The five Johannine epistles in the New Testament (the Gospel, these three letters, and the book of Revelation) are considered the last ones written, leaving John’s contribution last. They were written in the late part of the first century. They are particularly nuanced by his expressions of brotherly love. He was the beloved disciple of Jesus, the youngest one of them, who had an eyewitness account of the Savior. He outlived all the original disciples and lived through the destruction of the temple in AD 70. The spiritual perspective John had gained in his life is evident, particularly in light of how he wrote his version of inspired Gospel.
The letters include aspects of the attitude of hospitality which is part and parcel towards the outreach of others. John’s Epistles reinforce the three cardinal values of truth, righteousness, and love. One way I read see this is through the three kinds of Christian outreach that carry on for today: House church (3John), urban fellowship (2John) and the regional web of churches (1John).
It is a real sign of intimacy when someone’s handwriting or the hearing of their voice without any self-identification is recognizable. This would be John to his Christian community. The changing winds of the world in politics were affecting believers, the same foreshadowing of the type of winds of the world that created the waves distracted Peter when he tried to walk on water. Those winds still blow today. John pulls the reader back to firmer foundations of sound faith, obedience, and love. He wrote positive affirming statements on Christian beliefs instead of specifically targeting the heresy that was rapid. He did not dignify the heresy falsehoods by commenting on them. In 1John 3:2, he says “…Now we are children of God, and what we will have not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” He explains whoever is in the light but hates it is in darkness. And they walk in this darkness not knowing where he is going because the darkness has blinded them to the light.
A key verse in the first of John’s letters is the one in you is greater than the one in the world (4:4). We have all stood on the edge of that cavern of darkness, peeked in, and felt its negative foreboding nature. It would be so easy to jump down into a dark pit to hate this or that person. To be honest, I could not or cannot because I am more afraid that the hate would consume me, it would metastasize like cancer throughout me. I will even err on the side of loving someone longer than good for my wellbeing. I do not think I can have fellowship with God if I harbor hate. The closest I come to experiencing hatred toward someone may be apathy, but still during that time I never really hoped the worst to happen to someone. Apathy, not hate, is the opposite of love. Hate has one thing going for it: it is an emotion and full of passion.
There is John’s emphatic question about whoever has the world’s goods (material and spiritual blessings) and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how can the love of God abide in him? This is hospitality at its most sincere. Treating people with consideration, respect, and acknowledgment, even when not reciprocated, is the better way versus rejecting people, writing them out of the book of life, or shunning them. I think it was Henri Nouwen who said hospitality is not to change people but to offer them space where change can take place.
The second letter from John is short and could probably fit on a single page with its three hundred words. John refers to himself as “the elder” due to his advancing age, his spiritual authority over the congregations, and his being who personally witnessed the early days of Christianity walking with Jesus. This letter is probably written under the same roof, at the same time as the previous one.
The audience, though, was not the then established churches but were instead the home churches or what we might refer to today as the startup churches. They were infiltrated by the same false prophets who used their entrance as a way of taking advantage of the open hospitality of their hosts. These teachers had an agenda: to convert the new Christians to their cause and not to Jesus.
The letter is directed to a woman and her children, possibly an audience cipher for the church and her congregation. The prosecuting era dictated the letters be written more discreetly or in a code for safety. This letter is about the wisdom of discretion when it comes to hospitality. That discretion includes the fundamental teaching of Christianity, the type of behavior and the boundaries of such behavior. John also points to the second coming of Jesus in 2John 1:7. Verse 8 and 9 are key to this book.
It takes discernment to know when to be all things to all people as Paul espouses. Take using Christianese for example in our dialogue. If not careful, anyone with familiarity or expertise in a chosen field can communicate in its given vocabulary (or acronyms) making it off-putting and sound as if holier (or smarter) than thou. Jargon risks alienating people. There is a fine line between incorporating Christianese in everyday conversation or to speak in a way that is not inclusive enough for understanding. Conversely, we are vulnerable in dummying down our rhetoric by not using the proper words and titles for things of a Christian nature or of the church.
