May 11, 2012

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical readings: The First Letter of St. John

John F. FinkThe biblical readings in the Office of Readings next week, for the Sixth Week of Easter, are the first three chapters in the First Letter of St. John.

There have been divisions in the Christian Church from its beginning.

Today, we have people who call themselves liberal Catholics, conservative Catholics, progressive Catholics and orthodox Catholics. God created humans as individuals with widely differing opinions.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the same was true in the early Church. St. Paul had to write to the communities that he established to try to settle disputes.

The First Letter of John, although not really a letter but more like a theological treatise, was written to try to combat some false ideas, especially about Jesus, that cropped up in the communities that were part of the Church influenced by John.

Readers should be aware that this letter, or treatise, is repetitious in parts. It also seems inconsistent in places, saying something at one point and then seemingly denying it later.

The letter probably was written near the end of the first century, perhaps as part of a debate over the interpretation of John’s Gospel. Its style, vocabulary and ideas are similar to those in that Gospel. It starts similarly. “What was from the beginning” (1 Jn 1:1), and “In the beginning” (Jn 1:1).

Both the letter and the Gospel also begin with a poetic prologue, with the letter stressing the community’s experience of the Word of God in Jesus. The writer testifies to “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked upon and touched with our hands” (1 Jn 1:1).

Light and truth were important to the Christians tied to John. They considered those who did not follow Jesus to be in darkness and falsehood. Therefore, the letter tells them, “God is light; in him there is no darkness” (1 Jn 1:5), and if they claim to be free of sin they do not tell the truth. However, our sins can be forgiven.

Although the letter concerns divisions in the community, it is nearly always positive. The exception is in Chapter 2:18-23, where John says that it must be the “last hour,” just before Christ’s second coming, because “many antichrists have appeared.” These people had deserted the community.

“Who is the liar?” he asks. “Whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ” because some in the community had done that. And who are the antichrists? “Whoever denies the Father and the Son, this is the antichrist” (1 Jn 2:18).

We get the heart of the message of his letter in Chapter 3. “We should love one another” (1 Jn 3:11). Just as Jesus laid down his life for us, John says, so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. It further admonishes, “Children, let us love not in word or speech, but in deed and truth” (1 Jn 3:18).

We show our love of God, John says, if we keep God’s commandments. “And his commandment is this: we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us” (1 Jn 3:23).

We will examine the last two chapters in the letter next week. †

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