“by Fr. Travis O’Brian”
All Saints Day Nov. 1 (4th), 2017
1 John 3:1-3
SEE WHAT LOVE!
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.
John writes these words to the Church in Ephesus, a congregation in crisis. A group has split off from the body of the church – a group, scholars believe, was associated with Docetism. Docetism was a heresy denying the incarnation, teaching that Jesus was not a man, but a spirit. That may sound bizarre to us, but that early heresy stems from the same offense as the (at least for us) more understandable denial that Jesus was divine. Both express offense at the Church’s faith that Jesus was both a flesh-and-blood human being and God. The world, then and now, is offended at this faith, this confession. The wisdom of the world tells us that for a human being to be at one and the same time God is a logical impossibility, irrational, absurd. Thus the wisdom of the world seeks to prescribe what is coherent and ‘rational,’ and therefore what is respectable for a grown up person to believe. But when we follow the world’s wisdom, as did that group in Ephesus, we narrow our understanding of God. And when our knowledge of God is narrowed, our hearts also are narrowed: our love and so our faith and so also our hope, are narrowed, and we no longer live into the fullness of who God created us to be.
So John, in this his first letter, pleads that the church in Ephesus not be seduced by that wisdom which would set parameters around what is and is not ‘rational’ to believe; what is and is not possible for God. Do not be seduced by the world, he writes, “do not love the world or the things of the world” (2:15). We need to be careful not to misunderstand what John means when he says this. He is, after all, the same person who wrote, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” When he writes, in his letter, not to love the world, he does mean we are to hate or reject the world, or fail to give thanks for the goodness of creation, or give the world up as irrevocably lost. Rather, the reverse. In order to affirm that Christ came to save and to redeem the world that God blessed as “very good,” in order to share in Christ’s work of redemption, a break with the world is necessary. God calls his saints out of the world for the sake of the world. To love the world requires a break from the world’s rationality, the world’s values, the world’s loves – for truly to love the world, it is necessary first of all to love Christ, who the world does not understand, does not value, does not love. It is only by loving Christ first that we learn what love truly is: not the narrowed love which the wisdom of the world sanctions, but in an infinite, impossible, irrational (or better, super-rational) love, a love greater than we can imagine.
John, thus, paradoxically exhorts the saints not to love the world so that they might truly love the world. John’s whole letter is an exhortation to this love. “We know that we have passed from out of death into life,” he writes, “because we love one another” (3:14). How beautiful that message is! “We know that we have passed out of death into life because we love!” And yet, he immediately reminds us, the love by which we know that we have passed out of death is not the narrowed love of the world. It is not love as the world measures it, but love as Christ measures it: “by this that we know love, that Christ laid down his life for us.” And so, he continues, we must love by Christ’s measure, not by the world’s measure: “we too ought to lay down our lives for one another” (3:16).
The Docetic splinter group is in error not simply because their teaching contradicts the “orthodoxy” of the Church. John’s is not the voice of the institution intolerant of difference and demanding conformity. The Docetic group sins because the love by which they love God is measured, not by God, but by the world, the world’s categories, the world’s rationality. Teaching as they do that since no individual human being can possibly also be God, and that Jesus could not therefore have been a flesh-and-blood human being, is also to deny that Jesus truly died, for spirits cannot die. But if Jesus did not die, neither did he lay down his life for us. And if Jesus did not lay down his life for us, if this sacrifice is not the measure of God’s love for the world, then we are admitting that we cannot believe God’s love reaches out that far – farther than our own measures, farther than our own rationality. We restrict, in our minds and in our hearts, what love is possible for God! We sell God short, and we sell ourselves short, restricting in our minds and in our hearts, what God can expect of us.
My friends, no one can see the Father or know him as he is, face-to-face. But we know him in our love for his son, Jesus Christ. For to love Christ is to know God. “Do not wonder,” John writes, “that the world hates” those whose love for Christ leads them to love as Christ. That love threatens the order of the world. When we love the world as Christ loves, we defy the world and its understanding of proportion, rationality, common sense. The world is afraid of this love – afraid of what it cannot contain, cannot control. And we are afraid, too – except as we love Christ more than ourselves. For when we love him, our fear is turned to hope: “we know we have passed out of death into life.”
Who are the martyrs? Who are the saints? They are the ones whose love bursts the bounds of the world’s sense of proportion: St Francis kissing the wounds of the leper, Mother Theresa embracing the dying in the slums of Calcutta, Oscar Romero martyred while celebrating the Eucharist for demanding, in Christ’s name, that the soldiers of El Salvador disobey the orders of their country’s oppressive government; St John of the Cross composing hymns of joy to “the living flame of love” while enduring months of cruel solitary confinement by church officials.
May we, my brothers and sisters, learn from the saints how to love one another just as Christ loved us – love out of all proportion; may we learn to rejoice as they rejoice: knowing in our love that we have passed out of death into life; and knowing that to know this one thing is, in the end, to know everything.