Summary: As we image Christ more and more, so does the nature of God abide in us. Let’s strive daily to attain that blessedness, and pray for all Christians to aspire to that state.
Thursday in Christmas Season: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
John the Baptist’s witness to Jesus was like the little snowflake that hits the snowbank and causes an avalanche. “Behold the Lamb of God” was a sentence that to a Jew tuned to the prophets would evoke images of Isaiah’s prophecy. Isaiah said that the Messiah would be like a lamb led to slaughter. The words brought to mind the Passover lamb, whose blood sprinkled on the doorposts preserved the firstborn of Israel from destruction. Jesus is the Lamb of God whose Paschal sacrifice takes away the sins of the whole world–that is, the sins of those who admit their sin, repent, and “stay with Jesus.”
The two disciples, in response to the question “What are you looking for?” ask Jesus where He is staying. The implication here is that Jesus Himself is what the disciples–and we by extension–are really what we are all looking for. In the end, it is a personal relationship with the Son of God that we need. We need transformation of our sinful existence into a true imaging of God. That’s an imaging God intended from the beginning, an imaging that Adam and Eve rejected. The disciples stayed with Jesus, developing that relationship, letting the grace of Christ make the change they needed in their own lives.
Staying with Jesus is what John is writing about in his first letter. John is writing to Christians who are contending with persons who are called “anti-Messiahs,” or “anti-Christs.” There were many of these heretics trying to sell their religious snake-oil to new Christians around the Mediterranean. Imagine someone who was raised in a pagan family. Because we are all born into a state of original sin, that person would come to the Church with some bad habits, sinful behaviors. We are born again in the sacrament of rebirth–baptism–but some will continue those bad habits, even if they have been taught that such actions are evil. St. John understands that. This is why in chapter 1 he writes: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Some of the heresies taught that true Christians cannot sin. That’s the error that St. John was battling, and that the Church countered with sacramental confession. These heresies came alive again in the years of the Protestant revolution. Most of the Protestant reformers, since they rejected a sacramental priesthood, stopped the practice of private confession to a priest. So what do you do when you sin? Today many, like the Presbyterians, have a general confession of sins at the beginning of their services. Then the minister–who is not a priest in the same way Catholics believe–declares that because of Christ’s sacrifice, their sins are forgiven. Private auricular confession with absolution is unknown to most.
But another path, generally attributed to John Calvin, picks up on John’s statement here: “No one born of God commits sin; for God's nature abides in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God..” The two passages seem contradictory. And this one seems also to contradict our personal experience. I have sinned since baptism, and way too often. So I rely on the consistent teaching of the Church, and the sacrament of reconciliation. Calvin, and others, stand with this sentence from chapter 3: “God's Spirit so forms the hearts of the godly for holy affections, that the flesh and its lusts do not prevail, but being subdued and put as it were under a yoke, they are checked and restrained. In short, the Apostle ascribes to the Spirit the sovereignty in the elect, who by his power represses sin and suffers it not to rule and reign. And he cannot sin.” So they teach that the true Christian avoids sin, and they put together communities that legislate and enforce morality. From this come groups like the Puritans of early American history.
The solution to this seeming contradiction is clear. Here in chapter 3 St. John is talking principally about the sinless Lamb of God, Jesus. He is the Son of God. The closer we image the Son of God, the more we abhor and avoid sin and spend our time and energy doing the things Jesus did. As we image Christ more and more, so does the nature of God abide in us. Let’s strive daily to attain that blessedness, and pray for all Christians to aspire to that state.