Gleanings from the Text
1 John 3:1-7
From antiquity, readers have noticed the similarities between the epistles ascribed to John and the Gospel that bears the same name. So, it is quite natural for us to note the parallels found with our lectionary text. When our pericope begins, “You know what kind of love the Father has given to us (3:1),” one could easily invoke John 3:16 as the faith confession that the community “knows.” In addition, the language of “children of God (3:1, 2)” can be read as an echo of John 1:12. In both texts, incorporation into the Divine family includes an understanding of the community of believers.
Despite such similarities, many scholars believe that the Epistles reflect the mindset of a community that existed several decades after the original audience of the Johannine Gospel. In I John, tense changes support this hypothesis. For example, the present tense sense that, “we are children of God” made in 3:1 and 3:2, is paired with a future understanding: “what we will be (3:2b, c).” Such looking ahead does suggest that, as generations passed, the believers continued to anticipate “when the Messiah would be revealed” (3:2), but with a newfound priority of sustaining community with hope in the present age.
Therefore, one way of reading the First Epistle is as a development of theological claims initiated in the Gospel. For instance, what it means to have “hope” in the Messiah is explicated throughout the Johannine Gospel, but here it is specifically nuanced with a call to piety: the notion that each would “purify” the self “just as the Messiah is pure (3:3).” The author further ups the ante by advancing a quid pro quo argument: since the Messiah was revealed “in order to take away sin” and “sin is not in him,” then “all who are remaining in him” are not sinning either (3:5 – 6). The Gospel does contain beautiful phrases about “remaining” in Jesus (6:56; 8:31; 15:4, 7), but the Epistle alone makes this direct connection to sinlessness. In case there is any doubt, the pericope concludes with an exhortation: “Let no one deceive you (3:7)!” As the Messiah is righteous, so is the “one who is doing righteousness.” Such exhortations to high ethical standards of living represent one possible theological claim by a community striving to discern the meaning of the Word made flesh.
Food for Thought
I have read, albeit briefly, this Epistle as representing one vein of the theological reasoning put into practice in a faith community. Certainly, this text provides important ideas for living out faith on the ground; personally, I am inspired by the certainty of the pronouncement, “we are children of God” combined with the humble acknowledgement that “what we will be” is not yet revealed (3:2). This does offer hope in uncertain and even painful times. But (and one can attribute this to my Calvinist leanings), I admit that I am suspicious of any absolute claim that appears to set unequivocal distinctions between the righteous and the sinners (3:6. 7). Such stringent categorization may very well inspire some to noble acts of piety, but I am concerned about the possibility of denigration into finger-pointing and even outright nastiness: I John 3:8 libels ones committing sin as from the Devil!
Sink Your Teeth into This!
In the summer of 2007, I had the opportunity to attend an interfaith conference with Religions for Peace. While engaging in dialogue with fellow Muslim and Jewish theological students, I was acutely sensitive to Christianity’s infamous role in propagating worldwide imperialism. In light of this tragic history, I found myself limiting my theological statements to what I thought were universal (and therefore non-offensive!) statements about the Divine. Finally, after I had made one too many of these bland comments, an Orthodox Jewish woman threw up her hands: “You are a Christian! You cannot just leave Jesus at the door!”
How do we, as Christians, reconcile our absolutist claims in Scripture that have undeniably caused death and destruction with our firm convictions that God has revealed God’s own self in the flesh for the good of the world? Even attempting an answer is beyond the scope of my assignment here, but as the reader wrestles with this question in an increasingly pluralistic society, I commend the notion of “we are” held in tension with “what we will be” as a fruitful starting point…one that does not require us to leave Jesus at the door!
About the Author
Andrew Taylor-Troutman has completed his coursework for the Masters of Divinity degree and will officially graduate from Union-PSCE in May, 2009. He and his wife, Ginny, plan to move to Charlottesville, where Andrew has accepted admission to the University of Virginia in a biblical studies program that places New Testament exegesis in conversation with Muslim and Jewish scholars and the sacred texts of these traditions. Andrew is also one of the founders and editors of Join the Feast and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.