Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. (1 John 4: 7)
In this passage from the first epistle of St. John we find the complete life of the Holy Trinity. It is expressed in terms of love which in relation to the creation is God’s primary characteristic. St. John covers three areas in the passage. The first is the nature of God, the second is the activity of God and the third is the imperative which draws us into his life.
According to St. John, God is a unity of love consisting of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is the foundation for all our subsequent understanding of God as Holy Trinity as expressed in the creeds and is consistent with it. In the passage it is stated that out of love, God sent his Son as the redeemer who would reconcile creation with its creator. This is a recurring theme in St. John’s work as we read in St. John’s Gospel.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. (John 3: 16-17)
St. John also introduces the role of the Spirit who is given to the faithful just as Jesus promised in St. John’s account. Here is the advocate whose role is to bring the disciples to a clear understanding of God and their salvation. The disciple who seeks the truth and desires to understand the truth is led into that state (a state of bliss) by God himself.
Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. (John 16: 13)
For St. John, God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, conjoined in love. This is not a purely economic arrangement in which three persons do specific things. Although there is truth in the descriptions of the roles of the three persons which we often present, all three are involved in the processes of creation, salvation and sanctification. If we borrow an image from the world of white goods, the machine is delivered, installed and maintained by the same person. All three are involved. Neither are we presented with a pick ‘n’ mix approach in which we can choose our favourite person. There may be times when we think especially of one or the other, especially in our devotions – who could not focus on Jesus at the crucifixion or the Spirit at Pentecost? That is natural because as human beings we tend to see just what is in front of us, but in this passage St. John is encouraging us to see the three persons, to see them conjoined in love and to see them bringing us the complete package of salvation.
And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. (1 John 4: 16)
Don’t just skim that half verse because it is important: it is about ‘knowing’ and ‘believing’. God offers the complete package and here we have our complete response. Know it; believe it. The NIV has ‘know’ and ‘rely’ which is a curious translation – perhaps an over-translation – but it makes a point. Perhaps the words ‘trust’ and ‘confidence’ are also implied.
However we translate the first half of verse 16 the meaning is clear and so it is of the second half.
God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. (1 John 4: 16)
In knowing and believing we find ourselves in a new relationship with God. In John’s understanding this is no mere reconciliation with the formerly estranged parties making up and then going their separate ways. In St. John’s theology the two become united and more than that co-inhere. As part of the package of salvation man comes to dwell in God and God dwells in man. This follows on naturally from the incarnation as the Word takes flesh, as God becomes man, but it is more than we could ever have hoped for. The salvation which we are offered is not just a second chance, but an assurance of God’s presence with us on the journey through life – and beyond. God’s love is such that once he is reconciled to us he will never let us go.
St. John relates to us Jesus’ teaching about the vine. This imagery serves us well. It is the easiest of pictures to grasp and yet contains the fullest expression of our new state in Christ. Jesus describes the nature of our relationship with him. He also describes the difference it will make. In Christ we will be effective disciples – not just interested disciples or even inspired disciples, but effective ones who will bear fruit (which of course is the purpose of a vine). It is St. Luke who gets to describe just what the disciples got up to after the resurrection in his ‘Acts of the Apostles’, but it is here that we find a thorough understanding of what happened and why. The disciples were grafted in and they bore fruit as a result: the fruit of evangelism and the fruit of service.
By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples. (John 15: 8, RSV)
For St. John the complete nature of the Trinity is expressed as love and shared through love. Understanding this is more important to the life of faith than a complete understanding of the relationship between the persons as expressed in the creeds. That is not unimportant, but once the disciple is grafted into the Lord, the nature and role of the three persons tends to fall into place. This is because as you persevere in faith who does what tends to become obvious and the focus is on bearing fruit and glorifying God. Once that happens we will have a deeper understanding of God – and we will know what we are for as well!
Father Andrew Burton SSC
2nd May 2021
Image by Dan-Cristian Paduret on Unsplash