For All the Saints, Martyrs, and Liars

If you are preaching or listening to a sermon this Sunday from the All Saints Day lectionary, you may encounter 1 John 3:1-7. It’s a strange paragraph, pulling us back and forth between the assurance that we are children of God to the warning not to be deceived about lawlessness. My article today addresses the context of 1 John as a whole rather than a verse-by-verse analysis, but I thought you all might find it helpful.

My thinking about the whole New Testament has been greatly influenced by Amy Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew and, of course, Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s Generation to Generation. Though neither of them address this particular passage, they address the larger issues. Levine reminds us of the Jewish origin of the New Testament and Friedman writes of emotional reactivity and family cut-off as if he were addressing the situation of first century members of the Christian community as their relationship to the synagogue disintegrated.

When we remember that the dividing line between Christian and Jew did not exist in the first century the way it does now as a religious and ethnic designation, it influences the way we read all of the New Testament. In the first century, Christians were a subset of Jews. Even those Gentiles who joined the first century church saw themselves as becoming Jews. The whole circumcision controversy would not have arisen if the church did not think of itself as a Jewish institution. It wasn’t until the second century (decades after the writing of 1 John) that Christians embraced an identity separate from Judaism.

The community of John (I’m convinced that the Johannine pastoral letters and the Gospel grew out of the same community) thought of themselves as Jews who believed Jesus was the Jewish messiah. The expression John uses in the gospels that is translated “the Jews” refers to some group of Jewish leaders, not the whole ethnic group or all the members of the synagogue. It’s probably more complicated than that, but the main thing to remember is that Jesus and all his disciples and almost everyone mentioned in the Gospel according to John were Jews except for the Samaritan woman at the well and her friends in chapter 4. So, whoever it is John refers to when he uses that Greek expression “hoi judaioi,” (translated “the Jews” in the NRSV) it’s clear that he uses it in a very different context than our own. We use it to distinguish between Jew and Gentile. He uses it to distinguish between one group of Jewish people and another.

The next thing to remember is how emotionally devastating it was for them to be cut off by their synagogue and many family members. (Emotional cut-off is the essence of the word translated “hate.”) It was so devastating that many members of the Christian community left to return to their families and the synagogue, renouncing their claim that Jesus was raised from the dead because they were unable to withstand the emotional pressure of the cut-off. (Here’s a bit of polemic John uses against them in 1 John 2:18, “many antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us.”)

The claim that Jesus is the Messiah, and that his resurrection is the evidence, is the central claim of the Christian community and the claim that the leaders of the synagogue would not allow people to teach in the synagogue. It was, they said, a lie, and those who proclaimed it were liars. John joins in the name-calling. He turns this claim around with his polemic against “liars” who say they have not sinned and “liars” who say they love God but hate (cut off) a member of their own family or community. While we ordinarily read his proclamation that “God is love” (4:8) as a gentle description of our Creator, it is, in context, part of a screed against those whom John feels have betrayed him and his community by cutting them off or leaving to return to the synagogue.

Another issue the letter addresses is the accusation from some synagogue leaders that Christians were libertines. The fine line John walks between those who say they have not sinned, whom he calls “liars,” and those who abide in Jesus and therefore do not sin (3:6) makes sense only as part of that larger controversy between Christian Jews and synagogue leaders over the definition of sin. To the synagogue leaders, sin was breaking the commandments, but to John it was breaking this one commandment with two parts, “that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another just as he has commanded us.” (3:23)

The letter of 1 John, then, sends encouragement to a community of disciples of Jesus who had been cut off from (hated by) their families and their synagogue. John tells them that they are the truly faithful ones, that those who hate them (cut them off) are the liars and the sinners, and that the only way to stem the hemorrhaging of members is by loving one another as brothers and sisters.

Here’s my own reflection on this. The Johannine correspondence records for us John’s struggle to make theological sense out of the rejection of Jesus and his resurrection by the leaders of the synagogue and the tearing apart of family and community relationships. His polemical tone, using labels such as “liars” and “antichrists” indicates that the emotional reactivity had reached such intensity that those Jews on opposite sides of the resurrection claim could no longer hear each other. This emotionally charged letter records a sad failure of the church and synagogue to maintain their relationship in the face of disagreement. Certainly, the synagogue had withstood disagreements before, but this one led to the tearing apart of families and communities, and that’s hard to make sense of in the context of a loving God who calls us to love one another. Often, John presents his explanation in terms that fan the flames of division: God loves us because we love Jesus, but those who don’t love Jesus are liars who only say they love God, but they really hate God because they hate us, their brothers and sisters. While John’s rhetoric soars in places, he is at his worst when he claims the victim badge for himself and his community.

The question for us I think is this: To what extent has this emotional process of cut-off, victim-thinking, and name-calling of our adversaries repeated itself within the church? To what extent was it replicated in the Reformation? What would happen if we refused to engage in the cut-off, victim-thinking, and name-calling? What if we could embrace John’s soaring rhetoric on love without using it as a weapon against our adversaries? What if we never tired of reaching across theological, denominational, and ethnic boundaries in love? What would it look like to reach across to our Jewish brothers and sisters? Our Muslim brothers and sisters? Our Roman Catholic and Orthodox and Protestant fellow Christians? What if we simply rejected the divisions that evolved from the emotional process of the first century Christians’ failure to negotiate a peaceful coexistence with, or amicable divorce from, the synagogue?

