The Church gives us selections from the first letter of John every year in the days following Christmas. This “letter” contains such a wealth of sublime and timeless truths that it may come as a surprise to learn that it was forged in an atmosphere of dissention and disunity. (We get a hint of that in the reference to Cain and Abel in today’s reading.) The community of the beloved disciple was coming apart, splitting into factions. My way of understanding Jesus and his victory is the correct one, and yours is wrong. Matter of fact: you’re so wrong you’re the anti-Christ! Those were the charges the factions leveled against one another.
The writer, hoping to heal those rifts, set forth the theological basis for unity in the community. He wanted to convince his flock that it should honor Jesus’ prayer to his Father that “they all may be one, as You Father in Me and I in You” (Jn 17:11, 20–22). We glimpse only fragments of his argument in these seasonal first readings. Basically, as today’s reading says, it boils down to love. But that “love” does not mean what our 21st century ears would hear in that word. Experts in the social context of the first century Mediterranean world tell us that the Greek word we translate as “love” is not so much affection as it is “group glue” – the motivator that holds a group together and unites its members, particularly against external assaults. It’s both loyalty to the group and a self-understanding that says I need you (plural); I need the group; I’m nothing without it. That attitude was a prime value of the writer’s cultural world, but in 1 John the writer pushes that love, that group-glue, to an even deeper definition, taking as its exemplar, Jesus and His total self-giving. This community, like all others, needs group glue; still it is different from all other families or groups, for the spirit of God lives in it and its members. How can we tell? Because we love (that is, we are self-giving, with Jesus’ own self-giving). Humans, unaided, can’t do that. To be self-giving as Jesus was is possible only through the indwelling of the Spirit. So, if we are self-giving, then we can be confident that the Spirit is in us. Conversely . . .
How many times in the ensuing 2,000 years has our Christian community split into factions? How often have we heard “Our way of understanding is the correct one. All others are wrong! – So wrong, they’re anti-Christian.” Have we individually contributed to that fragmentation with self-righteous smugness and arrogance? Or, have we worked actively to heal those splits even if we didn’t cause them? Still more: Do we care? If we don’t, that may be the saddest state of all, for by indifference we give the lie to the Psalm response for today: “Let all the earth cry out to God with joy.”