THE key to the NT reading is its last verse: “The Spirit is the one that testifies; for the Spirit is the truth.” That is easier to understand than the verses that equate love with obedience, or see faith in terms of conquest. Liturgically, it points us forward, to Pentecost.
These readings contain chicken-and-egg puzzles. Which came first, Jesus who is the Truth (John 14.6 narrates events before the time of this epistle), or the Spirit who is Truth (1 John 5.6)? Jesus appoints his disciples to bear fruit before they have even become apostles. This contrasts with the Synoptics. John uses the term “apostle” only once (13.16, not a reference to the Twelve); but the cognate verb, “send out”, is present throughout his Gospel (there is no commissioning of the Twelve as such). So John the Evangelist handles the eucharist also: by way of allusion, not definition.
What we decide about the puzzle in Acts may affect how we understand sacraments (as they later came to be called), and the grace that underpins them. In the case of baptism, our default setting is “baptism leading to the Holy Spirit”. It is the same with confirmation and Holy Orders: the pattern is laying on of hands, then the Holy Spirit. Here, though, the descent of the Spirit on faithful people may precede sacramental washing, or the declaring of the Lord’s name.
What does it mean that, while Peter is still preaching and expounding, the Holy Spirit is “blowing where it will” (John 3.8)? Clearly, the Spirit takes no account of what is “proper” in human processes and priorities. Preachers may be dismayed to have the Spirit distracting “their” listeners by speaking across lovingly structured arguments. But it reminds all Christians that the Spirit speaks to us “through” the proclamation of the Word — not just by instructing us, clarifying what was once opaque, but by making proclamation a moment of receptivity to the divine will. Instead of being busy, we are attentive, and open to the Spirit. This should be true of preacher and congregation alike.
What about the puzzle of love and obedience? Both Johns make reference to it. In 1 John 5.2, loving God means obeying his commandments. This is hardly surprising in a patriarchal culture. In the case of Roman society — as in modern Dubai — that cultural power was also an absolute legal right. But when patriarchy (“father-rule”) becomes a slur, there is a problem. Even apparently loving fatherhood can be seen as toxic control. One person’s “guidance” can be another’s “coercion”.
Christians are not free to jettison the concept or reality of obedience to a heavenly Father. For those whose earthly fathers have fallen short (sometimes very short indeed), John 15.13 at least gives us a positive alternative. Rather than completely reject obedience as a Christian virtue, we can focus our obedience where whichever image for God we are using speaks most purely and positively to us. In this instance, there is a safe refuge for many in those words, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
Psalm 98, too, encapsulates a puzzle — one of great antiquity. In verses 5-6, people praise God with whatever they have: voice, lyre, trumpet, and shawm (a kind of oboe). When we turn to verses 7-8, we find that God’s creation (made by him, just as we are) is doing the same thing. Side by side with human voice and musical instruments, the sea roars, the floods clap their hands, and the hills are joyful.
Ascribing human emotions to inanimate things is known as “pathetic fallacy”. That does not mean that it is a rubbish deceit. Rather, it is the ascribing of a capacity to feel emotion to things usually considered to be inanimate. In the psalmist’s vision, both we and the world have characteristics of the divine written into us — most important of all, the capacity to respond to God.
There has long been a division in Christian thought between “natural theology” (seeing all that has been made as expressive of God’s reality) and “revelation” (seeing only the supernatural divine disclosure to human beings as carrying divine truth). In this psalm (one of many like it), that false dichotomy must fall. And a good job, too.