A Reflection on 1 John 4:7-18
v13: This is how we know that we remain in him and he in us, that he has given us of his Spirit
v15: Whoever acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God remains in him and he in God
v16:...God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him
Very rarely do we perceive something as it actually is in itself. Normally when we observe an event or read a text we do so through the eyes of our personal history, our beliefs, our cultural background and our personality. In the fraction of a second between our seeing something and it presenting itself as an idea in our mind a whole interpretative process takes place. When we explain this event or text to ourselves or to others we may fondly imagine that we are doing so in an objective fashion but we are not. Our explanation is a complex hybrid of the thing in itself and our commentary upon it. Sometimes an event or text will catch us by surprise; by being so far outside of our normal terms of reference it will present itself almost unmediated to our mind shocking us as it were into responding to the thing itself. As time passes, however, our interpreting mechanisms will get to work on it and when we come to retell the event or text then our account of it will, unconsciously to us, increasingly diverge from our original response. Eventually we will settle on a final account which brings it entirely within our preexisting mental and psychological framework. Only if the event or text carries with it enough force to fundamentally alter ourselves so that our framework itself is changed will this revisionism not happen. Every encounter, therefore, with an event or text involves a transformation, either we transform it in our minds or it transforms who we are.
This process is profoundly significant when we come to consider the Sacred Scriptures. When we read this or that portion of them their meaning may strike us as perfectly obvious and we are surprised when others propose alternative meanings, supposing perhaps that this proceeds from mere perverseness on their part. There are at least two extremely plausible ways of understanding the three propositions by St John which I have listed. Each choice once made leads on to concrete real world actions and therefore the choice is of more than academic importance. How we make that choice, or indeed if we even become aware that a choice is to be made, will for most of us depend upon our ready made bank of predispositions.
The propositions are that in order for us to remain in God and for God to remain in us we must-
- Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit
- Acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God and
- "Remain in love."
It is no less plausible, however, to understand the Apostle as suggesting a sequence of events, a series of steps from a lower state to a higher one. An idea that gains strength if we suppose that a fourth proposition is intended in a slighter later verse v18..perfect love drives out fear Thus the sequence would be-
- Receiving the Spirit then
- Acknowledging Jesus as Son of God then
- Abiding in love then
- Attaining perfect love.
Looking at the first step we see that it is a gift. The initiative comes from God and is unearned by the recipient. The Spirit operates in an infinite variety of ways and often with great subtlety so it would be unwise to lay down rigid parameters and say that it requires in all cases to be an overwhelming experience of the kind outlined in Acts2. However St Paul in 1 Thessalonians 1:5 suggests that 'power' and 'conviction' accompany the gift. This would mean that it comes under the category of an event which presents itself to our mind in the first instance unmediated and as it is (or more properly as He is) in itself. Our response to it then becomes to some degree formed not by ourselves but by that to which we are responding. The Holy Spirit though takes seriously the idea that there is no compulsion in religion (more seriously perhaps than many of the adherents of the book where these words first occurred.) That being so the person who receives the gift can reject it, run with it or subject it to an interpretative framework which significantly alters the explanation that one would offer for the thing in itself. Christians would argue that the Holy Spirit carries its own explanation with it in the sense that the Holy Spirit is inseparable from the other two persons of the Blessed Trinity nonetheless, however, except in exceptional circumstances the person receiving the gift will have to seek for an explanation of it from a source which will precisely correlate the experience with the explanation. This source is the Christian Church, we see in the Acts of the Apostles and in the New Testament Epistles that the Apostles and those delegated by them as missionaries explained the gift in relation to Jesus. Subsequent generations of the Church could additionally use the Scriptures themselves as explanatory resources but it remains primarily the task of the Church and not of the texts.
There is no good reason to suppose that God restricts the gift of the Spirit only to those who subsequently go on either to become Christians or to those who explicitly reject Christianity. God created Man in order to love Him and be loved by Him in an eternal relationship of ever greater depth and strength. Where a person find themselves in a situation where are insuperable obstacles to them accessing the comprehensive explanation of the gift offered by the Church then they can respond to it in the best way they know how and grow to the fullest stature available to them in this life as a prelude to an eternity of intimate knowledge of God. This does involve a loss on their part relative to Christians though. Firstly, by not having access to the sacraments of the Church, especially baptism, reconciliation and the eucharist they are not strengthened on their journey. Secondly, by not having an explanation for the thing in itself which fully corresponds to that thing they are faced with internal dissonances which may tend to weaken their response to it. Thirdly they are deprived of the possibility of that personal relationship with Jesus which is the fundamental axis around which the entire relationship of Man redeemed from his sinfulness and a just and merciful God revolves.
