Friday, September 28

2 Corinthians 13:1-6: Throughout this letter Paul had played the theme of power made perfect in infirmity, a truth manifest in the condition and circumstances of his own life. The grasping of this truth is what prompted the Apostle, as he reflected on his ministry, to assume the extraordinary autobiographical style characteristic of this epistle.

Through this sustained experience of power made perfect in infirmity Paul learned, on his own pulses, the mystery of the Cross, and in the present reading he proclaims this mystery explicitly. The weakness in question is the weakness of Christ’s sufferings and death: “He was crucified in weakness.” The power in question is the power of Christ’s Resurrection: “He certainly lives by the power of God.” To live in Christ, therefore, is to test and live out the experience of that truth: “For although we are weak in Him, we shall certainly live with Him, with respect to you [eis hymas], by the power of God” (verse 4). When Paul will appear again before the Corinthians, he may seem weak to them, but they will experience in him the power of Christ (verse 3).

However, rather than simply wait for this godly disclosure, the Corinthians should meanwhile put themselves to the test. They should examine the evidence in their own lives to discern whether they are really believers, whether Christ is truly among them (verse 5).

Saturday, September 29

2 Corinthians 13:7-14: Paul is not anxious what other think of him; he is concerned, rather, with the spiritual health of his reader at Corinth (verse 7).

In verse 11 all the imperative verbs are in the present tense, the tense that in Greek signifies repeated or continuous action. That is to say, this is an exhortation to sustained effort with respect to moral renewal and the cultivation of the common Christian life. This is the only verse in Holy Scripture that contains the expression “the God of love.”

Luke 8:40-56: Twice in this Gospel reading we hear something about touch in connection with Christ our Lord:

First, we read, with respect to Jesus, that a certain woman “touched the border of His garment. And immediately her flow of blood stopped.”

Second, we are told, with respect to a little girl, that Jesus “took her by the hand and called, saying, ‘Little girl, arise.’”

In each case something physical happened. Touch is, after all, a very physical thing. Let us reflect, then, on the mystery of the divine touch, and let us consider this subject under three headings:

First, God touches us all the time. It is His touch that holds us in existence. What does Holy Scripture say with respect to our creation? “Your hands have made me and fashioned me,” wrote the Psalmist (119:73). Job tells the Lord, “Your hands have fashioned me and formed me” (10:8).  This image is drawn, of course, from the creation account in Genesis: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” 2:7). All three of these passages use the same verb, yasar, which means to mold, to form, to give shape to. Indeed, in Hebrew the participle of this verb, yoser, is the word for “potter.”

It is important to consider that our first contact with God, in other words, is physical .God physically touches us all the time. If He did not, we would cease to be. Our first contact with God is through our bodies.

It is necessary to stress the point, because this biblical idea is not especially common in much of popular American religion. Most Christians in this country seem to think that their relationship to God is first of all spiritual, non-corporeal. I believe this may be a residual Platonism in our culture, the retention of a cosmological hierarchy in which the material world is the furthest thing from God, who is pure spirit.

This is not the perspective of Holy Scripture, which speaks of God’s hands shaping our very bodies. Notice that Genesis speaks of man’s body before it speaks of his spirit: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” 2:7). We observe here a certain logical priority of the body (not chronological).

Thus, the Psalmist prayed, “For You formed my inward parts;/ You covered me in my mother’s womb. . .  . My frame was not hidden from You, / When I was made in secret, / And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.” How God physically touches us in Creation I do not know. Indeed, it is humanly unknowable, because Creation is a mystery. This is why it is contained in the Creed. I do know, however, that He physically touches us into being and continues to hold us in being, for this is what the Bible teaches.

Second, God’s Son assumed our physical condition. This is the reason the sick woman in the Gospel can touch Him. This is the reason He can reach for His hand and touch the daughter of Jairus. In the assumption of our humanity, God’s Son shares the same physical substance as ourselves. He is put together as we are. The divine and the human are joined in His flesh. The person that looks out through His eyes is a divine person; they are the eyes of God. He hears our prayers with human ears, but they are the ears of God.

That is to say, in the Incarnation God has found the means of touching us in a new way. In touching the hem of His robe, a desperately sick woman receives a jolt of divine power. “Someone touched Me,” said Jesus, “for I perceived power going out from Me.” Yes, power indeed, for according to St. Paul, in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily (Col 2:9). By His touch, Christ drives out sickness and restores the lady to wholeness.

Beyond sickness, His touch also drives out death. Thus, when His hand touched the dead girl, and her dead ears heard His voice, “her spirit returned, and she arose immediately.” This is very important, because God’s Son assumed the fullness of our humanity precisely to drive out death. What He does in this Gospel story, raising the little girl to life, is a prophecy of His own resurrection, and ours. He assumed our mortal flesh in order to confer on it the power of the Resurrection. This is the reason why, on the evening of the Resurrection each year, we read John’s account of the Incarnation. It is precisely in connection with the Resurrection that we say, “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”

Third, the mystery of the divine touching has been incorporated in the Sacraments, because in the Sacraments Christ still touches us physically. He takes bread into His hands, the same hands that raised up the daughter of Jairus, and He identifies this bread with His own flesh. And we receive that flesh physically into our own bodies. If the mere touch of His hand can raise up the daughter of Jairus from the dead, what is the effect of our receiving His whole and entire into the substance of our own flesh?

The Sacraments of the Church are the extensions of the Incarnation and the Lord’s Resurrection. He first touches our flesh in Baptism, where the water itself becomes the medium of divine power received in faith. He touches our flesh in the anointing with Holy Chrism, which becomes the instrument for the transmission of the Holy Spirit. His hand applies to our bodies the Sacrament of healing, as surely as He healed the woman with the issue of blood. The hands of the bishop are but extensions of the arms of Christ, when a priest or deacon is ordained. It is the hand of Christ that places the crowns on the head of the bride and groom in Holy Matrimony.

Sunday, September 30

1 John 1:1-10: This reading follows logically from yesterday’s reflections on the ways in which God and man touch one another in Christ.

In the opening of this epistle we observe several parallels with the beginning of John’s Gospel. For instance, the “beginning” in verse 1 matches the same word in John 1:1. The Word’s presence with the Father in verse 2 find its correspondence in John 1:1-2—“the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” The “Word of life” in verse 4 matches John 1:4—“in Him was life.”

This chapter breaks into two equal parts of five verses each, a division discernible by careful attention to the word “we,” which is found at least once in very verse of the chapter.

In general there are two ways of meaning “we.” First, it may mean “we” as distinct from “you.” Second, it may mean “we” in the sense of “you and I.” Both senses are found in the chapter.

When the word appears in each of the first five verses, it always means “we” as distinct from “you.” In fact, in each instance it refers to the authority of the apostolic witness. In the verses John’s “we” signifies the apostles who were eyewitnesses of everything that happened during “all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us” (Acts 1:21). John’s “we” in these verses is identical to Luke’s “us” in this text from Acts. Thus, John writes, “ . . . we have heard . . . we have seen . . . we have looked upon, and our hands have handled . . . we have seen, and bear witness . . . was manifested to us . . . that which we have seen and heard we declare to you . . . these things we write . . . we have heard from Him and declare to you.”

Thus, the “we” of verses 1-5 indicates the authority of the apostolic witness itself, the genuine transmission off the divine revelation that took place in Jesus Christ. The identical use of this “we” is found also near the beginning of John’s Gospel: “ . . . we beheld His glory . . .” (1:14).

According to John, this authoritative witness involves the various senses by which the Apostles discerned God’s manifestation in the flesh—hearing, seeing, even touching: “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled” (verse 1).

God’s eternal Logos, here called “the Word of Life,” existing before all time, assumed human flesh and became accessible to the apostolic witnesses who by means of preaching and wring she what they know of God as revealed in Jesus Christ: “we declare to you . . . these things we write to you.” This revelation is not a series of doctrinal propositions but a living Person in whom the eternal Father ahs been made known to the full experience of the Apostles, including their very senses.

In the second half of this chapter, the word “we” no longer refers to the apostolic witness. It means, rather, “we” in the sense of “you and I,” even “you and I” hypothetically considered. Indeed, the whole argument in verses 6-10 consists of a series of “we” hypotheses, in which the “we” means “you and I.” That is to say, an “if” clause appears in each of these five verses and always with a “we”:

(1) “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.

