Terms of Engagement –1 John 2:13

I write to you, fathers,
because you have known him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men,
because you have overcome the evil one.
I write to you, dear children,
because you have known the Father.
–1 John 2:13

As you read over these several verses of John’s letter, only a very inattentive mind could fail to see the poetic structure that the apostle uses. “I write to you,” he says, first to children, then to fathers, and then to young men before repeating the sequence. His reasons in each case are different, or they’re sort of different. He repeats his reasons to fathers. The reasons for young men are similar, but they do change. So what are we to make of this whole thing? Are there messages for children that do not apply to fathers? And what about the young men who are also fathers?

In 2:1, John addresses everything to “my little children,” so perhaps all of these audience designations refer to the same people. John simply refers to them as children, fathers, and young men, just as someone might refer to me as grandfather, father, and son.

While this claim is not terribly remarkable or helpful–after all, none of us were among the original audience John had in mind when he penned these words–I believe there is another blurring of distinctions with much more import for us. If the recipients are truly all the same, then might the reasons for writing not overlap as well?

Obviously knowing “the Father” and knowing “him who is from the beginning” are the same thing. Just as obviously, overcoming the evil one is something different . . . or is it? How does one come to know the Father? I would suggest that happens only by overcoming the evil one. And that very overcoming, we are assured in Romans, can only take place through grace and faith, a gift of God. In other words, you can’t overcome the evil one without knowing the Father. All of this, of course, hinges on the forgiveness of sins that we read about the first verse of this cadence, forgiveness through Christ’s name.

In “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” Martin Luther writes about Satan, “One little word will fell him.” That word, the powerful name of Jesus, is the key to all, the key to our relationship with the Father, the key to our freedom from our adversary, and our key to eternity. What better thing could John think to write about?

Forgiven–1 John 2:12

I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name. –1 John 2:12

Recently, I walked into the school’s Writing Center, just across the hall and down a bit from my office. I can’t recall who I was looking for, but I must have looked befuddled and needy. One of the tutors, a face I didn’t know, approached me. “Is there something we can help you with?” Clearly, she was ready to guide me to reference books or to review my paper. Was I perhaps struggling through the dark night of solecisms? With this tutor around, I would not have to face that struggle alone. For a moment, I felt touched. Then I got over it.

A few minutes later, when I entered the center to make some copies, this same tutor approached me to apologize. “I didn’t realize you were faculty,” she whispered. There’s no reason she should have made that assumption, of course. I hardly consider myself unavoidably professorial in appearance.

At other times, when I am hanging out in the Writing Center, I’ll jump into a conversation when a student is asking a difficult question. More than once, they’ve stared at me after I entered the discussion with a look that says, “Who are you and why are you offering your two cents?”

Were I a vainer person, I’d lead them across the hall and point to the diplomas on one wall and the teaching awards on the other. I’d wag my finger in the student’s face and say, “Listen up, Bucko, I was correcting papers when you were still in diapers!” But I’m not that sort of person.

What gives me the right to act like I know everything when it comes to academic writing? I suppose it is education and experience. These are great things to make a resumé appear stronger, but I have noticed that they do very little when it comes to dealing with the problem of sin.

My years in church will avail me nothing before God. My copious notes during Bible Study or my dozen hours of seminary courses won’t help a bit. Isn’t it interesting that as John begins his poetic discourse on why he is writing that he talks of forgiveness to the children, the least educated, least experienced of the three groups he addresses.

Lest we forget, our sins are forgiven not by virtue of education, experience, good deeds, proper religious practice, or anything else we do, no matter how hard we try to believe otherwise. My sins, rank as they are, fall away like nothing strictly due to the power of the name of Jesus Christ.

Two Roads Diverged–1 John 2:10-11

Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him. –1 John 2:10-11

Robert Frost famously wrote about two roads diverging in a yellow wood. “Sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler,” he described himself. Life is full of those sorts of forks in the roads. My long-time colleague and office-mate just took a wonderful new job within the institution. She hasn’t looked back from that decision, but she did pause on the day she signed her new contract. Before they’d let her sign on the new line, they made her resign her faculty contract. To the best of her knowledge, there’d be no going back. Similarly, as much as I would like to sell our house and move to the sticks, part of me realizes that this is a change for keeps. If we regret this move a year down the road, we’ll be facing a very grim prospect of moving again.

The two roads–the road of light and the road of darkness–that John describes in today’s verse, however, isn’t that sort of a choose-once-and-live-with-the-consequences deal. It seems to me that I can hate my brother in the morning and love my brother in the afternoon, yet that’s not what these verses seem to suggest. They don’t say “whenever” you love or hate your brother. Instead, they say “whoever” loves or hates. The other translations render it differently but never changing the meaning: “He who loves” or “The one who loves.”