On a more positive note, the Johannine community clearly survived because they took up John’s challenge to love one another as brothers and sisters. They provided one another with the love and strength it takes to withstand the rejection of their own families. What would it look like for us to provide one another with such love to withstand every rejection of the world outside (or other churches) while still reaching beyond our boundaries to those outside our own community?

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More Wine, That’s the Ticket

John 2:1-11

9When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 

More Wine, That’s the Ticket

Weddings are accidents waiting to happen.

Ask any minister.  We have all had a moment, after several meetings with a couple for pre-marriage counseling in which both the bride and the groom presented themselves as normal, sane, and deeply thoughtful people, when, suddenly, we begin to doubt our  initial judgment.  It is the moment when Continue reading

What Motivation Wants

Neill Morgan, at

When the road looks seductive, running is easy. When it’s not easy, how can we motivate ourselves?

Motivation is a lover who needs and deserves your attention if you expect her to stay faithful to you.

Here’s what Motivation wants:

  1. Atmosphere. Keep the environment conducive to her mood by laying out your clothes and shoes the night before. Make sure the shoes, shorts, and singlet look and feel good, that they’re not old, stinky, or worn out. You want to get out of bed each morning and tell your Motivation, “Let me slip into something more comfortable.”


  1. Frequent Feedback. Tell your Motivation how much she means to you
    There’s nothing like a healthy resting heart rate and blood pressure to keep you motivated.

    with frequent feedback. Weigh often. Measure your waistline. Take your blood pressure and measure your resting heart rate each morning. Test your fitness with a weekend race or a time trial on the track and plot your results on a chart. With frequent feedback, you tell your Motivation, “You make me a better man.”

Continue reading

Five Things Many Mainline Christians Believe about the Bible that their Pastors Don’t

Throughout 30 years of ministry, I have seen little change in the gap between the beliefs of seminary-educated clergy and our parishioners. While a very small minority of people make it through a Masters degree program at an accredited mainline seminary still clinging to the fundamentalist approach of numbers 1-4 below, and fewer than half number 5, I continue to hear many parishioners in mainline churches assume that all 5 are orthodoxy.

  1. Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible.

    Leningrad Codex, thought to be the oldest existing Hebrew text of the Bible.
  2. Paul wrote all the books with his name on them.
  3. Revelation was written to predict the future.
  4. The Gospels quote Jesus accurately.
  5. The Bible condemns homosexuality.
  1. Clergy who paid attention during their Old Testament class know that the expression the “Book of Moses” refers to 5 books written about Moses, not by Moses. They arose over generations of oral composers who were edited during and shortly after the Babylonian exile, many centuries after Moses died.

Continue reading

Knock Knock Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door

Matthew 25:1-13

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. . . . the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

One of my high school teachers had a few verses of scripture memorized that he liked to pull out of its holster and whack us with when the occasion presented itself. When he coached track and cut people from the team, he sent away those who didn’t make it with, “Many are called, but few are chosen!”

And, if someone was late to class, he slammed the door as soon as the bell rang with the proclamation of the Gospel, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you!”

I’m all for dramatic presentations of biblical passages, but I thought it the wiser course of action not to instruct the ushers today to slam the doors at 10:50 and send away the latecomers.

Instead, I thought it better to look at this parable in its context.

First, we can look at this passage in the context of the community that produced the Gospel According to Matthew. The were a predominantly Jewish community, both by ethnicity and in practice, who believed in Jesus as the Messiah described Continue reading

Sabotaging Stewardship

This time of year, church leaders sharpen their pencils and write budgets, and preachers turn to the most inspirational sermon material we can find to motivate people to pledge and give enough to support those budgets. We do our best to talk about stewardship more inclusively than making a budget, and some of my friends do that very well. We preacher-types have become very skilled at laying out the benefits and joys of stepping up to a higher level of stewardship of our gifts, whether that means giving away more money or time, becoming a better friend, spouse, or parent, or taking better care of this earthly tent in which we live. What we almost always fail to tell anyone about is the dark side of stepping up:

If you become a better steward of your gifts, you will be sabotaged.

If you step up your leadership of an organization to the next level, and maintain a new sense of vision and clarity for more than a week, you will be sabotaged.

If you raise your fitness regimen, or your practice of spiritual discipline and ethics to a higher plane, you will be sabotaged.

Sabotage may come from others, especially Continue reading

Watcha Gonna Wear?

Exodus 32:1-14

Aaron . . took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

Philippians 4:1-9

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Matthew 22:1-14

‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.

Watcha Gonna Wear?

The story of the golden calf and Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet stand together in today’s readings as a gift to that part of ourselves that feels wise, intelligent, and more worthy when we focus on those who really mess things up.

I like to think that if I had been in Aaron’s place, I would have counseled patience to the people who waited for Moses to return from the mountaintop. Maybe pull out the guitar, sing “Here I Am, Lord,” while we wait. Not that silly Aaron. No, he starts fundraising to diminish his anxiety. “Give me the gold rings from the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters,” Which, of course, were plundered Continue reading

Matthew 22:15-22

The Worship of Happiness

[Jesus] said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

The Pharisees and Herodians make an unlikely coalition. The Pharisees defend the Torah, the law of God, with a radical fervor that makes it uncomfortable for them to live under the rule of the Roman government. A dictatorship is bad enough, but when a dictator mints coins with his image imprinted on it and the inscription, “The Divine Emperor,” every good Pharisee squirms a bit having to use such a coin – You shall have no other gods before me and you shall not make any graven images are, after all, number one and number two of the big ten of the Torah. Just handling a coin like that presents the faithful Pharisee with a big problem, much less using it to pay taxes to support that dictator who claims to be a god. Continue reading