Saint John – Reading

Commentary on 1 John 1:1-4

Today, on this feast of St John the Evangelist, we begin reading from the First Letter of John and will continue to do so until January 11.

The first four verses (1:1-4), which are today’s reading, form an Introduction to the letter. Already at this early stage in the Church there were those who could not accept that the Son of God could have taken on a genuinely human body. In a mistaken zeal for the spiritual, they condemned everything material as evil and so they held that the humanity of Jesus could only be a mirage, an appearance. To be fully united with God meant to withdraw as much as possible from everything material.

The people who held such views were known as Gnostics and, because they are such a concern of the author of this Letter, we might list some of their main ideas:

1, The human body, which is matter, is evil. It is to be contrasted with God, who is totally spirit and therefore good.

2, Salvation is escape from the body, achieved not by faith in Christ but by special knowledge. The Greek word for knowledge is gnosis, gnwsis and hence their name.

3, Christ’s true humanity was denied in two ways: a, some said that Christ only seemed to have a human body, a view called Docetism, from the Greek dokeo, dokew meaning ‘to seem’; and b, others said that the divine Christ joined the man Jesus at Baptism and left him before he died, a view called Cerinthianism, after its most prominent spokesman, Cerinthus. It is this second version that we meet in 1 John 1:1; 2:22; 4:2-3.

4, Since the body was considered evil, it was to be treated harshly. This ascetic form of Gnosticism is the background to part of the letter to the Colossians (2:21-23).

5, Paradoxically, this dualism also led to licentious behaviour. The reasoning was that, since matter – and not the breaking of God’s law (1 Jn 3:4) – was considered evil, breaking his law was of no moral consequence.

The Gnosticism addressed in the New Testament was an earlier form of the heresy, not the intricately developed system of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Mention of Gnosticism can be found in John’s letters, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus and 2 Peter, perhaps in 1 Corinthians.

The writings of John are a total rejection of this position. The Word not only became a human being, John, in his Prologue, says provocatively that the Word was “made flesh”. He fully entered into our material condition, blessed it and sanctified it.

And in today’s reading too he emphasises contact with a real, bodily Jesus. Although the Word “has existed since the beginning”, what “we have heard, we have seen with our own eyes, what we have touched with our hands. (Similarly after the Resurrection, Jesus invites the sceptical Thomas to touch and feel him. “Put your finger here and look at my hands; stretch out your hand and put it in my side.”)

And it is this physical, truly human, touchable Jesus that the Church proclaims. Over the ages, there has always been in the Church the tendency to withdraw from the material. In particular, there have been many problems with the human body and its sexual functions and even today, as Christians, we may feel awkward or embarrassed to speak about these things especially in a religious context.

Everything that God made is good. And as one medieval mystic liked to say, Every created thing is a Word of God. To those who can see, every created thing, living or inanimate, speaks of God and the Creator. Few poets have expressed this as well as the English Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins. “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things” and “The world is charged with the grandeur of God”.

This has all been affirmed by the Incarnation, by the infinite Son of God sharing our bodily human nature and all its functions. And that Word is life in the sense of being the source of all real living, not just existing. In John’s gospel we read, “I have come that they may have life, life in its fullness” (John 10:10). This sharing of life is an idea most central to John’s spirituality. Union between all Christians results from common life shared by Christ between each Christian and God. It is that fellowship (a lovely word) expressing a close union of the believer with Christ (we think of the vine and the fruit-bearing branches) as well as communion with the Father and with all fellow-Christians.

Today’s passage presents a striking parallel to the prologue of John (Jn 1:1-18) but, whereas in the gospel passage the emphasis is more on Jesus as the pre-existent Word, here it is on the apostles’ witness to the ‘fleshiness’ and the ‘touchability’ of the Jesus they knew. In the best sense of the words, Jesus was a ‘real man’.

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