It’s Friday, so time to jump into 1 John. Some of these posts will be more textual, others more like riffs or tangents from my studies in this letter. Today is a little introduction, so I don’t know which category that fits in.
Last week I teased you with my concerns about the pastoral handling of a Biblical text like 1 John. After all, most of us have been taught in pastoral or counseling training to love nuance and treat situations uniquely. Then we run into some texts in Scripture that apparently have no use for nuance. Everything is black/white, good/evil, love/hate. The Johannine literature (1 John is no exception) is full of this, as well as are many Psalms (the Psalmist prays rescuing judgment for the good guys and punitive judgment for the wicked), many of Jesus’ parables (Wise man and the fool), and wisdom literature like Proverbs or James. Ok, so maybe these types of polarized statements aren’t so strange to students of Scripture.
But, where we run into trouble in 1 John, is that many of the polarities are placed as test cases. If X, then Y, not X, then not Y. “If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.” or “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness.” Well, what about when I got mad at my spouse the other day (hypothetical of course) or what about someone who was abused by a family member and is struggling with strong feelings that aren’t warm and fuzzy love in reaction to that? See, nuance would be nice, we think. At least it would make us feel better in most of these test questions. After all, it would be easy to read through the polarities of 1 John and see ourselves on the negative side of most of those. And of course it is easy for us to preach or teach this letter in such a way that our feelings of failure as followers of Jesus are shared by those within earshot. Misery loves company.
But that doesn’t seem to be John’s goal in writing this letter (or transcribed sermon). In fact, the love and attention he shows towards the audience (terms of affection and familiarity like “little children” are easy to find) makes us think he does not want them to come out of this hearing with the weight of failed Christianity hanging over them. We don’t know much about the situation, but apparently a significant group had recently deserted this Christian community (2:19), were teaching false doctrine (2:26, the doctrinal tests of chapters 4-5), and apparently were causing these believers who stayed behind to have some doubts (1 John 5:13 assumes a congregation in need of re-assurance of their faith.) There are a lot of polarized statements, but these are aimed at those who left, perhaps who are still seeing the faithful Christians at the marketplace or homes and are pressuring them to leave as well. John’s readers may have been wondering, “Were those who left really wrong, or were we wrong to stay? Does the fact so many left undermine all we have now believed? How can we even tell who the true followers of Jesus are when we have been taught 1 thing by John but a pretty convincing teacher has managed to persuade our friends, people we called “brother’ and “sister”?”
1 John is meant to be an answer of comfort and assurance to these questions. His tests are designed to assure those who stayed that this is the real deal, they are truly “Christian”, assured by one who saw and spoke with and touched the incarnate “Word of life”. They can see these tests not as measures of their perfection, but as signposts of the change the Spirit of God is working in their lives.
So we should preach and teach 1 John accordingly. It is not a text for raising more doubt for our people or scaring them out of what we might perceive as complacent Christianity (there are such texts…Hebrews or Mark’s Gospel, for example). Rather it is a text to build up, to strengthen faith and provide assurance. We should not hold John’s tests over their heads as pass/fail exams, but as hopeful signposts that change has happened. Even in the hard cases mentioned above, perhaps hate has given way to thoughtful wrestling over the implications and applications of forgiveness and justice.
1 John is meant to be an infirmary for Christians wounded in the battles of faith, perhaps by what looked like friendly fire even. Don’t use it as boot camp for whipping your church into shape or as a place to shoot the wounded.