Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world. Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 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. 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. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
—1 John 4:1-12

In this passage from the first letter of John, we read that famous declaration that “God is love.” Such a declaration seems rather patent, rendering it a gratuitous confession. Yet, the fact that the writer of John believes it necessary to state the obvious means that something must be driving the writer’s impulse to underscore the loving character essential to the Divine. So, what is driving the writer, and is this claim of love as clear as we might initially think?

A little background on this text and the community that produced it might help answer these questions.

Emerging from the same community and at about the same time as the Gospel of John, this letter appears to have been written at a defining moment in the life of the early church, in general, and the Johannine community, in particular. These writings from John’s community are coming just after the fall of Jerusalem and the formal split between those early Jewish-Christian communities and their host synagogues. In other words, for the first time, we might be able to say that there are Christians and there are Jews and that they see each other as distinctly different faith communities.

This division has caused an identity, theological, and communal crisis, a crisis we see working itself out in the pages of John’s letters, gospel, and—to a lesser extend—revelation.

For the first time, these Christians have to understand themselves as the bearers of a tradition that both traces its heritage into the deep past but that finds itself at odds with a competing and continuing community claiming that same heritage. As far as John’s community is concerned, one group has the truth and the other does not. The community’s identity is forming around this stark division between right and wrong, truth and deceit, sin and love. The writer illustrates this division through the repeated metaphor of light and dark.

In the second verse of our chapter above, the writer sneaks in the defining theological division separating John’s community from the “false prophets,” i.e., their former friends and fellow worshipers. That division centers on a claim regarding the nature of Christ. John’s community claims that Jesus was God in the flesh while the others claim that Jesus was God just not materially real as we are. In other words, we are catching a glimpse of one of the earliest debates within the church on the nature of the incarnation. And, for John’s community, the incarnation is everything.

As an exercise in theology, recall the prologue to John’s gospel and the declaration that the Word was made flesh and lived among us or the end of John’s Revelation and the vision of God and heaven descending and living among us—interestingly, the same Greek word is used in each instance to explain God’s material presence with humanity. In other words, for John’s community, the material presence of God in the person of Jesus means everything. It means that God really cares about us. It means that our lives and bodies and this world matter. It means that the gospel is not about some future expectation but a present reality. It means that life and hope are not some distant possibility but an immediate experience. And, it means that love—as John uses it here—is not a description of an emotion or of sentimental reflection. Rather, love is the description of God’s real and true presence. That is to say, love is a call to abiding and material shared life with each other. And, since some have chosen to separate from the community, in large measure, because of their rejection of God’s materially reality, then they cannot possibly know love or God or the truth. (At least, that is the writer’s contention.) Love, after all, as John’s community sees it, rejects rejection, seethes at separation, and manifests itself in material presence.

Communally, the claim to a necessary unified social body of the faithful as the attestation of God’s reality and real presence is summarized in the writer’s affirmation that God’s incarnation as materially present love is “perfected in us.” In other words, God’s love will always and must always be expressed in an affirmation of material—not virtual or theoretical—shared life together. Such a life witnesses to God and God’s love. Efforts to dissolve such a community and to diminish materiality, physicality, “flesh” are contrary to the gospel and to God.

(This claim to the apparent theological value and essentiality of community, unity, and materiality might appear odd when we examine the history of the church and the church’s spotty record on matters like sexuality and schisms and its sometimes disparaging of the present and material needs at the expense of exalting future salvation and heavenly rewards. We Christians can be a complex and confounding people.)

What I find most useful from these verses from John’s first letter is the dual affirmation about materiality and about us.

First, John is clearly resisting any temptation to disparage the present and physical world. To the dismay of many who have listened to television preachers, the gospel message, as John’s community understands it, is less a commentary on future events and eternal results than a call to loving action in the present world, emerging not from the world but from God in the world. Second, the writer insists that the truest test or confirmation that we are continuing Jesus’ work and the proper bearers of his witness and life and truth is our ability to love each other and the world like God loves, i.e., by a presence-seeking, materiality-affirming, unifying force. Such a force, it turns out, becomes the very material manifesting witness of God, leading the writer to conclude that “. . . since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us . . . .”

All this year, we have been concentrating our thoughts around what it means to say the “gospel” or “good news.” Early on, we considered how this expression emerged out of a Greco-Roman declaration that a battle had ended. Adopted by the early church, the use of this term encapsulated a confession that in Jesus some sort of victory has been won. Throughout this year, we have examined the nuancing of this claim to victory, considering how the various and diverse voices from within the Christian faith have articulated this claim, creating, at times, a cacophony of disparate assertions and, at times, a chorus of unified declarations.

In the end, it is my opinion that both the disparate and the concordant make up a varied, melodious, and complex harmony that is the church’s fractured and faithful witness. Such a claim might seem odd, especially given John’s apparent call for unity. I mean, how can something be both faithful and fractured when at the core the gospel seems to be about a shared life? I think we have our answer in John’s definition of love.

God’s love in John’s estimation is less about singular and uniform statements as much as it is about a singular and unified life. The gospel, it turns out, is more about a common commitment to shared life and love and compassion for the world and each other and for God than it is about seamless theological harmony and unequivocal doctrinal uniformity.

What a wonderful witness it seems we would offer if our energies were less directed to establishing exactly what to say or believe and more concerned with sharing each other’s joys and pains and celebrating successes and embracing those that stumble.

In a world were so many claim to have sole possession of the truth, this simple multiplicity seems to undermine the possible validity of any of their claims to certainty. Such a faith predicated on saying the right thing, believing the right doctrine, or articulating the right theology is far more likely to be in error than to have located or deduced what is right. Rather, what the gospel or good news seems to be is a gracious directive that what we must do to get it right is truly to live it together and that there is no time like the present to get started.

As we conclude this year’s reflections on the gospel, our last area of focus is you. That is to say, how are our lives the manifestation of the gospel, a living declaration of the good news of God’s love and life? It seems that John is offering us a straightforward answer: in a world of iPods and podcasts and iChapels; facebook and social media; virtual conferencing, Skype, and iChat; and ubiquitous smart phones and old fashioned telephones and televisions, that one of the most significant ways we might live as we are called to live is to put all that useful yet isolating technology down and share some time with each other, share a meal, share an afternoon, share a joy, share a sorrow, share something other than electrical current and binary code. My recommendation might seem trivial or trite or overly simplistic or a misdiagnosis of the problem or a false prescription to the crippling sins of the world. All that may be true. Yet, at least, my recommendation is a start, a start at a new material and present life together.

And, that sounds like good news to me.


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