I have always liked John’s first letter, as it speaks so directly and clearly to the basic challenges we face as followers of Christ. In chapter 1, he develops a theme of light and darkness, and he tells us to walk in the light so that we can have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus will cleanse us from all sin. (1 John 1:7). In today’s passage, John continues this theme by addressing three ages within the community of believers – children, young men, and fathers. He commends each group for different aspects of their faith, and then provides a cautionary note for all.
For the children, he affirms the forgiveness of their sin and their knowledge of the [Heavenly] Father. Child-like faith is commended elsewhere in the gospels, as Jesus tells us that we must come to God in the manner of a child coming to a parent, and he referred to God as “our Father” and even as “Abba” -- a term used for human fathers.
For the fathers, he affirms their knowledge of God – “him who is from the beginning”, repeating this twice, apparently for emphasis. Fathers (and mothers, of course!) are responsible for passing their faith to the next generation. We teach by our words and also by our example, thereby encouraging the next generation. Hopefully, we also teach one another, as we share lessons we have learned along the way with our fellow travelers.
For the young men, he commends their strength and the fact that they have “conquered the evil one” – also repeating this twice. Young people – and young men in particular -- like to know they are conquerors, as this entails virtues like strength and courage. Living life with gusto is not something Madison Avenue recently invented – it is hardwired into us. Unfortunately, we can sometimes lose our enthusiasm or have it misdirected, and John has something to say about this, too.
As the father of five children, John’s comments resonate with me. I am no longer a child, but I still need childlike faith. Living in a world of cynicism that is prone to despair, we need to constantly renew our trust in God’s faithfulness, devotion, and compassion for us. I need to cultivate my knowledge of God, both as Lord and King of all, but also as my own Father in heaven. Hopefully this allows me to share this relationship with my children, but also with others in community with us.
Whether I am still a young man depends on the company I keep, but I would still like to think that I live with enthusiasm. Here is where John’s letter provides a caution for all of us. Our passion for life is easily diverted from that which enhances our life -- and indeed reflects creative energy that comes from God -- to that which destroys it. John cautions us not to love “the world”, by which he means that which is hostile toward God or and alienates our devotion to Him. Thus, when we seek physical gratification outside of marriage, demonstrate greed or covetousness instead of gratitude and humility, or falsely enhance our own reputations at the expense of truth (or perhaps even worse, at the expense of others made in God’s image), we are not walking in the light. We are not conquerors, but instead we are allowing ourselves to be conquered by the Evil One.
John’s warning here is important, because we are all vulnerable to alienation of our affections for God through one means or another. Luke’s Gospel account of Anna the prophetess illustrates another dimension of this struggle. Anna models the virtue of patience as she waits for 60 years or more in the temple, seeking after the Messiah. It is not easy to wait as Anna did. Children are not good at waiting, and we may get better at it as we get older. Perhaps this is because we are a little wiser from our experiences, or perhaps it is simply from practice.
It strikes me as significant that it is sometimes difficult for us to wait for ourselves to mature or grow with regard to our spiritual struggles. We don’t instantly win all the battles we have over the Evil One, and we can become impatient with ourselves. Hopefully we learn along the way, and thanks be to God that we have forgiveness through his son, Jesus. Seeking Him is indeed the will of God, and “whoever does the will of God remains forever”. Amen!
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