2 September – Having life
1 John 5:9-13
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
In a sentence:
Love is defined in the coming of the Son in Jesus
Christian faith has an extraordinary capacity to become its opposite, at least in the hands of Christians. We have seen this recently in the scandals about cover-ups of child sexual abuse in the churches. We can see it also less dramatically but no less seriously in understandings of how God deals with us.
Consider, for example, John’s declaration this morning: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (5.12). This, with a good number of similar verses in the New Testament, is a matter of scandal even in many churches. The scandal is the exclusivity it seems to imply: that only those who ‘have’ Jesus have life. This seems obviously to be wrong on account what we’ve just noted – that Christian confession is no guarantee of moral righteousness. And even when this isn’t the case, it seems seriously wrong to suggest that only those who know and confess Jesus ‘have life’, that there are not other ways to life.
Often posited over against the notion that ‘having’ Jesus is the only way to life is the confession that ‘God is love’. God’s love is felt to ‘supersede’ any requirement of confession that Jesus is the Son, to overcome the limited scope for life which knowing and confessing Jesus seems to imply.
The irony is that it is the same John who tells us both that only those who have Jesus have life and that God is love. We address any embarrassment about the need for confessing Jesus only if we force a split right down the middle of John’.
We might believe we have good reason for this, that we can see more we know than John could. But, then, we cannot then sensibly appeal to John’s declaration that God is love. For to do this would be to turn Christian faith into its opposite, no less so than when the church covers up the abuse of innocents for the sake of its own good name.
This inversion, this making-opposite, is in that what we do here is turn the statement ‘God is love’ into a premise – a starting place – rather than a conclusion.
For John, ‘God is love’ is a conclusion. Love is nothing other than what God does, and the central, fundamental thing God does is send the Son in the person of Jesus that we might live through him (4.9,10). John’s ‘take home’ message is not so much ‘God is love’ but what we’ve heard him emphasise a number of times now – that the crucified human being Jesus is the divine Son. That this is the case – or at least the confession – is the meaning of ‘God is love’.
‘God is love’, then, cannot ‘correct’ any overemphasis the connection between Christian confession and having life. For John, having life is what comes with seeing that the crucified Jesus is the Son; life is not some other thing than this. Love is what the cross means and does, as the very cross of God in the Son.
It is, in fact, not clear how the cross does this. There is no divine equation or formula or recipe which shows how the cross of God saves. John knows only that it does save, does bring life.
And so it is at least clear what the cross means. It means life: a life founded on the cross as an act of love. For John, this life springs from, and so looks like, love.
Our anxiety with John’s connection of ‘having’ the Son with ‘life’ – including ‘eternal’ life – comes from our concern for the lovely – those whom we love – and our concern for the loving – those in whom we see good things. That is, in rejecting John’s connection life with Jesus, we make judgements: this one deserves love, deserves life, because of what we see and judge to be of value in him or her.
The declaration that God is love, however, is not a judgement about anything in you or me. We want to say: if we are valuable, then God will love us. John says, God loves us – we must be valuable. Nowhere in John or in the gospel as a whole is love bound up with judgement. Nowhere is there an ‘If this (the condition) then love (the judgement)’.
Love is, rather, judgement overcome. ‘God is love’ does not supersede the confession of Jesus as Lord; it is the meaning of it. The two things are the different ways of saying the same point.
And so we are not to judge the love of others, or their loveliness – for better or for worse. We are to love them, as God has loved us, because it is in this kind of love that God is met, that we have life.
This life is not a thing we have earned, and so not a possession we hold; it is a common-wealth. It creates, it transforms, it connects – to God, to others.
To have the Son is to have life in all its fullness. It is to see life not in effort and reward, not in what we hold to be lovely, but in need met with gift. The need is very great; the sign of our need is Good Friday. The gift is even greater: it is Easter’s transformation of Good Friday from our judgement of God into life together beyond judgement, life on God’s own terms.
Imagine what ‘Life together beyond judgement’ would look like. Imagine what it would look like in the family, in the work place, in the church, across divisive borders, across racial and gender divides.
To ‘have’ the Son, to confess that Jesus is Lord, is to have begun to imagine such things, and to live them, because Jesus is where our own experience of love without judgement has begun. Discovering this, and then exploring what it means in the lives we are given to live, is the meaning of ‘God is love,’ something which we speak only in hope as we ‘prove’ it in testing and demonstration.
Our faith does not divide us from others, neither does it place us above or before them. It turns us towards them, that the life we are discovering in God might be uncovered by them also.
To ‘have the Son’ is to have work to do. This is life.
Let us, then, live that work, that the world may know…