(2) But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.

(3) If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

(4) If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

(5) If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.”

This second half of 1 John 1, a section particularly concerned with the forgiveness of sins, places that forgiveness in a social context indicated by the word “we.” The forgiveness of sins, according to John, is not placed in a one-on-one setting between the believer and God. On the contrary, it necessarily involves a “we” in the sense of “you and I.” The forgiveness of sins is situated in the framework of the Church, that society formed by the authority of the apostolic witness: “we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.”

This ecclesial society, this koinonia (verses 3 [twice],6,7), does not begin with our relationship with God. On the contrary, it begins with our entering into communion with the Apostles, the authoritative witnesses of the Church: “ . . . that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have koinonia with us.” Communion with the Church is first. This is how we have communion with God and His Son: “ . . . and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ” (verse 3). This full communion with God, a reality inseparable from communion with the Church, is the framework of the forgiveness of sins. It is in communion with the Church that we are cleansed from our sins by the blood of Jesus. There is no such thing as the remission of sins apart from this communion with one another in the Church.

Nor is there remission of sins apart from the confession of sins in that same social context. In fact, the remission of sins rests on the hypothesis of the confession of sins: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (verse 9). This confession of sins within the Church is discernible in other parts of the New Testament and in early Christian literature generally (cf. James 6:16; John 20:23; Matthew 16:19; 18:18; Didache 4.14; 14.1).

Monday, October 1

1 John 2:1-11: In the previous chapter John had asserted, “the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1:7). In the present chapter John pursues this theme by declaring that Jesus “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (verse 2).

The word translated here as “propitiation” is hilasmos, which John will use later in 4:10—“He loved us and sent His Son to be the hilasmos for our sins.” This word comes from the Old Testament theology of expiatory sacrifice, and John uses it here to mean that the shedding of Christ’s blood was the true sacrifice for sins, in that it effected the expiation or removal of sins.

With respect to this verse, it is important to observe that Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross expiated not only the sins of believers but also “the sins of the whole world”—holou tou kosmou. That is to say, Christ’s atonement was unlimited “"Behold!” exclaimed John the Baptist, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

How can we be truly certain that we really know God? John answers this question by telling us, not to analyze the state of our consciousness, but to observe the empirical data of our conduct. The question is simplified to “Am I obeying Christ’s commandments?” (verse 3). Our Blessed Assurance, that is to say, is related to the concrete moral evidence visible in how we live. This practical approach to the matter, typically Johannine (cf. John 13:35; 14:21-24) had a long antecedence in the Old Testament prophets (cf. Hosea 4:1-3; 6:4-7; Jeremiah 2:8). To take some other approach to the matter not only threatens us with self-delusion; it may simply render us liars (verse 4).

As in all things, John’s approach here is entirely practical. He regards a person’s conduct—how he walks—as the reliable barometer of that person’s spiritual state (verses 6,29). Like James (or, for that matter, Paul—“and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing”—1 Corinthians 13:2), John resists the thesis of justification by faith alone, or faith apart from works. Being “in Christ” means walking as Christ walked.

There is nothing “new” about this teaching, says John; his listeners have heard it over and over since the day of their conversion and new life in Christ (verse 7). Nonetheless, this same teaching is “new” in the sense that means newness of life, as the coming light begins already to shine into our human and demonic darkness (verse 8). The sight of believers loving one another, in obedience to the command of Christ, is truly God’s light shining into the world.

Not to love one another, on the other hand, is to remain in darkness, which is John’s metaphor for hatred (verses 9-11; cf. John 8:12; 11:10). It is not sufficient to make spiritual claims unsupported by one’s observable conduct. Indeed, to do this constitutes a true “scandal” (verse 10). This darkness, says John, is really blindness (verse 11).

Tuesday, October 2

1 John 2:12-17: This section especially teaches Christian caution with respect to the “world.” As in his Gospel (15:18-27; 17:19-26), John is markedly negative about the world, seeing nothing in it except “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (verse 16).