Which brings us to Whoever acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God remains in him and he in God. This is the second step along the road to perfect love. Earlier in his letter St John writes every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ come in the flesh belongs to God (1 John 4:2) Abrahamic religions like Judaism or Islam are happy to acknowledge the reality of a relationship between Man and God but utterly reject the notion of incarnation. Hinduism will acknowledge the presence of God on earth in the form of avatars like Lord Krishna but do not develop a theology of incarnation because the flesh, indeed all matter, is something that is left behind when we enter perfection which is a purely spiritual state. Buddhism will accept that an individual like Gautama Buddha can achieve an earthly perfection but that too is merely a prelude to abandoning the body and all connected with it in eternity. The USP of Christianity is its proclamation that God became Man by nature that Man might become God by participation. That is, that the second step on our road is our being clothed with Christ (Galatians 3:27.) God abiding with us is not a transitional phase before we shed this mortal form finally and forever. It is a transformative experience in which all that we are, body, soul and spirit, is readied for a time of renewal when all that we are enters joyously into the eternal bliss of a risen life with Christ. It also makes sense of the second half of the equation. The first part, God abiding in us, is relatively easy to conceptualise. Our abiding in God where God is considered in terms of an abstract spiritual entity of infinite power and perfections is practically impossible to conceptualise until or unless we are incredibly far advanced along the spiritual path. Jesus, in whom our and His humanity and His divinity are united indissolubly, however, is a much easier object of contemplation. We can more readily imagine dwelling in Him and He in us than we can if He did not form such a perfect bridge for us.
The third step is a remaining or an abiding in love.We can conceive of it in this way (Matthew 11:29-30) and also like this Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. (John 14:27) Beyond a certain point the concepts of 'rest' 'peace' and 'love' merge into one another because their meeting point is the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This is no chasing the dragon kind of spirituality but a process of growth into the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. (Ephesian 4:13) By accepting the gift of the Spirit and responding to it in and through the incarnate Son of God and Son of Mary then we enter into a relationship which is not intellectual alone or emotional alone or spiritual alone or anything alone it is a personal relationship involving the whole person of both participants in that relationship. And since the whole person of Jesus includes His divinity He constantly raises us higher and higher towards Himself so that we become more like Him. As He is, so are we in this world (1 John 4:17)
I would like to speak of the fourth step, the perfect love that casts out fear. Unfortunately I am uniquely unqualified to do so. I am far from that state. If you, dear reader should ever attain it please remember me in your prayers.
The Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist from the workshop of Oostsanen
Whenever we read St John it is always worth holding in our mind the fact that he was an adopted son of Mary Immaculate (John 19:26-27) They shared a home, probably for some years, and no doubt often talked about not only the one thing most of all which brought them together, Jesus, her Son and his Master, but also, if you will, the spiritual autobiography of Mary. Additionally the Evangelist had constantly before him her example of a life absorbed in the perfection of love for God and neighbour. So when he came to write about these things it would be our Lady which formed the model which he held in his mind as he wrote. We can do the same. Her generous response to the Spirit, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word. (Luke 1:38) Her acknowledgement of Jesus, My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour (Luke 1:46-47) Her abiding in love, And his mother kept all these words in her heart. (Luke 2:51) And her fearlessness in love Now there stood by the cross of Jesus, his mother (John 19:25) Each of these severally and all of them together should serve us as the most noble of examples to follow. Not only this but if, despite the beauty of the Incarnation we still have difficulty in envisaging our abiding in God through Jesus, since He is after all the sovereign Lord of Creation and the Judge who is gravely offended even by the least of our sins, then we can take refuge in the Immaculate Heart of Mary which is a perfect mirror of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. If we have not yet attained to the love which is free from fear then in the gentle and merciful Heart of Mary we can find solace and refreshment and through her prayers and the grace which flows through her hands we can hope in time to come to that blessed state.
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