1 John 4:12-19; John 19:25-27; 21:24-25
There is much today that discourages people from building the kinds of relationships that help us flourish together as persons united in love. In many ways, it is easier to think of ourselves as isolated individuals and to act accordingly than it is to share a common life with other people. It is certainly possible to be a member of family, a church, or any social group and to care primarily about whether other people are giving us what we want or think we deserve. That mindset very often leads to broken relationships and getting caught in a downward spiral of isolation in which we become so turned in on ourselves that we risk losing any kind of sustaining relationship with our neighbors.
Today we commemorate the end of the earthly life of Saint John the Evangelist and Theologian, who was not at all concerned with serving himself. He is known as the beloved disciple who inclined his head on the Lord’s breast at the Last Supper. John, together with his brother James, left behind his father and fishing nets in order to follow Christ. He was present at the Transfiguration of the Lord and was the only one of the Twelve who stood by His Cross as He died. There the Savior entrusted the care of the Theotokos to John. He was the first disciple to arrive at the empty tomb and was present when the Risen Lord later appeared to the apostles and also on the day of Pentecost. John suffered great persecution for Christ throughout his long ministry, but did not die as a martyr and lived to be almost a hundred years old. The author of a gospel, three epistles, and Revelation, he is called “The Theologian” because of his deep knowledge of the mystery of God.
As someone so closely united to Christ, St. John knew that human persons could never find fulfillment unless we share in the life of God and in the lives of one another. The theology he teaches arises not from abstract rational speculation, but from true spiritual participation made possible by love. As he wrote, “If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us…. God is love; and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” This kind of love is neither a sentimental feeling nor the gratification of any self-centered desire. It is, instead, the Christlike offering of ourselves to God and one another. By sacrificially placing obedience to God and benevolence to our neighbors before serving ourselves, we learn that the healing of our corrupt humanity is not in some illusion of self-sufficiency, but in sharing by grace in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity as living members of Christ and one another in His Body, the Church.
The other apostles ran away and hid at our Lord’s arrest out of fear for their personal safety. They despaired over what they perceived as His failure to give them the earthly kingdom they had expected the Messiah to bring. Because of St. John’s love for Christ, however, he alone of the twelve disciples remained at His Cross. John learned that “perfect love casts out fear,” for his deep commitment to the Savior overcame any concern for himself. That same love sustained John for decades through terrible ordeals and remained so characteristic of him that in his last years he routinely taught the simple message, “Little children, love one another.”
As John wrote, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.” (1 John 4:20-21) John emphasized love for our neighbors because how we treat them reveals our relationship to God, for they are His living icons. It is simply impossible to be united to God in love if His love is not becoming characteristic of our lives. Such love is not merely the product of our own willpower, but an essential sign that we are embracing the healing of the human person available to us all in Jesus Christ. As John wrote, “We love God, because He first loved us.”
Any good thing can be distorted beyond all recognition by slavery to our passions, our disordered desires that in one way or another serve only ourselves. As Orthodox Christians, we must remain on guard against the powerful temptation to make our faith a way of building ourselves up in our own minds over against other people. We will bring judgment only on ourselves as religious hypocrites if we corrupt the fullness of Christian belief into a perverse justification for hating or disregarding anyone. The very opposite must be the case in light of how the Lord identified Himself with even the most wretched persons and called us to love our enemies. As those created to become like God in holiness, which is an infinite goal, we should be so well aware of our own brokenness that we will see immediately the folly of judging others in a vain effort to serve our own egos. If we truly love God and one another, that will be the last thing on our minds.
Across the centuries to the present day, many people have used various forms of religion to protect themselves from enemies, both real and imagined, whom they perceive as threats to something they want in this world. If we are truly in Christ, then His love must become so characteristic of us that we finding healing from such fears. John wrote that “he who fears is not perfected in love.” Those who are driven by such insecurity show that Christ’s love is not truly characteristic of them, for He did not respond to anyone defensively, not even as He went to the Cross.
The more we think of ourselves as isolated individuals whose only hope is to protect ourselves against other people in a battle for getting what we want on our own terms in this life, the more enslaved to fear we will be. At some level, we recognize how weak, conflicted, and insignificant we are in the larger scheme of things in the world as we know it. All the power, money, and pleasure in the world cannot hide that deep truth or overcome the grave. The teaching and example of St. John remind us that the path out of slavery to fear runs through love of God and neighbor, not through seeking our own interests over against others. As those created in the divine image and likeness, our true fulfillment is in the eternal communion of love shared by the Persons of the Holy Trinity. That is how we may overcome the division and isolation that came into the world with the disobedience of our first parents, as shown when Cain killed Abel. We will transcend our narrow self-interest as we embrace the calling truly to become living members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and of one another. We must offer ourselves in union with His Self-Offering on the Cross if we are to enter into communion with our Lord and the brothers and sisters in whom we encounter Him every day of our lives.
The opportunities for doing so are all around us in our own families, in this parish, in our workplaces and schools, in our friendships, and especially in serving those who are in need. St. John cared for the Theotokos as his own mother, and we must obey our Lord’s command to unite ourselves to one another in love, even though that goes against the grain of contemporary culture. If we want to share in the life of God, we must share in the life of one another, for it is only by doing so that we will grow in acquiring the character of Christ, for “as He is, even so are we in this world.” The Savior did not seek His own interests and neither did St. John. If we want to know Christ as the beloved disciple did, then we must learn that our very life is in our brothers and sisters. Loving them and Christ in them is the only way to find liberation from fear in our world of corruption, for it is fear that separates us from one another and keeps us from becoming together the uniquely beautiful persons our Lord created us to become in His image and likeness.