Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The fifth Sunday of Easter, May 2nd, 2021
1 John 4:7–21
The Johannine community had a problem. In his ‘Farewell Discourse’, Jesus had told his disciples that revelation would not end with his death. According to John, Jesus promised them that, ‘the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’. (John 14:26) And the Holy Spirit would not merely remind the disciples of what Jesus had said to them, the Holy Spirit would go further. As Jesus told them, ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come’. (John 16:12-23) As the hymn says, ‘the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word’. (TIS 453 ‘We limit not the truth of God’)
So far, so good. The difficulty, one that churches have been facing for two thousand years now, is in discerning when new teachings truly came from the Holy Spirit and when instead they come from what the Apostle Paul called ‘the spirit of the world’. (1 Corinthians 2:12) This seems to have been the trouble in the Johannine community. Reading between the lines of the First Letter of John, some members of the community seem to have been claiming to have greater knowledge than the rest. They appear to have argued that they had received a new teaching: one that said that only the spiritual was real and that the material was irrelevant. The Son of God had not truly come in the flesh, they said. The divine Saviour had come from heaven only spiritually and had then merely pretended to take on flesh. And because the material world is unimportant, it does not matter how people live in this so-called ‘real’ world. No deed done in such a world can be sinful, and supplying the material needs of other people is irrelevant. Only the spiritual is important.
This second argument is a heresy that reappears again and again in Christianity. It is a particular temptation for we Protestants. We are so committed to avoiding any suggestion that we might earn our salvation through ‘works’ that we often come close to saying that our actions do not matter. We are justified sinners through grace; we can do anything we like. My favourite version of this heresy is in a book called Witch Wood (1927) written by John Buchan, son of a Scottish manse and Governor-General of Canada, in which an elder of the church becomes a witch because he believes he is still justified by faith before God. His minister eventually realises that the elder believes ‘he could lead the coven in the Wood and wallow in the lusts of the flesh and his crimes would be but the greater vindication of God’s omnipotence’. I am not suggesting that members of the Johannine community had embraced witchcraft, but going by the First Letter of John some do seem to have denied the need to follow Jesus’ commandments and to have believed that they could hate other members of the community while still claiming to walk in the light. (1 John 2:3-11)
The Elder will have none of this. Jesus commanded that his followers abide in him, as he abides in us. The Elder says that we abide in Jesus if we confess that Jesus is the Son of God and if we love. In this week’s reading we have my favourite verse in the entire Bible: ‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.’ This is how we can abide (persevere, last, endure, stand firm) in the vine and bear much fruit: by recognising Jesus as the Son of God and by loving God through loving one another.
What does it mean to confess Jesus is the Son of God? It means to recognise that God has been revealed to us in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of the man Jesus of Nazareth. There is yet more life and truth to break forth from God’s Word, but that light and truth must always be judged by its congruence with Jesus. Over the past two millennia the Holy Spirit has led Christians into further truth. It took the church more than 1800 years before it worked out that, despite the Apostle Paul telling slaves to obey their masters, slavery was an abomination. It took the church more than 1900 years to work out that, despite the Apostle Paul telling wives to obey their husbands, men and women are created equal and so are to be treated equally (and some churches still have not come to terms with that). In both cases Christians justified a novel teaching, new truth, with what they saw in the life and ministry of Jesus. Black theologian James Cone writes: ‘Christian theology begins and ends with Jesus Christ. He is the point of departure for everything to be said about God, humankind, and the world … Jesus is the Oppressed One whose work is that of liberating humanity from inhumanity. Through him the oppressed are set free to be what they are.’
It is because Christian theology begins and ends with Jesus Christ that I get so outraged by the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’. The Bible is a collection of writings put together by hundreds of people over thousands of years. It is possible to find in it proof texts for almost any position; I have occasionally had quoted at me, ‘Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent’. (1 Timothy 2:11-12) So it is possible to find bible verses that describe wealth as a blessing from God. The psalms can say, for instance, of those who fear the Lord, that ‘wealth and riches are in their houses, and their righteousness endures for ever’. (Psalm 112:3) In the Book of Proverbs we read that ‘the reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honour and life’. (Proverbs 22:4) But how anyone can look at the life and teachings of Jesus and suggest that the rich have been blessed by God and so deserve their wealth in a world full of the hungry and homeless is beyond me. As a white, middle-class, Australian, someone very wealthy in world standards, I sometimes wish that I could believe that I deserve all my good fortune, but Jesus was very clear about the dangers of wealth for those who have it – something about camels and the eyes of needles springs to mind. (Matthew 19:24)
The Elder does not merely point the Johannine community to Jesus for their discernment, he tells them that it is through their love of one another that they will discern rightly, because God is love and love is from God. God’s love has been seen in Jesus, sent into the world so that we can live through him. God’s love will be perfected in us when in response to what we have experienced of Jesus we love one another. Loved by the God who is love, we are to respond with love. This is how we will know that we abide in God, this is how we are able to live without fear of the day of judgement – through love. Perfect love casts out fear, which fortunately for us does not mean that our love must be perfect. It means that our fear can be cast out by God’s perfect love for us. We are loved by God; nothing can frighten us.
When we respond to God’s love with our own love, we are not simply to return love to God. We are to love our fellow believers. Counter-intuitively, the Elder writes that ‘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’. I cannot be the only person who finds it easier to love the God I have not seen than some of my fellow members of the church. But for the Elder love is primarily an action, not a feeling. Last week we heard, ‘little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’. (1 John 3:18) It is easier to love our fellow believers than God, because God simply does not need the active love we can show those around us. We do not need to feed God, provide God with shelter, welcome God into our midst. God is the creator of the cosmos; God has all that God needs. Our fellow believers, however, do need the active love we can show them, from a simple greeting to sharing our daily bread. The Elder reassures us that when we show this active love to each other, we are also loving God.
Twice in today’s reading we are reminded that it is God who is love. Love always begins with the God who loved us so much. In Jesus, God entered history out of love for us. In love, Jesus welcomes us into a community whose life is marked by a mutual love, a deep abiding, and a constant struggle to ever greater care. We love others in response to the love that God offers us. Love generates love; we are so loved by God that we can live out that love freely, without fear. Abiding in Jesus, and being pruned to bear more fruit, and not hating our sisters and brothers can all be difficult. But all these things grow from the love God has for us. ‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God,’ John writes to his community. Love creates love, and our love is only a response to the great love of God for us.
How can we discern that we are on the right path, that the spirit leading us is the Holy Spirit and not simply the spirit of the age? By testing everything against the life and ministry of Jesus, and through love. If it is not loving, loving in truth and action rather than simply word and speech, it is simply not Christianity. And if we love one another, we will abide in Jesus and bear much fruit, and God will be glorified through us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 John Buchan, Witch Wood, (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1993), p. 252.