5 January – First Reading

Commentary on 1 John 3:11-21

Today we have a very rich passage on the centrality of love in our Christian life. All our Christian living can be summarised in the opening sentence:

…that we should love one another.

It is all we need, all the rest is icing on the cake. And so, we are not, for instance, to follow the example of Cain who killed his brother simply out of jealousy and spite:

And why did [Cain] murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.

And so, we should not be in the least surprised if the world, that is, the world of sin and self-centredness, hates us and wants to do us harm. It is, of course, happening all the time. As loving Christians, we would like to be loved in return. We might think that, as a loving people, it should be people’s natural reaction to return our love. But the example of Cain is still to be found everywhere – even inside the Church at times. People are hated so often, not because they are bad, but because they are good. Goodness for some people can be very threatening. Countless Christian martyrs have lost their lives simply because of this.

At the same time, the only valid sign that we are truly alive is the love that we show for our brothers and sisters, irrespective of the response we may get. Anyone – and not just any Christian – who hates a brother or sister is already a murderer and is himself dead. The life of God is not in that person. As the letter will say later on:

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. (1 John 4:17)

Without love, I am as good as dead.

Like Jesus himself, we have to love others to the point of being ready even to lose our lives for them. And, on a very practical level, God’s love cannot survive in us if we refuse to share what we have with those who are in need (see James 2:14-17). God’s love is only in us when it passes through us to others. In fact, it is that sharing of love which is the only valid sign that we are united to the love of God.

Genuine love is found in actions and in truth and not in mere pious-sounding words. We might, however, observe that there can be times when expressing love through words is both more difficult and more effective than by doing what we regard as a loving act. For example, it may be easier to send a gift to someone anonymously than to say, face to face, “I love you” or “I forgive you from the bottom of my heart”. It is in this transparent love for others – including those we do not know or who are against us – that we know we are living Truth and will experience peace.

We are not necessarily living in truth simply because we adhere to orthodox teaching. No one was more orthodox than the classical Pharisee, and no one further away from the love and compassion of God. ‘Truth’ in the New Testament, and especially in John, means much more than being in possession of right ideas. It includes our whole way of living as being in total harmony with the Way of life presented to us in the Gospel and the New Testament. It embraces not only the way we understand God and life, but also how we live our lives in relation to God and every other person.

Finally, the reading says:

God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

God is greater than our conscience. That is to say, he sees far more deeply into the truth and goodness of things than we ever can and, at the same time, his love and compassion will go far beyond anything we could expect for ourselves. The extent of God’s Truth and Love will always be totally beyond our grasp.

But the passage ends with a statement that should be writ large in our lives as an unquestioned and unquestionable principle:

Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God…

There is no higher court of appeal than an honest following of our conscience (“our hearts”). That is not to say that our conscience is always right. But, if we are honest, we are always ready to learn more, to have a second look and to see things in a different way. If we look at our lives, we will see that our grasp of truths and values constantly changes. The Church itself constantly changes according to the phrase, Ecclesia semper reformanda – a Church that always needs to see and do things in a new way. Truth is not a given; it is discerned at the end of a long search, a search that will never end until we come face to face with Truth.

At any given time, then, we have no other choice but to follow, as honestly as possible, what our conscience tells us is true and good. Even the Gospel and the solemn teaching of the Church (magisterium) cannot transcend the final court of conscience. If I do decide always to follow the Gospel or the magisterium, that is ultimately my decision, and one that no one else can make for me. But I must maintain that openness and readiness to see that, what I once thought was true and good, may need to be revised.

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