This observation leads me to wonder if John sees this as truly an either-or choice. Can the one who loves a brother in the morning hate him in the afternoon? The answer to that question, it seems from the context is no, but the Greek word translated “hate” here, miseo, must be understood. The English word “hate” has experienced some semantic deflation over the years. My son says he hates Pizza Hut pizza. My daughter hates her hair. Is that the sort of miseo hatred John references? I don’t think so.

Hatred does mean irritation or frustration with. Hatred isn’t the same as “I don’t want to share a room with you” or “you’re making me really angry right now. ” Similarly, though, love is not the trivial thing that we frequently make it. The love described here, agapao, means to love dearly. I don’t love lasagna, Fridays, or even Jayhawks basketball in that profound manner.

Hopefully we do not have a problem with miseo toward our brothers (and sisters), but for many of us, our agapao could use a bit of work.

Don’t Be a Hater–1 John 2:9

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. –1 John 2:9

I ran into Walt at Sam’s Club not too long after he left our church. At that point in history, a good number of folks left our church. Life–church life, especially–could be funny if it weren’t so terrible at times. Many of those who left were and are my friends. Walt’s a little different story.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Pretty good,” he responded. We made another comment or two about the weather or kids or somesuch, but without the slightest lead-in, without any provocation, Walt apparently felt constrained to start lambasting the church, the pastor, and (by a reasonable assumption) the people who had not followed him out the door. His words were not the carefully considered words of a couple of friends. These people, in hushed tones, indicating deep contemplation on the matter, indicated, “We just couldn’t stay there anymore.” I respect those people. I disagree with their conclusion, but I respect them. Walt, however, was just ugly.

John isn’t exactly commanding us to love each other in this verse. He’s instead holding up love for each other as a litmus test for whether we walk in the light or not. Most people can’t fake love very effectively, at least not all the time. Even when you can fake it externally, you know when you’re filled with hate.

I don’t believe that John insists that we never grow irritated with our brothers. After all, the church in the first century probably had its fair share of oddballs and difficult personalities, just like the church in the twenty-first century. There’s a difference between avoiding a person and hating them. There’s a difference between saying something unkind on the spur of the moment and acting unkind through and through. Those first actions simply illustrate our human frailty, while the latter ones betray a lack of love.

I don’t have a Geiger counter that lets me know whether someone walks in spiritual darkness or light, but I do have the words of John to suggest that Walt is not walking where he thinks he’s walking. What bothers me, however, is not the bitter life Walt is leading but the casual attitude I take when I walk on the shady side of the street. Hopefully like you, I’m never utterly consumed with hate. I’m pretty sure I walk in the light, but there are far too many times when I allow myself to dip into the shadows of hatred. It’s a bad neighborhood to be avoided.

Not Old, New–1 John 2:8

Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining. –1 John 2:8

I’m sitting in my office right now, waiting on a student. Sara, to show up. She needed to meet with me, but her schedule didn’t match up with my office hours. Due to that, I wound up making a special trip to school today, burning up my gas and now twiddling my thumbs as I await her, ever more doubtful, appearance.

There is a plus side to this.  Because I came to school today, I attended a lecture by our visiting scholar, Dr. Monira Soliman, an Egyptian comparative literature professor, who will be teaching my class tomorrow. Yes, I know that you believe listening to an Egyptian comparative literature professor sounds like listening to water evaporate, but it really was interesting. This woman, a Muslim, explained how Islam is represented in various female Muslim writers. She pointed out that many of the stories that come to us from the Middle East are not terribly representative of that culture. Instead, they represent what people want to believe about the Middle East.

Another comment that Professor Soliman made, however, took me back. She suggested that all religions– Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism–are basically alike. Surely she didn’t really mean that. I’m hoping that what she meant (and it is what she later explained) is that all the religions hold a huge number of moral and ethical teachings in common. If they were all the same, then why would Muhammed have been needed to “set the record straight”? In fact, they are clearly not all the same, even in that area of moral-ethical teaching.

For the Christian, however, the difference is profound, a depth hinted at in today’s verse. While the advent of Christ did very little to change the moral codes applying to Gentiles, His coming made a huge difference in the working of those moral codes. In the Islamic world, you must punch your ticket, praying, making pilgrimmage, giving to the poor, and so forth. Judaism has a different ticket, but it too must be punched. For the Hindu and for the Buddhist, still other tickets pertain.

But to the Christian, the ticket is a goal, not a requirement. We have the liberty to strive toward perfection knowing that we have been delivered from needing perfection. The darkness of legalism is passing, and the light is now illuminating an age of grace. That’s a powerful difference.

Sara is now twenty-eight minutes late. I don’t believe she’ll make an appearance.  If I were operating under the old dispensation, I’d hold this failure against her forever, but I can be gracious. Hopefully she’ll do better next time and continue to make progress toward the person God created her to be.

…and my lungs and limbs and all the rest of me.