Here’s an interesting fact. Actually it’s not very interesting at all, but allows me to use it as an illustration: the fact that James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the double helix structure of DNA in the same year this church was rebuilt – 1953.
On the face of it, 1 John shouldn’t be too difficult to cope with. Grammatically it’s very simple, with a limited vocabulary. So that it’s the first text students of NT Greek learn to translate. You find the same words and phrases repeating over and over again. Which makes you wonder where it’s all going. And whether, in fact, the whole isn’t rather less than the sum of its parts.
But that’s where Watson and Crick come in. If you analyse the structure of I John, as they did with DNA, you begin to see how it works. DNA has two strands wound together. In 1 John there are three strands, or themes wound together. And as the nucleic acids bind the strands of DNA together, so it’s the repeating words and phrases that constitute and link up the three themes as they wrap around each other.
We had the central section of the letter as our reading tonight, by which we can illustrate the point. We need to read it from the central verse outwards. It reads, “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.”
So here are two of the three strands, believing in Jesus and loving one another, sandwiched within the verse by a reference to God’s commandment. (Referring to the little chart) you’ll see that this central verse, with its two chief ideas, is linked to those which go before it and come after it by the word ‘commandment’. These two sections each include the phrase “by this we know” and are concerned with the third main idea or strand in 1 John – which has to do with the believers’ experience of God. Preceding the first of these (and linked to it by the word ‘truth’) is a short section about the love we should have for one another. And succeeding the second one (and linked to it by a reference to the ‘Spirit’) is a short section relating to the other central theme, about confessing right belief in Jesus.
Some eyes are glazing over. But what I’m trying to show is that 1 John is not just a haphazard tumbling out of pious phrases, but an extremely sophisticated and skilfully composed text, majoring on the three themes – right belief in God, right relationship with God, and right behaviour towards each other, which wind together, like a huge triple helix, through the 5 chapters of the letter.
So what? What has this to do with us? Simply this: that the writer of 1 John was seeking to set down what he conceived to be the authentic expression of the Christian faith, over and against a group who had split from the community and reverted in the author’s mind to the ungodly world. And that can help us to think about what we might expect of ourselves if we rightly claim to be the Christian people of God, as distinct from those who don’t believe, who belong to the world or another form of religion.
That we might ask first, what we believe? The Creed might be a good starting point. But can we go beyond a formula that is given to us, and set out our own convictions in a clear and concise way? It’s a good exercise to attempt to do this: to set down half a dozen or so pithy statements, “I believe...” And having done that, to see whether, in fact, our beliefs are properly founded on, and focused on, the person of Jesus, in a way that makes them distinctly Christian. This is certainly 1 John’s position. That right belief entails confessing that Jesus is the Son who has been sent by God to make God known, and to bring cleansing from sin, so that those who believe might enjoy fellowship with God and share in the divine life, as the children of God.
And that brings us to the second strand: what is the experience that stems from our faith? Or, in fact, breeds our faith? Because there must be something that in the beginning convinced you that the Christian faith (or an aspect of it) was true. And there must be some cash-in value to your beliefs: that is to say, that you feel something, or are affected in some way by your faith in God. Both of these aspects are present in 1 John. First there is the sense of conviction. We know. We know God. We know God’s love. Which gives us an air confidence and assurance. And the second aspect is about relationship: which 1 John describes principally as an abiding – which I take to be an awareness that God is in us and all around us, that we live in him and he in us.
It is only out of our experience of God that we can speak with any conviction to other people. But, of course, especially today, people want to see us put our words into deeds, our faith into action. So what difference does being a Christian make to the way you behave, and the choices you make? Where does your faith show itself? In 1 John there are again two aspects to this. The first is an evident holiness, so that those who say they have been cleansed of their sins are actually living a pure and virtuous life, following the commandments of God. And the second is a dedicated and evident commitment to love their fellow Christians. By this all will know you are my disciples, Jesus had said. More broadly, it is by our fruits that we will be known.
The gospels aren’t necessarily easy to understand, but at least they are in the form of narratives and stories that make them a little easier to follow. But with the dense and sometimes rather indigestible epistles I do recommend the services of a pencil, to underline the repeating words, the key phrases, and to track something of the structure of the argument. I also think a pencil is extremely useful in helping us set down, consider and sharpen up our personal belief and practice in the Christian faith.
Believing, belonging and behaving. These are the three strands that make up that faith. They form our Christian DNA, if you like.
The thing about DNA is that it is the basis of life. It is that which we pass on to the next generation. It is present in every cell of our body. I wonder whether our Christian faith is like that?
Is it the well-spring of our life? Is it something that is worth passing on to others? And that we can pass it on because it is written into our very DNA, as it were.