Commentary on 1 John 3:16-24
This epistle, really a sermon, was written for a community that defined itself over and against the world around it.
Those in John’s community were children of light and those outside were children of darkness. For example, consider a verse that the lectionary omits: “Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you” (1 John 3:13).
As we noted last week, John’s epistle is written in part to clarify the meaning of John’s Gospel for a community which reads that gospel as its central guide to faith and action.
This is most evident in the kind of creedal summary that we find in today’s passage. The author writes, “And this is (God’s) commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another just as (Christ) has commanded us” (1 John 3:23).
There are two great themes in the Gospel of John. First, as Rudolf Bultmann has insisted, John’s Gospel is the revelation that Jesus Christ is the revealer of God. Above all, Christ reveals that he is the revealer. And second, as Dean Harold Attridge of Yale Divinity School reminds his classes on John’s Gospel, Jesus not only reveals himself, he commands those who believe in him to love one another.
These two themes help to shape the identity of this relatively small church as they feel battered by the hostile world around it. This is a community that should do two things very well. True members of this community should believe in Jesus Christ as God’s own Son, the full revelation of God’s own self. And true members of this community should love one another.
But the writer of our epistle is concerned that in both of these ways, the church members he leads are falling away from the truths with which they began.
1 John 3:16 again recalls John’s Gospel and that great text where Jesus sets the command to love one another in the even greater context of his own revelatory love: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). Here the communal love for brother and sister is placed in the context of the redemptive love that Christ shows for all of humankind on the cross.
1 John makes the same connection between our love for each other and Christ’s love for us. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16).
Here we glimpse the depth of the gift and the gravity of the demand. Christ gives unconditional love for us, even to the point of death. And he demands our unconditional love for each other, even to the point of death.
Yet, as preachers so often do, the preacher who writes this epistle tries to show what love to the point of death might mean, not just at the extreme moments of sacrifice, but in the daily give and take of the loving life.
Concretely, such love means charity. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and refuses to help?” (1 John 3:17).
Even in the midst of great economic difficulty, most Americans have more of the world’s goods than most of the world can imagine. At its most painful end, Christian love requires giving up our lives. In ways less sacrificial but still surprisingly painful, Christian love requires giving up some of the goods we think we need when we come up against someone who is truly needy.
And concretely such love means living out what we say. The truisms abide because there is truth in them. “Practice what you preach.” “Walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk.” “Sermons in shoes.” “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18).
There is a great word from the Gospel of John that this preacher knows and uses: “Abide.” Jesus abides with those who love him (cf. John 15:5). In that eternal life to which he invites us, there are many “abiding places” — a better translation than the traditional “mansions” (John 14:2).
1 John makes clear what the Gospel of John also implies: the dwelling in eternal life is not a promise for the future only, but a promise for the present as well. “All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us” (1 John 3:24). The promise of John’s Gospel is still being lived out in the community that treasures its words.
There is a network on the Internet called “Linked In.” It seeks to provide the opportunity for people to stay in touch with each other and to serve as resources for each other in times of particular need.
1 John believes that the church is the people who are Linked In. The presence of the Paraclete links believer to Christ through faith and believer to believer through love.
The epistle’s word for that link is richer than the website’s. We abide, says the preacher. We abide in God and God in us, and we abide in each other, too.
“When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.”1
1From verse one of the hymn “Abide With Me,” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), #629.
May 3, 2009