The First Letter of John is both particularly inspiring and particularly disjointed, bouncing around as it does from one statement to another with little cohesion. Today’s short reading is a perfect illustration of this dual character. The reading brings us through a quick succession of ideas. First we are told that if we sin, then we have “an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one.” Then we read that whoever “does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not found in him.” Finally we learn that “whoever keeps his word, the Love of God is truly perfected in him.”
If I were reading a student paper and encountered these three successive points within such a short span of text, I might write something like the following in the margin: “John, slow down here. Write an explanatory paragraph for each claim, and be sure to tell the reader how they all go together.”
It seems that John is going to require us to do this for ourselves. We should start by recognizing that the letter’s central theme is love. This is also true of the Gospel of John, the letter’s theological foundation: “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (Jn 13:34). To love as Jesus loves is no easy task. As Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously articulated in The Brother’s Karamazov, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” Love demands; it demands utterly. Mere obedience requires a bit of discipline. Love requires that we call forth the very truth about us: we are made for love. For this very reason, love is also utterly beautiful and transcendent. Only in loving do I experience and express my true wealth.
So keeping God’s word is nothing less than both expressing our love for God and experiencing God’s very love being perfected in us. We become expressions of the living love of God. To fail to follow God’s commandments is to deny both our deepest truth and the truth of God within us.
The commandments of God are, on one level, various, ranging from basic honesty to fulfilling the imperatives of justice. On another level, they are simply expressions of the singular command of love: Love fulfills the law (Rom 13:8). This should not surprise us, since “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). Where there is no love, there is simply no God; and no matter how well-behaved we are, there is no truth in us.
Love is difficult and demanding precisely because it calls on our deepest selves. Wholly genuine love allows for no half-measures. So, until God’s love is perfected in us, we are going to fail again and again and again.
If I focused on my failures, I would be utterly deflated. Today’s reading begins with words of comfort: “We have an Advocate with the Father.” Do not think this means that Jesus is pleading our cause with the Father, for John ties this to Jesus’ sacrifice. I take this to mean that his self-emptying gift for us to the Father is an eternal redemptive expression of his love, perpetually uniting us to the Father. His very redemptive gift is an eternal advocacy on our behalf. This means that he is constantly offering us his mercy even as his love is constantly calling us to live our souls’ deepest truth.
For me, the most heroic life is not the one with the grand gesture; it is the one that is most constant in love. This is why, for example, Pope John Paul II declarerd St. Thérèse of Lisieux a doctor of the church. Her “little way” is both simple and profound. As she framed it in her Story of a Soul: “This is how my life will be consumed. I have no other means of proving my love for you than that of strewing flowers, that is, not allowing one little sacrifice to escape, not one look, one word, profiting all by the smallest things and doing them through love.”