Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings : St John most likely wrote from Ephesus on the eastern coast of modern Turkey. Ephesus was one of the great imperial capitals of the east, with its own port and a vast complex of pagan temples, theatres and an amphitheatre. Its population was extremely mixed, made up of many different groups of Greek speaking workers; Romans from all over the Empire, including veterans retired from the legions and others. There would have been traders there; government officials; army detachments; as well as a large collection of slaves some from different parts of Turkey and the Middle East. As well as having to speak Greek to trade and converse, and Latin for the forces, many would have spoken their native languages too. We know from the writings of Paul, and other Christians like John and the author of the Petrine Letters, that this willingness to live cheek by jowl with others of different races was what made and sustained the Empire and indeed, gravestones and other monuments testify that the capacity for ‘brotherly’ love among strangers was what kept things running smoothly. This is not to say that the Roman Empire knew no divisions of class, status and race, far from it; it was an intensely stratified society, yet its many clubs and organizations of fellow workers, (undertakers, cow-herders, builders and sailors etc) deliberately chose to act together with others, often foreigners, for their mutual help and support, and Christians did the same. Some suspicion of the ‘other’ was taken for granted, but there was no room for violent xenophobia in these societies.
St John goes to great lengths to spell this out. He does not call them, as does the Jerusalem Bible ‘My dear people’, but much more powerfully, in Greek simply Beloved. (1 John 4:7-10). John goes on to spell out precisely how, since “Love comes from God”, God’s love is the very foundation of all that the believer is and does. The focus throughout this passage is on God who creates and makes us and enables us to share in the divine life granted us by the loving self sacrifice of Jesus the Son. Failure to live in the love of God means that we have no part at all in the life of God which he has given us; it is a deliberate and fatal rejection of the divine, both of his plan for creation and for his action in Christ. In this we begin to understand that our action together in community; our behaviour towards all others in our society, what Catholics call the Common Good, can never be at the periphery of our faith, but must be at its heart and very core.
John’s letters make quite clear that this is no mere bright idea on the part of John himself, but that it stems from Jesus’ teaching. (Jn 15:9-17). This passage follows directly on from last week’s gospel of the vine and the vinedresser which served to emphasise our unity with God. Here that theme is explored in even greater depth by Jesus as he considers what love is. Jesus stresses the love between Father and Son focussed on his own keeping of the Father’s commandments, with the insistence that we too keep them and that if we do,Jesus’ joy will be in us and our own joy will be complete. It is an astonishing promise and illustration of the meaning of love, and he goes on to reiterate “This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you.” In case we fail to see the import of this he speaks of dying for one’s friends. Clearly for Jesus and for John this is not about one of a series of options which we might choose, since he reiterates “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Our choices are simply not relevant here, we must obey.
Ancient society differentiated between those subservient to one, and true friends, intellectual, social and moral equals; and Jesus remarks that when we truly love as he has loved us we shall no longer be as slaves to masters, totally dominated by them and a prey to their every whim, but truly equals, those with whom every important thing is shared. “I call you friends because I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father.” The Christian, the follower of Christ, is under orders, chosen and commissioned, (as were soldiers) to ‘bear fruit’. There can be few plainer expositions of the Christian understanding of community than this, and the believer who claims this status and yet does not worship and work for the good of others is a sham, an imposter, and not part of the community of the saved.
Over the last weeks and months we have had to ask ourselves the question of what belonging to the human race and our society truly means, as we watch all those migrants landing desperate on the first bit of Europe they can find, mostly the Italian coast. Italians have, I must say, demonstrated that their Catholic heritage has helped them to see that they must give shelter to these desperate refugees. Britain’s response has so far proved lamentable. It was equally a message which St Peter learned at some personal cost, and was eventually resolved by God’s sending him a dream of a sheet filled with a huge variety of animals and the command to eat. The upshot of the story is our reading from Acts, (Acts 10:25-26.34-35.44-48) in which the Roman Centurion Cornelius, and a man of power in Caesarea, sends for Peter to come from Joppa. Peter obeys; he could not do less, but is then compelled by the Holy Spirit to argue the equality of pagan converts to those of the circumcision-Jews, who clearly thought his actions reprehensible. Peter then baptised those of pagan background and the important phrase follows “Afterwards they begged him to stay on for some days.” This indicates that Peter not only entered a pagan home and baptised the family of Cornelius, which would have included his slaves and others, but that he ate with them and accepted their hospitality for some time. For strict Torah Jews such behaviour would have been anathema. For Peter, once he understood the essence of divine grace, it was essential and he needs must break the habits of a lifetime. Would that we could do so too.