One cannot read the passage from St. John’s first letter that is used as the first reading today without noticing the recurrence of the word “remain.” It appears no fewer than six times in these six short verses. (Some translations use the word “abide” instead of “remain.”)
As I have mentioned before, St. John’s letters are what is known as “situational” Scripture as they refer to a specific time and circumstance within the history of the Christian Church. They appear at the end of the first century or beginning of the second century. In fewer than 100 years, the Church has already experienced some of the most difficult situations that it has ever experienced. The Roman emperor had begun to persecute Christians for their faith, using them as objects to entertain the crowds in the Roman Circus. However, perhaps even more difficult to bear was the distress that came from within the Church, namely the very first heresy. An elite group within the Church, deeming themselves better than the common, ordinary and very poor people who were initially attracted to the preaching of Jesus and the apostles, began to separate themselves from the community.
Some Christians left the Church because of the persecutions. Others left because they felt themselves “better than.” St. John writes to these individuals as well as to those who have stayed. “Remain in Him,” he writes. This admonition is a drawn from the early Christian understanding of “love.” The word “love” for these people did not carry the same “romantic” overtones that it connotes in our language. Their understanding of love comes from their understanding of God who had remained faithful to all the promises made in the Scriptures. Love equals fidelity. Remaining in the community was an expression of love – love of God, love of Jesus, and love of neighbor. Distancing one’s self from the community was the opposite.
Though this Scripture was written for a distinct time and circumstance, it still speaks to us today. It would not be difficult to cite numerous reasons for “not remaining” in the Church. The sexual abuse scandal alone has resulted in many people separating themselves from the Roman Catholic Church, and one is hard pressed to offer reasons for staying at times like this. However, if one studies the history of the Church, it should become abundantly clear that over its 2,000 year history, there have been more scandals than one can count on both hands. Just as the scandals have rocked the faith of many, the opposite can be said as well. The Church is human, flawed, populated by sinners. John’s community in the first century of the Church’s existence and our community in the 21st century are remarkably similar in that they both show us people who are struggling to “remain” while so much in the world would “separate” us.
During the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, a Muslim commentator offered this advice. “Stay together. Isis and similar terrorist organizations have one goal. They wish to destroy our unity. We need to stay together.” St. John would heartily agree. We need one another to maintain our faith in God’s Church.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator