The theme of the First Letter of John is the love of God and the implications of His love for us.
As the children of God, we too are called to love one another. In yesterday’s reading, St John wrote, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1 Jn 3:16-18
) The question that is raised today is, how then can we find the capacity to love as He loved?
This capacity to love as He loved us depends on whether we believe that Jesus is the Son of God. St John said, “I have written all this to you so that you who believe in the name of the Son of God may be sure that you have eternal life.” Faith in Jesus as the Son of God means to believe that He is truly human and divine. St John in his time was battling with a heresy called Gnosticism where the true humanity and divinity of Jesus was not fully accepted. Some thought that Jesus was only divine when he was baptized and “the Christ” left his body just before He died. This heretical theological position was expounded to protect the divinity of Christ, since God cannot die. If that were the case, then there is no real salvation for humanity because only God can take away our sins.
The faith of the Church in Jesus is clear. Jesus is truly the Son of God and the Son of man in one person since the moment of His incarnation. Only this faith in His divine sonship can help us to overcome all trials in life and give us the capacity to love as He loved. “Who can overcome the world? Only the man who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” Only Jesus who was truly man, doing the will of God even though He was divine, can give us hope that we too can do the will of God with a human will. Indeed, He “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Phil 2:7)
What, then, is the basis for us to believe that Jesus is truly the Son of God and not just a man? St John gives us three criteria. “Jesus Christ who came by water and blood, not with water only, but with water and blood; with the Spirit as another witness – since the Spirit is the truth – so that there are three witnesses, the Spirit, the water and the blood, and all three of them agree.” In the bible, when there are three witnesses, the testimony is considered valid. Furthermore, St John said, “We accept the testimony of human witnesses, but God’s testimony is much greater, and this is God’s testimony, given as evidence for his Son.”
In the first place, the water refers to the baptism of our Lord. We are aware that Jesus was baptized even though as the Son of God, He was sinless and hence did not require baptism. When John the Baptist deterred Him from getting baptized, Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” (Mt 3:15) Jesus received baptism as a man from John the Baptist in order to be identified with sinners like us so that He could assume in His body our sins. St Paul remarked, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21)
Baptism too was the beginning of His mission. He was confirmed as the Son of God so that He could live out His sonship for others to follow the same. “A voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you.’” Confirmed by His Father, this gave Him the impetus to bring all others into sonship in Him by inviting us to follow Him, living His way of life. “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (Jn 1:12f) As a consequence, by virtue of our baptism, we are to live His life.
Secondly, Jesus came “not with water only, but with water and blood.” In other words, Jesus not only came as a man even though He was God but as St Paul said, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:8) The death of Jesus on the cross reveals to us the ultimate meaning of sonship in Christ. It means that we are called to empty our lives totally for the love of God and our fellowmen, even unto death. The command to love has no limits. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (Jn 15:12-14) Truly, in the death of Christ, we see the unconditional and total love of God, not just of Christ but of His Father as well. “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Rom 8:32)
Thirdly, it was not just that Jesus was baptized and that He died, more importantly, the Holy Spirit was with Jesus throughout His life. He is the witness to Christ as the Son of God. “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.” (Jn 15:26) The Spirit came upon Jesus when He was baptized. “No sooner had he come up out of the water than he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit, like a dove, descending on him.” Throughout His ministry, Jesus was working in the power of the Holy Spirit. The apostles testified “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” (Acts 10:38)
Most of all, Jesus did not end His life just in death, He was also raised in the power of the Holy Spirit. “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” (Rom 8:11) “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:9-11) If this is God’s testimony for His Son, it means therefore “Everybody who believes in the Son of God has this testimony inside him; and anyone who will not believe God is making God out to be a liar, because he has not trusted the testimony God has given about his Son.”
Consequently, only with faith in Christ’s divine sonship can we be given new life in the Spirit. John the Baptist said, “Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals. I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.” After His resurrection and ascension, He sent the Holy Spirit upon them saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (Jn 20:22f) This same Holy Spirit is given to us at our baptism and renewed at confirmation when we are sent out on mission. We are made sons and daughters in Christ. Sharing in His life, we are called also to share in His suffering and glory. “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” (Rom 8:15-17)
This same Holy Spirit not only empowers us to be His disciples by giving us the Spirit of Christ but also gives us the power to do what He did. Jesus assured His disciples, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” (Jn 14:12-14) True enough, we read in Mark’s gospel, “And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it” (Mk 16:20) by using His name to cast out demons, speak in new tongues, lay their hands on the sick. (cf Mk 16:17f)
Consequently, we can understand why the Christian experience of God’s love follows that of Christ’s; sharing in His baptism as we die to our sins and so begin the path of sonship; following Him to the extent of dying with Him on the cross, so that we can share in His resurrection. This is all made possible through the work of the Holy Spirit given to us at our baptism and confirmation and reinforced by the Eucharist. This explains why the Christian experience of God is called the Rite of Christian Initiation. Unless, we share a common experience of sonship in Christ, we cannot do what He did.
Today, as we celebrate the Eucharist, we are called to renew the Holy Spirit given to us at baptism and confirmation, for it is the same Holy Spirit that transforms the bread and wine into His Body and Blood. Only by receiving the Eucharist frequently, do we receive the Holy Spirit anew as well. By inserting ourselves into Christ and His Church, the mystical body of Christ, we can grow in faith, in love and in our sonship so that we can live the life of the Spirit, the life of Christ. Unless we renew the Holy Spirit in us daily through the Eucharist, the Sacraments and prayers, we will lose the power to be witnesses of His love.