The Letters of John fall into the category of “situational” Scriptures. By this, scholars mean that these letters were written to confront a specific situation or condition that existed in the Christian community at the time. The situation which generated these letters is now called “gnosticism.” This heresy has as several hallmarks that help us to identify it; namely,
1. Gnosticism is elitist. Those who identify themselves as gnostics believe themselves to be better than the ordinary or common person because of their intellectual prowess.
2. Gnostics believe that salvation comes through knowledge. They claim that they are intellectually superior and “know” God and are saved by that knowledge.
3. Gnostics believe that obedience of the commandments is not required of them because they have been saved by their knowledge.
4. Gnostics held the position that Jesus did not die for them since they did not need to be redeemed because their knowledge had already saved them.
If we pay attention to the Letters of St. John, we are able to recognize how he attacks each of these arguments through his writings. In particular, John tells his adversaries that they cannot “know” Jesus unless they are willing to keep his commandments to love God and to love their neighbors. Because the gnostics claimed that their knowledge enlightened them, John goes on to point out that they are actually living in darkness because of their heresy.
Part of the heresy was also occasioned by the fact that these men and women did not like to think of themselves as dependent upon God for their salvation. John makes the point that we are all dependent upon the grace of God for our salvation. We have not earned it. It is all God’s doing.
Even today, remnants of Gnosticism exist in our world. There are people who think themselves better than others. There are people who believed that they are intellectually superior. There are people who do not believe that they need to love their brothers and sisters, especially if those brothers and sisters are poor and illiterate. Each of us can also be guilty of some of this.
It is important to remember that we all come before this altar as sinners, as needy, as lost without God’s intervention in our lives. As we receive Jesus in the Eucharist today, we do so aware of our limitations and aware of how much we need the strength that is ours in Jesus.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M.