This combination indicates that “world” in this and similar texts is understood, not as God created it, which the Bible insists was “good” (Genesis 1:31), but the world in fallen and rebellious state, Creation “subjected to futility” and in “the bondage of corruption” (Romans 8:20-21).

The world here described by John is the world alienated from God by the fall of our first parents. Indeed, in the Bible’s description of Eve’s original act of disobedience we may discern the three elements that John says are “all that is in the world,” namely, “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” Narrating Eve’s fall, Holy Scripture says, “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food [the lust of the flesh], that it was pleasant to the eyes [the lust of the eyes], and a tree desirable to make one wise [the pride of life], she took of its fruit and ate” (Genesis 3:6).

This negative use of “world” indicates the rebellion of humanity satisfied with the purely physical aspects of existence, as we normally indicate by the adjective “worldly.” This is obvious in John’s reference to the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes. It is also true, however, of “the pride of life.” John’s word for “pride” here is alazoneia, found also in James 4:16, which denotes arrogance and proud self-sufficiency. (The participle of a cognate verb, alalazo, is used by St. Paul to speak of a “clanging cymbal [1 Corinthians 13:1].)

John qualifies this arrogance as “of life,” not using the word zoe, which in John always refers to eternal life, but bios (a root of “biology”), meaning purely physical life. By “pride of life” John thus describes the person who relies entirely on his physical strength, his sense of animal energy, and his material resources, presuming himself to be self-sufficient, satisfied with a robust earthly existence, not needing God. There is no compatibility between God and the world understood in this sense: “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (verse 15).

John, to show that his appeal to unworldliness extends to all believers, breaks the structure of his exhortation into two parts, each of them listing Christians according to age groups: the old, the young, and the very young.

He begins with the “little children, reminding them of the forgiveness of their sins (verse 12). Since we associate sins rather with older people than with children, we are justified in suspecting that the “little children,” in addition to being understood literally, may be a reference to all believers. Indeed, John routinely uses this identical expression, “little children” or teknia, in this sense (cf. 2:1,18; 3:7,18; 4:4; 5:21). (Moreover, this word appears in only one other place in the more reliable manuscripts of the New Testament; namely, on the lips of Jesus in John 13:33.)

All believers in Christ overcome the Evil One and the world through the knowledge of the true God (verse 13; 3:8,10; 5:18-19; John 16:11).

Having thrice addressed his readers and listeners in the present tense, “I write” (grapho), John shifts to the aorist tense, “I have written” (egrapsa), certainly to be understood as an “epistolary past,” meaning “my present act of writing will be in the past tense when you read this.” This epistolary style, common even today, is exemplified elsewhere in the New Testament (Acts 23:30; Philippians 2:28; Colossians 4:8, and so on).

The Christian’s attitude toward the world is determined by victory—“you have overcome” (verses 13,14). The used twice here for “overcome” is neniketate (perfect tense, meaning past action enduring through the present), which presents a sonorous parallel with the word for “young men,” neaniskoi.

Wednesday, October 3

1 John 2:18-23: John must now deal with the problem of heresy—false teaching—by which the faith of his readers is endangered. We observe that the false teaching mentioned here concerns the correct answer to the key questions asked by Jesus Himself: “What do you think of the Christ? Whose Son is He?” And, “but who do you say that I am?” The readers of this epistle were suffering trouble from certain former members who insisted on answering these questions incorrectly.

It is clear that John takes Christological heresy very seriously. In fact, he sees its emergence as a sign of the last times and the judgment of the world. For John, this is how “we know that it is the last hour” (verse 18). This consideration of “the last hour” is what links the current section of the epistle to the verses immediately preceding. Those verses ended, we recall, with an assertion that ”the world is passing away” (2:17).

One sure sign that the world is passing away, says John, is the appearance of these heretics, whom he does not flinch from calling “the Antichchrist,” even “many antichrists.”

