For the past several weeks, we have been making our way through 1 John in our Sunday lectionary. In the Easter season, when Jesus’ resurrection appearances take center stage, the epistle lesson often goes unmentioned in the sermon. Nevertheless, it offers an anchor to the congregation who hears it and an inspiration to the preacher who allows it to shape his or her words in implicit ways. Although I have not made much of it in church, this series of readings from 1 John has kept me grounded in the most important theme of the gospel—love.
In his first letter, John uses the word “love” twenty-six times—more than in any other book of the New Testament except the gospel account that bears John’s name. “Whoever loves his brother [or sister] abides in the light” (1 John 2:10). “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God” (1 John 3:1a). “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18). “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8). I invite you to take fifteen minutes and read 1 John from start to finish. If you do that, you will discover what the gospel is all about—love.
When I hear the word “gospel,” I usually think of the first four books of the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—but the word “gospel” really means “good news.” To John and those who received his first letter, the “gospel” was not a text to be read and studied; it was “good news” to be shared. There was no distinction between “a gospel” and “the gospel.” Similarly, as we read in 1 John 3:23, we see that there was no distinction between believing in Jesus and loving one another in his name: “And this is [God’s] commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” As John and his audience understood it, followers of Jesus are given a singular commandment with two equal, indivisible parts. To them, there was no separation between right belief and right action.
Hundreds of years passed before Christians formulated the complex doctrines of the church, which we now understand to be the basis for “right belief.” Every week, we stand up and recite the words of the Nicene Creed as an ascription of our faith to the standards of orthodoxy as they were defined in the fourth century. For John and his readers, however, being a Christian simply meant believing in Jesus and loving others the way he did. Those two great pegs of orthodoxy and orthopraxis, upon which all the law and the prophets hang, were genuinely inseparable.
Why, then, do contemporary Christians worry so much more about what we think than what we do? Denominations are defined by disagreements over doctrine. Churches split because people read and interpret scripture differently. Heretics are shunned because they espouse beliefs that are not compatible with those of the church. But how often do we draw a line in the sand based on the extent to which love one another? We catechize converts to the faith by filling their minds with the ins and outs of Christian belief and tradition. But when do we share the good news of Jesus Christ simply by loving them?
The beauty of our faith is the inseparability of believing in Jesus and loving others as he did. To believe in Jesus is to acknowledge the power of unconditional and indiscriminate love. Jesus’ resurrection shows us that God’s love is a love that cannot be contained or restrained. Thus, if you believe in Jesus and claim to live as a recipient of that love, you necessarily love others in the same way—not as a conditional relationship but as a consequential one. The implication of that is terrifying. It means that my identity as a Christian is not based merely on what I claim to believe but also on the extent to which I love. Our profession of faith—our identity as Christians—has as much to do with how we love others as with what we believe about Jesus.
What does it mean to be a Christian? It means believing in Jesus—that the death and resurrection of God’s son demonstrates that God’s love for the world cannot be defeated—AND it means loving others with that same love. No wonder 1 John is the focus of our epistle lessons during Easter. The empty tomb is the inauguration of both our belief that God’s love defeats sin and death and the new life of love that we live in Jesus’ name.