3: 5; 4: 10, 14; 5: 11, 12) and his advocacy (2: 1); and (2), on the part of humanity, holiness (1: 6), obedience (2: 3), purity (3: 3), faith (3: 23; 4: 3; 5: 5), and love (2: 7, 8; 3: 14; 4: 7; 5: 1).

The Prologue, I John 1: 1-4

The Prologue to I John resembles a primitive sketch of the prologue to the Fourth Gospel.

It refers to the author or authors in the plural form, “we.” Is this merely a literary device? Is it a reference to the author and his followers as distinct from their opponents? It certainly implies that the Johannine authors and those gathered around him are the traditional bearers and interpreters of the Johannine School, preserving and developing the eye-witness testimony and tradition of the Beloved Disciple.

Verse 1: “We” … is this the author appropriating special authority? A literary device? An indication of more than one author? Or a way of saying that what the writer is teaching is the teaching of the whole church?

“From the beginning” … note how the opening, as with the opening of the Fourth Gospel, parallels the opening of the Bible itself, and the first verse of Genesis. “The beginning” refers to the start of Jesus’ ministry, where the witness of the Beloved Disciple played a key role.

“The Word of Life” … “The Word of Life” is Christ himself, who is the word and source of life (John 1: 14; 11: 25; 14: 6).

“Heard … seen … looked at” … the emphasis on the sensory perceptions emphasises the claim that Christ was a physical, incarnational reality and refutes the claims that he was not really human.

Verse 2: “Was made visible” … In the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel, it is the Word who was made flesh and whose glory we saw. In the Prologue to I John, it is the Life that was made known. In I John, the Word of Life means more than the message about the divine life. It means too the proclamation of the Divine Life made visible in and through Jesus.

Verse 3: The “word” is the angelia or “message” of I John 1: 5 and 3: 11, which enables the reader to take part in this life and so to have fellowship with living God. Fellowship as koinonia involving associating and sharing goods and life is a Pauline concept that does not occur in the Fourth Gospel. This fellowship is the root of Christian joy and an essential constituent of the Johannine community (“with us”).

Part 1: I John 1: 5 to 3: 10

I John 1: 5-7, Walking in the Light

Verse 5: “God is light … “ absolute holiness without taint of evil. The author portrays a world divided into darkness and light. God is the light of the just who walk in paths brightened by this light, while darkness is evil.

Verse 6: “Walking in darkness” … a reference to habitual and intentional evil behaviour or lifestyle. We cannot say we are walking in the light and behave as if we were walking in the dark.

Verse 7: Walking in the light life guarantees Christian fellowship involves acting in truth.

I John 1: 8 to 2: 2, Opposition to sin

8-9: One of the really loved set of verses in Anglican liturgy, this verse is regularly used before the call to confession in Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. They were also used by the Council of Trent in its discussion of confession. Denial of sin is self-deception, while confession brings forgiveness.

10: To claim sinlessness is to make a liar of god. The greatest weapon against sin is not to deny it, but to recognise it and our need to be dependent on Christ.

2: 1: “That you may not sin … this is the ultimate goal of Christian living (see Romans 6: 11).

“Advocate” (paraclete) ... one who pleads the cause of another. But compare the application of paraclete or Advocate here to Christ and its use in the Fourth Gospel for the Holy Spirit.

Next week: I John 2: 3-11.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes used for a Bible study in a tutorial group on Wednesday 15 October 2008.