The material reality of love: the letters of John

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Although there are three letters which bear John’s name, the second and third are very short, and perhaps show something of how the teaching of the longer letter is put into action in some specific relationships. Only the first letter is used in the lectionary. This letter in particular shares some significant thinking and vocabulary with the Fourth Gospel. Whether this means they come from the same person or simply the same theological circles is impossible to say. None of them give their author a name. Tradition has associated them with John the Apostle, but there is no way of knowing exactly what relationship, if any, he had with the circles from which these writings came.

Detail from a portrait of John the Apostle by Alonso Cano. John is often portrayed blessing a poisoned chalice. For more on this story, see the page for this picture at the Louvre.

Apart from the festivals of John the Apostle and All Saints’ Day, readings from 1 John provide the second reading in the Sundays of Easter during Year B. The letter is particularly suited to these Sundays because of its emphasis on the word of life, and that “we know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another (1 Jn 3:14)”. It is this combination of the gift of eternal life, and the insistence that life is to be lived in love, which make the letter prime Easter reading.

John, as we may call him for the sake of tradition and convenience, seems to live in a context where views of Jesus are contested. In contrast to those views he makes a number of claims about Jesus, not least that his death atones for the sins of the whole world (1 Jn 2:2). Jesus is to be identified with the Messiah (1 Jn 2:22), and lived a real human life. There is a considerable emphasis on Jesus having been real flesh and blood. John presumably knows of people claiming to be Christian who he thinks deny this.

The gift of the Spirit, then, is not detached from the physical gift of Jesus, and the quickest way to discern which spirit is God’s Spirit, is to see that those claiming inspiration from God confess that Jesus is the Messiah (1 Jn 4:2-3). The quality that marks the life of the church gathered round Jesus is meant to be love, and love is defined for us by God’s gift of Jesus, in the light of which we learn what it means to love selflessly (1 Jn 4:10-12). But just as it matters that Jesus has come in the flesh, so it matters that we show our love in action. “Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 Jn 4:20)

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