At first blush the reading from the first letter of John is perplexing – with charges of “liar” and “anti-Christ”. Why does the Church give us this reading – especially today while we are still in the glow of Christmas?
It is helpful to know that, when the letter was written, the Johannine community was splitting apart, probably over differences in belief about the divinity of Christ. The author says directly that he is writing this letter to protect his community from break-away members who seem to have denied that God was fully present in Jesus, the Christ. Many who call them Christian today probably share in that same mistake, but an even more fundamental problem is the tendency of human communities to split into factions – to follow their own understandings and declare all others wrong, to label them “so-called Christians”, to report one another to the bishop (or even to Rome). This is a great sadness.
Jesus prayed at the Last Supper to his Father that “they all might be one, as you Father in Me and I in You” (John 17:21). Except to ask for his Father’s guidance, that’s about the only thing we know that Jesus did pray for. It is as clear a command to us as anything I can think of. Still, it is a prayer to God, emphasizing the fact that true unity is God’s work, not a human accomplishment. But we can certainly impede that work, as we so often do. As scripture scholar Gerhard Lohfink concluded, God “needs” the Church – needs it to manifest to the world what unity really means – to draw all people to its shining example. How can the world see or know God if it can’t find God in us?
It may be oddly comforting to know that this tendency to divisiveness goes back to the earliest days of the Church, as the first reading (and many other passages in the New Testament) show. It is certainly not a modern development. But its stubborn persistence in human enterprise can’t be taken as something we should accept, just because it is ancient. Not all of the readings the Church puts before us are uniformly edifying. Some serve to keep us in touch with reality. This sad chapter in the life of the community of the beloved disciple is a poignant example.
The divinity of Christ is a central creedal issue – non-negotiable. But so is unity . . . Today we’re divided less over theological concepts as over rules and regulations, each elevated in our polemic to non-negotiable status. But so is unity . . .
I pray to God, as Jesus did, that we all may be one. And I will start by shedding my self-righteousness, my adamant insistence that I am right and you are wrong, and my pride – the features that more often than not divide us. I ask you to do the same. What a New Year’s resolution that could be!