This is the best of life
John echoes the teaching of Jesus that we should love one another. To put that in perspective, he contrasts Jesus’ teaching with the tragic story of Cain and Abel. Cain was the older brother and Abel the younger. Cain was an agriculturalist and he tilled the land producing crops for food. Abel was a shepherd looking after flocks of sheep. In the culture of the day, producers brought offerings to God. This, it seems, has been something basic to many communities from the earliest times. There was a sense of having to offer a portion of goods in thanksgiving and in recognition of dependence. Both agriculturalists and pastoralists depended on weather patterns and providence for safety, for harvest and for healthy animals. This has continued throughout the centuries.
Where Christianity existed, most people brought offerings to the Church and the wealthier people contributed to the welfare of others often through giving land for a church to be built or even building a church for local people to worship in. There was a sense of rightness and balance in all of this. To live at peace with God and to share prosperity was essential to Judaism and to Christianity. This was not appeasement of an always angry God but thanksgiving for life and faith and blessing. When Christianity became the established faith of nation states, public life reflected these same principles. So we have Remembrance Day. But the Churches were favoured for many centuries in being helped and protected and encouraged in their work by governments. In turn, churches provided spiritual and moral cement for society, shared values, opportunities for celebration and context for comfort in difficulty and loss. The government of this country commits to giving 0.7% of GDP to overseas aid. Many businesses donate to charities and have charitable foundations which are given tax relief by the government. Untold and immeasurable good is done as a result of this arrangement. However, the proportion of altruistic and selfless giving by governments and companies tends to be very small. It is nowhere near the 10% that is the tithe described in both Old and New Testaments. If, however, you were to take into consideration the proportion of income tax and corporate tax that the government takes to provide for the common good - funding schools and hospitals, for example, then the proportion is very much higher. These are impositions however and the only occasion for a modest voluntary input from us is our vote every four or five years. But we support this system, pay for it and benefit from it. Free voluntary giving in Christian terms is related to our disposable income and in business to the remaining profits after tax.
I always wondered why Cain’s offering was not acceptable to God and why Abel’s was. It seems to show favouritism and on the surface, no explanation is given why one brother was preferred to the other. However, there is a deeper meaning to it all. Hebrews 11:4 says 'By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man when God spoke well of his offerings'. What does this mean? Why was one sacrifice accepted and the other rejected? Was it an arbitrary choice on God's part? Few of us would conclude that God acts in such partial and arbitrary ways. The man was being judged rather than his offering. 'And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard' (Gen. 4:4f). Notice that it does not read: "The Lord had regard for Abel's offering but for Cain's offering he had no regard." The emphasis is on the man: 'The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard'.
By his rejection of Cain and his offering, God bore witness, not to an improperly detailed ritual of worship, but to the wickedness of the man. Many centuries later, John, the apostle, recognised Cain's evil nature and urged "that we should love one another, and not be like Cain who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother's righteous"(l John 3:1f). Cain was evil in heart, and the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination. John does not say that Cain was evil because he killed his brother, but that he killed his brother because he was evil already. John indicates that he did not love. Hatred toward his brother before he offered brought God's rejection and was the motivation for his murderous action. Abel did not make an offering to achieve righteousness. He was righteous already because of his faith. God bore witness to that fact by accepting him and his offering. Cain, on the other hand, evidently sought to achieve righteousness by rituals of worship when he was evil in heart.
The Cain and Abel story has been played out throughout the thousands of years of human family and social life. Brothers are jealous of one another. Brothers fight with one another. Brothers have different characteristics. One may be more successful than the other. One may be a much better human being than the other. That is Cain and Abel. In The Times this week there was a true story about two brothers called James and David Livingston who rowed against each other in the 2003 Oxford - Cambridge boat race. In the weeks leading up to the race they did not speak to each other. David later described his feelings towards his brother James on the day of the race. 'I thought I hated him. That I wanted to crush him and his dream to achieve mine'. David’s boat won by 1 foot - the closest race in memory. The brothers did not speak to other for months. However, they were reconciled and wrote a book together about the experience they had shared.
John in writing about this in his pastoral letter is asking Christians not to treat one another like Cain and Abel but to love one another. That was Jesus’ command to His disciples. For John, the subconscious capacity in all of us to hate and criticise one another is destructive of Christian community and wrecks witness and mission. So John repeats Jesus’ own example. Verse 16 says 'This is how we know what love is : Jesus Christ laid down his life for us'. Jesus did not just offer something He’d made in the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. He did not just offer 10% of his income in that small business. He offered Himself. And he did it in the right way. Jesus told a great story recorded in Matthew 21:28f about two brothers whose father owned a vineyard. The father said to one brother 'Son go and work today in the vineyard'. He replied, 'Ah wilnae - dae it yersel'. Later in the day, however his conscience got the better of him and he went to work in the vineyard. The father went also to the second son and said the same thing. He replied, 'Nae bother faither, nae problem'. But he did not actually go and work at all. Jesus asked his listeners which of the two sons did what his father wanted. 'The firs't, they agreed. Jesus then said that sinners who repent will get into heaven before those who think they do not need to bother being obedient and can get away with laziness, lies and deceit. So John says in verse 18 'let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth'.
But John is no legalist. He does not want us to be eaten up with guilt and regret all day long. Our Christianity has to work for us or else it is no Christianity at all. God, he says, is greater than our self-criticism and greater than the voice of conscience that does not give us peace. So - if you are full of regret or self-reproach, be forgiven and be at peace. You are probably on the right road and even if your progress is slow you will get there. Prayers will be answered.
John explains how and why and how prayer is answered in verses 21 - 23... 'if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from Him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his son Jesus Christ and to love one another as he commanded'.
As we share together in Holy Communion let us seek to dwell in Jesus Christ and allow Him to dwell within us and to show in our lifestyle and living that Christianity is central to who we are and that Jesus Christ is indeed our living Lord.