One of the current Christian words taken to the extreme is blessed or blessing. Unfortunately, it is being used in such a way that it comes across as boasting or bragging yet under the auspices of being humble. It oozes the nuance of modesty. I use the word blessing often in this book to convey an idea, but I seldom use it verbally in conversations. The use of the word verbally comes from the fringes of prosperity gospel teaching.
Another way it is used is in response to “How is work?” or “How are you?” even when you do not feel blest. As if it’s an unspoken requirement for you to live up to some image even though times may be difficult. When Christianese (jargon) is used in conversation, it is at risk. Any calling or profession can use abstract language (the military does for example) which distracts the communication to outsiders with its use. This is also so, particularly with theological jargon. The conversation can get lost in translation.
One of my kids would answer in response to an expressed sympathy or concern over something is by replying emphatically, “It is all good.” It is his way of saying all things work together for His good (Rom. 8:28). When he says that, I know he is saying a prayer. It’s not passive aggressiveness as it can be misconstrued, but it means you may not like something but it will work out in the end.
My bigger than average family that I raised was fortunate to live in a larger, historic home for the majority of our lives (with all the cold drafts, poor plumbing and need of upgrades). One child asked me if we were rich after one of their peers said we based on the child’s assessment of the house size. I told them we were not, but that we were blest (Luke 12:47-48). I do not think he repeated that to his friend, but hopefully, he understood what I meant about being blessed to be a blessing.
In this scenario in 1John, the setting is a house meeting. In our homes, we should be able to choose who we welcome, trusting that they will respect the aesthetic, ambiance and atmosphere we create in our domestic sanctums.
Once when helping host a neighborhood Memorial Day celebration at a friend’s house, a disturbing incident happened by a neighbor who attended. The man, in all his chutzbah, kept shouting “Happy Dead Soldier Day! Happy Dead Soldier Day!” I, to say the least, took offense by his insensitive exclamation then being shocked into submission by his caustic outburst. I was dumbstruck to find a response. I am ashamed to this day of my lack of reply particularly considering the veterans in my family who died on active duty. This neighbor seemed happier about soldiers being dead than remembering our soldiers who died in service to our country.
That incident reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from the story The Wizard of Oz: “Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t they?” I retell myself that people who are hurting, hurt others. In retrospect and fairness, I think he was high from marijuana before he came to the party and as Al-Anon (a support system for families and friends of alcoholics in recovery) says, “You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it.”
In revisiting Hebrews 13:2, it is a verse I take to heart when inviting someone into my home. I regret not doing more hospitality earlier in my life (inviting people over spontaneously for meals, or helping a wayward teenage friend of one of my kids for a few nights). In our family home everyone’s voice counted, and if one dictated their dislike and uncomfortability, or felt an invasion of their privacy in the case of a sleepover, we did not extend the invitation. I must admit it started to get a little too inclusive when I wanted to bring together and socialize with people from different circles of our life at one gathering instead of a controlled situation of just the church crowd, or just the office colleagues. Now there is only one vote in my house (mine), and I welcome others, depending on the need, who do not necessarily fit in my circle.
It is good to try to treat family like friends and treat friends like family. It is disheartening when you can guess who is related and who is not by the way family publicly talk to each other without concern or care. It seems like are we nicer to strangers than relatives. Jane Austen, from her book Pride and Prejudice, could interject a phrase here: “Is not general incivility the very essence of love?”
In John’s last letter (the shortest one of the New Testament), his character and integrity continue to pour out to the people. He now comes across to me as a gentle, sensitive old soul; indicative of why he was the disciple whom Jesus loved. The letter’s key verse, vs. 4, writes there is no greater joy than to hear my children are walking in faith.
John’s topic is still on hospitality and explains what can happen when it is taken to another extreme. The venue now switches back to the church at large. A leader abused his role by dominating situations where selective visitors weren’t welcome if they didn’t adhere to the leadership’s opinion. There was no room for a different style, no safe place to agree to disagree. We go from an open invitation for all to come and discover the good news to only allowing a select few who already comply.
There are two contrasting characters in this letter, one who offers hospitality and the other who does not do it in a manner that honors God (3Jn. 1:6).