This expression, Antichrist, which in the New Testament is not found outside John’s First and Second Epistles, has been likened to the “pseudochrists” or “false christs” of Matthew 24:23-24 and Mark 13:21-22. However, the varying descriptions of these two terms should caution us against simply identifying them. In Matthew and Mark the pseudochrists are individuals who endeavor to replace Christ, whereas the antichrists in John are those who reject and oppose Him. Thus, we observe here in First John that the mark of the antichrists is their denial that “Jesus is the Christ. He is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son” (verse 22). Unlike many of our own contemporaries, John does not associate the antichrist with a usurping power that attacks the Christian faith from without, but with a doctrinal aberration that deceives it from within (verse 26).

To deny Christ, to disbelieve His filiation to God, is to separate oneself from all relationship to the Father, whom we have no means of knowing except in His Son (verses 22-23; John 1:18; 5:23; 10:30; 14:6-9; 15:23).

Thursday, October 4

Thus, in truth John’s antichrists have already departed from the body of the Church. Like Judas Iscariot, who “went out immediately, and it was night” (John 13:30), these new betrayers of Christ “went out from us . . .” (verse 19). Their apostasy thus demonstrates that they were never really possessed of the Spirit of God.

To make the proper Christological assertions from the heart, it is imperative to be possessed of the Holy Spirit, whom John here calls “the Anointing,” Chrisma (verses 20,27). That is to say, the correct identification of Jesus as the Christ and God’s Son is not reducible to a doctrinal proposition that remains external to the person who affirms it. Correct Christological faith (“orthodoxy”) springs from an inner abiding witness give by the abiding Holy Spirit, who anoints and teaches the consciences of believers. It is only in the Holy Spirit that we know the Father and the Son. Flesh and blood cannot reveal this to us. It is only in the Holy Spirit that we proclaim that Jesus is Lord (1 Corinthians 12:3) and God is His (and our) Father (Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15).

Because the Holy Spirit already teaches them from within, John is not simply addressing his readers from without. He writes to them, rather, in the light and context of what they already know by reason of the Anointing that they have received (verse 21). The Holy Spirit leads them into all truth (John 14:26; 16:13-15).

This inner witness and leading of the Spirit, nonetheless, must not be separated from the authority of the apostolic word, which serves to safeguard what “you have heard from the beginning” (verse 24; cf. 2:7). The Holy Spirit does not change His message over the course of time. He does not instruct the Church one way in one century but give them a new doctrine in another. The Holy Spirit’s witness and leading is recognizable when it conforms to what “you have heard from the beginning.”

Friday, October 5

1 John 3:1-9: John takes up again the teaching of chapter two, elaborating it from a different perspective. For instance, John had earlier declared, “I write to you, so that you may not sin” (2:1), and now he explains, “Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God” (verse 9).

John knows that he is writing to children of God, and he knows, as well, that this is the reason why the world treats them with enmity (verse 1). The world, as we have seen (2:15-16), has nothing in common with the Father of these children so it is to be expected will hate the children also (John 14:22-24; 17:25).

Although believers are already the children of God, the full meaning of their filiation has not yet been revealed (verse 2). Even with respect to their present ontological state there is more to be revealed (cf. Romans 8:19), and this revelation will come when “we shall see Him as He is.” Because the believer is sustained by this hope, he strives continually to be holy and pure (verse 3).

Striving thus for holiness and purity, the believer flees from sin, which is rebellion, anomia (verse4). Since God’s Son came to take away sin (verse 5; John 1:29), the man who continues to commit sin (ho poion, present participle for sustained action) can have no communion with God (verses 4,8). Continuance in sin (ho hamartanon, again the present participle) means that the sinner does not really know God.

John does not mean, of course, that the Christian never sins. Indeed, if “we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1:8). Rather, John indicates the incompatibility between being a child of God and willfully continuing to sin. These two things are as incompatible as God and the world. Consequently, the man that willfully continues in sin is lying to himself about knowing God (cf. 2:4), and those that say otherwise are deceivers (verse 7). The deception of such a man is that of the Devil (verse 8), who holds the world in bondage. The man who has been reborn in God is not capable of continuing in sin; willful rebellion is incompatible with being a child of God.

The Christian life, in short, is not just a state of mind. It involves also righteousness of conduct (cf. 2:5,6,29), and to some degree that conduct (including thought) is open to observation. If we want to know if we are in God, says John, the best indicator is our moral conduct. Mere profession of the faith is an inadequate indicator or our rebirth (verse 9).