Wednesday, 14 January 2009

The Johannine Letters: I John 4: 7-21

True love is more than heart-shaped chocolates

Patrick Comerford

7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

7 Ἀγαπητοί, ἀγαπῶμεν ἀλλήλους, ὅτι ἡ ἀγάπη ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐστιν, καὶ πᾶς ὁ ἀγαπῶν ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ γεγέννηται καὶ γινώσκει τὸν θεόν. 8 ὁ μὴ ἀγαπῶν οὐκ ἔγνω τὸν θεόν, ὅτι ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν. 9 ἐν τούτῳ ἐφανερώθη ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν ἡμῖν, ὅτι τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ ἀπέσταλκεν ὁ θεὸς εἰς τὸν κόσμον ἵνα ζήσωμεν δι' αὐτοῦ. 10 ἐν τούτῳ ἐστὶν ἡ ἀγάπη, οὐχ ὅτι ἡμεῖς ἠγαπήκαμεν τὸν θεόν, ἀλλ' ὅτι αὐτὸς ἠγάπησεν ἡμᾶς καὶ ἀπέστειλεν τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ ἱλασμὸν περὶ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ἡμῶν. 11 Ἀγαπητοί, εἰ οὕτως ὁ θεὸς ἠγάπησεν ἡμᾶς, καὶ ἡμεῖς ὀφείλομεν ἀλλήλους ἀγαπᾶν. 12 θεὸν οὐδεὶς πώποτε τεθέαται: ἐὰν ἀγαπῶμεν ἀλλήλους, ὁ θεὸς ἐν ἡμῖν μένει καὶ ἡ ἀγάπη αὐτοῦ ἐν ἡμῖν τετελειωμένη ἐστιν.

13 Ἐν τούτῳ γινώσκομεν ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ μένομεν καὶ αὐτὸς ἐν ἡμῖν, ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος αὐτοῦ δέδωκεν ἡμῖν. 14 καὶ ἡμεῖς τεθεάμεθα καὶ μαρτυροῦμεν ὅτι ὁ πατὴρ ἀπέσταλκεν τὸν υἱὸν σωτῆρα τοῦ κόσμου. 15 ὃς ἐὰν ὁμολογήσῃ ὅτι Ἰησοῦς ἐστιν ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ, ὁ θεὸς ἐν αὐτῷ μένει καὶ αὐτὸς ἐν τῷ θεῷ. 16 καὶ ἡμεῖς ἐγνώκαμεν καὶ πεπιστεύκαμεν τὴν ἀγάπην ἣν ἔχει ὁ θεὸς ἐν ἡμῖν.

Ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν, καὶ ὁ μένων ἐν τῇ ἀγάπῃ ἐν τῷ θεῷ μένει καὶ ὁ θεὸς ἐν αὐτῷ μένει. 17 ἐν τούτῳ τετελείωται ἡ ἀγάπη μεθ' ἡμῶν, ἵνα παρρησίαν ἔχωμεν ἐν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῆς κρίσεως, ὅτι καθὼς ἐκεῖνός ἐστιν καὶ ἡμεῖς ἐσμεν ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ τούτῳ. 18 φόβος οὐκ ἔστιν ἐν τῇ ἀγάπῃ, ἀλλ' ἡ τελεία ἀγάπη ἔξω βάλλει τὸν φόβον, ὅτι ὁ φόβος κόλασιν ἔχει, ὁ δὲ φοβούμενος οὐ τετελείωται ἐν τῇ ἀγάπῃ. 19 ἡμεῖς ἀγαπῶμεν, ὅτι αὐτὸς πρῶτος ἠγάπησεν ἡμᾶς. 20 ἐάν τις εἴπῃ ὅτι Ἀγαπῶ τὸν θεόν, καὶ τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ μισῇ, ψεύστης ἐστίν: ὁ γὰρ μὴ ἀγαπῶν τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ ὃν ἑώρακεν, τὸν θεὸν ὃν οὐχ ἑώρακεν οὐ δύναται ἀγαπᾶν. 21 καὶ ταύτην τὴν ἐντολὴν ἔχομεν ἀπ' αὐτοῦ, ἵνα ὁ ἀγαπῶν τὸν θεὸν ἀγαπᾷ καὶ τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ.

In this section of I John, the author returns once again to the theme of our love for one another, and how this not only reflects God’s love for us but reflects God himself. Love characterises God’s way of relating to us – we come closer to God through love than through knowledge, and when we love one another we are icons of God.

Verses 7-10:

God is love, and this is seen in God sending his Son.

Romantic art and literature from the 19th century on, has conditioned us to think of love as a feeling, a heart-felt feeling associated with desire and intimacy. But this is often self-centred, and effectively selfish: what do I want? Who do I want to be with? Who can meet my needs and desires and support my ambitions?

John is talking here about a more profound type of love – a love that is not expressed in Valentine’s cards or in romantic rhymes and songs, in a box of heart-shaped chocolates, a love that is not a mere inner disposition of emotions, but love that is expressed in choice and action, love that is total self-giving. In the incarnation we see God’s total self-giving and self-emptying.

Self-giving love means identyifying with people. There is a well-known joke that an Irish way of proposing is to ask: Would you like to be buried with my people? But behind the humour is the turth that love involves complete identification of the lover with the loved. God totally identifies with us to the point that Christ is born among us, lives and dies among us, is buried with us ... and then the triumph of his love is found in the Resurrection.

God totally identifies with us in the incarnation. And the response we are asked to make to the giving of God’s love is love others.

In our Epiphany Gospel reading last Sunday, we were told that at the baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan, the heavens were torn apart, the Holy Spirit descended live a dove on Christ, and a voice was heard saying: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1: 11).

Here, the author of I John vigorously defends the claims of the incarnation against the gnostic teachings of the separatists in Ephesus. Christ is neither an illusion, an appearance or a manifestation, nor is he a great teacher or prophet, but he is the incarnate, only-begotten Son of God. But, by obeying Christ’s command to love one another, we too become the adopted children of God.

Verses 11-12:

The only way anyone can see that we know God is when they see how we love. Our love for others is as close as we can come on earth to union with the God we cannot see.

The group who had broken away from the Johannine community in Ephesus claimed special knowledge (gnosis) and visions of God, and their failure to love the other members of the community showed that they did not love God.

Verses 13-18:

The Holy Spirit testifies that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, has revealed his Father as love. When his love is perfected or matured in us, there is no need for fear any more, and all fear is dismissed and cast aside. The gift of the Holy Spirit is our pledge of union with God.

Returning to the supreme example of love, the author of I John testifies to the reality of the sending of the Son as Saviour.

Verses 19-21:

Love originates in God. A failure to love is the visible evidence of a breach with the unseen God, and a violation of his commandments.

Verse 21, which concludes this section, repeats once again the very foundation of the Christian emphasis on the role of love in the spiritual life: if we love God then we must love one another.

Next: I John 5: 1-12

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group on Wednesday 14 January 2009.