Although I have not ever been personally associated with a heavy-handed pastoral leader like in the third letter of John but does not mean they are not out there. The church, at large, works well when they have intervention policies to help leaders through this kind of behavior. Sometimes it is necessary for a leader to step down from their position. John does not state an opinion on the rejected hospitality to itinerant gospel preachers in this situation, leaving it open with an intention to a future meeting with the church to resolve. History shows John’s next assignment was not of his choice, but instead, he is banished into exile by the Romans to the island of Patmos.
A family member lived through such a trying time in her church when leadership was forced to change. She was edifying of, inspired by and loved the worship message given by this departing pastor. It became unfortunate when it became public knowledge that the pastor was engaging in compromising behavior that undermined his integrity, reputation, his family, and the ministry at large. In time, he was asked to leave the church he had founded. The congregation was at a crossroads on whether the ministry would continue or not without him. His ordeal was fodder ravished by the press. Predictably when a pastor leaves, usually, there is a fallout of parishioners who elect to leave as well. In talking it over with the family member, I wondered out loud if those leaving the church was because the pastor left or because the members were more driven by a dynamic human personality versus the Holy Spirit (1Cor. 1:10-18)? The good news is this church is still going strong, with new leadership and is as large, if not more so as dynamic as ever. They handled the situation better than most. The former pastor has since gone on to plant another church and is leading it.
Because of our independence, we are sorely tempted by our own sinful nature, letting it dictate our lives (Rom. 8: 15-20). The battle’s success in one area doesn’t mean failure in another. It just means to allow Christ, rather than our whims and small desires, to shape us which is an enormous challenge. Sin is so woven into the fabric of our souls, it’s a lifetime to sometimes identify it and then a lifetime of effort to root it out says Mark Galli in his book Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals. It’s in our very weaknesses that we have the need to steep ourselves ever more deeply into the scripture, fellowship, accountability, and prayer. Contradiction in our life that is overcome shows the glory of His ideas and how absolutely necessary they are. Many pastors preach to themselves in their sermons (or to the choir as I say) just as in this memoir I am also writing to myself.
This fodder of the previous incident inspired a book by another pastor, Michael Cheshire, entitled Why We Eat Our Own. The catalyst for the theme was in response to the self-righteousness and pious public responses from other church leaders or those who proclaimed to be Christian not to mention secular society. He points out the internal struggle of the issue of Christians behaving badly toward other Christians. We, who are supposed to be worshipping a God of love and forgiveness (Lk. 17:3-4). Cheshire explores the unsavory questions of why do believers do a better job of forgiving the fallen than those who fall in the Church? When did the Church become cannibalistic? Is the decline in Christianity due to the world, or have we just become so horrible to each other in our fellowship? And oh, by the way, the world notices how we treat our own. In fairness to the church body’s ruling, when church leadership assumes a role, they are familiar that they called to live at a higher level, yet in humility.
The answers to these questions are compelling and can ultimately point to whether we are conducting ourselves worthy as witnesses for God. It is sad to think that the unchurched are watching us, thinking about our message of love contrasted with the lack of forgiveness shown in the public comments of one another in the church (2Cor. 2:5-11). Privately, there are those who walk away from their faith because of a disagreement or insensitive criticism from another in the church. The unchurched watching, wonder about this disconnect in the message of the church and consequently question if they should participate in a fellowship if this is the outcome when a sin is committed. It is not the forgiveness that they read about in the Bible. I am not condoning the sin except to say for the grace of God we all are fallible. Believers and those in leadership are held to a higher standard but still can fall short.
Richard Niebuhr is a Christian ethicist whose concern was the way in which humans relate to God, each other, community, and the world. His message is the idea of Christ transforming culture. Today, if the church is to be “marketed” to spiritual seekers under the age of forty, this will be the strongest selling point. If people fill pews, it will not be because we are offering what they can get anywhere else. Church competes for the heart and minds of people. I do not agree with the thought of marketing a church. That’s at the risk of leaving God out of the formula. In the best scenario, outsiders are attracted to church by a reputation preceding the example.
There is a tradition in recovery communities such as Alcoholics Anonymous (is not church a community for recovery from ourselves?) through which their program grows: by “attraction, not promotion.”