Yesterday my reading of the Gospel of Luke was completed. Readers who may wish to follow the whole commentary will find it starts on December 14th.2015, which they can access from my archive, placed on the right side of each blog. I will still be happy to get comments on my interpretation.
Today I begin a new series of blogs which will follow the First Letter of John in the New Jerusalem translation. As part of my toolkit for this series I am using the free audio readings of the passages in Greek which can be found through the excellent site, Let’s Read Greek. Listening to the passages read in something like authentic sound and accentuation gives me a new sense of the speed and fluidity of Koine Greek as a Mediterranean language.
First Letter of John 1
1 Something which has existed since the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes, which we have watched and touched with our own hands, the Word of life — this is our theme.
2 That life was made visible; we saw it and are giving our testimony, declaring to you the eternal life, which was present to the Father and has been revealed to us.
3 We are declaring to you what we have seen and heard, so that you too may share our life. Our life is shared with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
4 We are writing this to you so that our joy may be complete.
5 This is what we have heard from him and are declaring to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all.
6 If we say that we share in God’s life while we are living in darkness, we are lying, because we are not living the truth.
7 But if we live in light, as he is in light, we have a share in another’s life, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin.
8 If we say, ‘We have no sin,’ we are deceiving ourselves, and truth has no place in us;
9 if we acknowledge our sins, he is trustworthy and upright, so that he will forgive our sins and will cleanse us from all evil.
10 If we say, ‘We have never sinned,’ we make him a liar, and his word has no place in us.
This is one of great bold openings in the literature of human wisdom, as it immediately focuses on the “word of life”. This phrase is not defined, although it belongs to many different philosophical and religious traditions in Greek culture. The Greek for word is “logos” which means the rationality that human beings perceive in the universe, making it an ordered system, a kosmos rather than a chaos. In Jewish thinking “logos” had mingled with the “word (dabar) of God”, understood as the wisdom in which God created the universe and formulated his Torah, his commandment for the life of his people. Already, therefore, in both Greek and Hebrew thought, there are traditions that identify the creative rationality of the universe with the wisdom needed for the good life.
But something has happened to radicalise this well established tradition of thought: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, as remembered by his followers. In particular, those who followed Jesus according to the tradition of “John”, using the Gospel of John as their authority for the truth of Jesus, believed that “the logos” had become flesh in Jesus, so that he was the complete unveiling ( Greek aletheia) of God’s eternal life. The “we” of this letter are this believing community, who through their leaders are affirming their shared life. As we shall see, the identity of this “we” is the heart of the letter’s message.
Many philosophers would have agreed that the logos of life had existed from the beginning, and they might also have agreed that this logos was heard in the words of philosophers and seen in the order of the universe.But they might have wondered at the authors of this letter placing such emphasis on having seen it “with their own eyes”; and they would have found the notion of “touching it with our hands” incomprehensible. You can touch material things, but the logos was not material, rather the principle of order in matter. The “watching and touching” the logos comes from trust in Jesus, known to believers as the “word made flesh.”
Now we might understand that the disciples of Jesus could say they had touched him -the Greek verb is emphasises physicality, “handling” – but the date of this letter is around 100CE by which time there can’t have been too many survivors from 30CE. So how can the writers say that they have touched him? The answer is first and foremost in the shared life of this community which unites people over time and space. The life was made visible (in Jesus) so that his followers can say WE saw it, WE give our testimony, WE declare, because they are united with his first followers and witnesses, not just in faith, but in life.For they are not declaring something they believe in the first instance, but something “they have seen and heard.” Their evangelism is not the communication of a belief system, but of lived experience.
The purpose of this declaration is to enable others to share their life. The Greek word for “shared life” is koinonia, which was used for partnerships in business or social groupings in Greek society. It was not a religious term, but was used extensively by St Paul,in his letters to Christian Assemblies, designating a practical sharing amongst people to whom he also referred as the body of Messiah. Here the authors state baldly that their shared life is also shared with the Father and his son Jesus Christ. It’s not a modest claim. Most groups and communities are defined by their boundaries; this one is defined by its openness, its desire to share life with others. That’s why the purpose of the letter is said to be the completion of the authors’ joy; more sharing means more joy.
The logos of life has been brought down to earth in Jesus so that the practical shared life of human beings may include God. But how can that be? How can the smudged and shoddy life of human beings be united with the eternal life? The authors explain:
They have learned from Jesus that God is goodness (light) which shows up the truth of peoples’ lives. The evil of darkness is fundamentally its denial of the truth, its choice of unreality and deception. Even the evil of so-called Islamic State hides behind the Qur’an. They are claiming to walk in the light while actually hiding in the darkness; they are living a lie. But those who walk in the light, choosing to expose themselves to God’s goodness, allow God to share their lives, and are rewarded with a share in God’s life made available in Jesus. That does not mean they are sinless, but rather that they are made clean from sin by God/ Jesus sacrificing his life for them; the life they share is the sacrificial life of God.
That’s why they gladly affirm that they are a community of people who have done wrong. The worst sin for people who belong to the holy God is to pretend they are not sinful, for that is to refuse the light of God’s goodness or to imagine it cannot cope with them as they are. The shared life of this community is a genuine practical sharing of each other’s existence, whereby the human partners also share in the sacrificial life of the divine partner, who insists that they do not pretend to be better than they are, but trust his forgiveness.
This brief manifesto affirms the reality of God without denying the reality of human beings, and affirms human sharing without excluding the sharing of God. It is profound and shrewd, like all good theology.