Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 15 October 2017
Trinity 18 E&B – Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
The first letter of John, from which we heard in our second lesson, is not really a letter. Like Hebrews it lacks the usual opening and concluding greetings. It is better classified as a sermon, but it has been lumped in with the other so-called Catholic epistles (meaning those addressed to the whole church rather than a specific community).
It is closely related to the Gospel of John, particularly noticeable in its focus on the centrality of love (signalled at the beginning of our reading: ‘See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God: and that is what we are’). Its morality is entirely built on the importance of the ‘new commandment’. John’s is the least story-like gospel, with its long repetitive discourses, and this letter is like an appendix to those. But here, unlike in the Gospel, there seems to be a clear target of the teaching, addressing a division in the still-youthful Christian community about the nature of Christ.
The great RC commentator Fr Raymond Brown summarizes as follows:
In the decade after the main body of John’s Gospel was written (about 90AD) the Johannine church community became increasingly divided over the implications and applications of [it]. Before the writing of 1 John a schism had taken place. The resultant two groups, consisting of the … author’s adherents and his adversaries, both accepted the proclamation of Christianity known to us in John’s Gospel, but they interpreted it differently. …
His hypothesis is that 1 John was written to condemn what we understand to be false teachings afflicting the churches around the year 100. The primary heresy, docetism, involved a denial of the true humanity of Christ (suggesting that he only seemed to be a human being, to safeguard his divine status) and a consequent skewed understanding of Christian existence. It is difficult for us to imagine the urgency of this debate, but it was every bit as live as those which preoccupy us today.
This evening’s passage is concerned with the second aspect, how Christians were to behave in the world. The false teachers opposed by John based their system of belief on a secretly revealed knowledge – gnosis, from which we get the catch-all term ‘gnosticism’, a tendency which John’s Gospel does sometimes seem to support. Believers in secret knowledge naturally feel superior to the unenlightened, and this often leads to a splitting between belief and behaviour. If you have this privileged knowledge there is no longer any need to strive for holiness.
So it was with this particular argument: belief that Jesus only seemed like a human being was used by the docetists to justify a belief that they were already perfect and had no need to make any moral effort. That is probably an over-simplification (though one clearly shared by our writer): it is important to remember that much of the detail we have about these people and their beliefs comes from their opponents, especially St Ignatius of Antioch, writing very soon after this text. There was in fact probably no single heretical group of this kind: rather, like us, there were individuals and groups of Christians seeking to live the Christian life on a spectrum of belief, faith and certainty about lots of issues. Sometimes on that spectrum, then as now, people moved from light into darkness and confusion.
Against this teaching about secret knowledge, 1 John insists on the element of the ‘not yet’ in Christian life. ‘It does not yet appear what we shall be’, we heard just now. To be a child of God already, here and now, is only an advance instalment of our final salvation. This is in line with Fr Alan’s reading of the parable of the wedding garment this morning, an argument which St Paul also makes when he calls the gift of the Spirit a ‘guarantee’ or ‘down payment’. The final consummated state, for the Christian, remains a matter of hope, and continued striving. The present task, he suggests, is to purify oneself as Christ is pure: this is about the pursuit of holiness in all our lives. The invitation is free, but the response is life-long.
There is also in 1 John a healthy element of agnosticism in describing our future state. The writer cannot describe it except to say ‘we shall be like him’. There is a reminder to take, for example, the language of the Book of Revelation not as a literal description, but a selection of hints, suggesting a truth to be grasped intuitively, though incapable of definition. It is enough to know that we, and all the saints (‘all who have this hope in him’), shall be ‘like him’.
We are told all we need to know for our present existence. We have been made God’s children; we have a hope of achieving the ultimate destiny for which we were created; meanwhile our task is to strive for holiness.
Towards the end of our passage this evening we are given the instruction on how to do that:
For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another… We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.
1 John 3.15