SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
And then he goes on to talk about the Paschal Mystery. He says:
...and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2)
And what does this mean? He’s the “expiation.” That’s not a common word in English; we don’t use it a lot. It’s actually a difficult term in Greek to translate. The word is hilasmos
in Greek. It occurs only here in the New Testament, and so in order to understand it, you actually have to go back to the Greek Old Testament, known as the Septuagint. And this is another clue that John — the first letter of John — is either written for Jewish Christians or it’s written by a Jewish Christian author, thinking in Semitic ways, thinking in Jewish ways. Because the term hilasmos
in the Jewish Scripture is the term used for the sacrifice of atonement that would be offered up to atone for the sins of the people.
Let me give you an example. In the book of Numbers 5:8, in the Greek translation, we read these words:
But if the man has no kinsman to whom restitution may be made for the wrong, the restitution for wrong shall go to the Lord for the priest, in addition to the ram of atonement...
...literally “the ram of hilasmos
,” same Greek word...
...with which atonement is made for him.
So when John refers to Jesus as the hilasmos
, He is
the expiation for our sins. He’s literally saying, “He is the atonement” or “He is the sacrifice of atonement for our sins.” So he’s calling to mind there the very Jewish understanding of the Crucifixion as not just a Roman execution but as a sacrifice...and not just any kind of sacrifice, because you could offer sacrifices of thanksgiving. You could offer sacrifices of peace, peace offerings…fostering relationship and peace with God. But the sacrifice of atonement is one in which the blood is poured out in order to reconcile a sinner to God. That’s what atonement does. It’s actually one of the only theological terms that is an Anglo-Saxon root — at-one-ment, literally. Atonement is to be made at one with God. Most other theological terms are either Greek or Latin roots, so this is kind of an interesting English word. In any case, John here you could translate:
...and he is the [atonement] for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2)
So he’s trying to remind his readers that if they do sin, even though they’re in Christ, that they do have a method of redress...a method of reconciliation, which is Christ Himself, the atonement. However, he says:
And by this we may be sure that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He who says “I know him” but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected. (1 John 2:3-5a)
So notice, as soon as John recognizes that someone may sin after coming to faith, and that there’s a method of atonement for that — which is Jesus Christ Himself and His intercession — he also wants to make sure that no one erroneously infers from the possibility of atonement that you're not bound to keep the commandments, that you’re free to break them. No, he says anyone who says he knows Christ but doesn’t keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth isn’t in him. But to those who love God and keep the commandments, the love of God is going to be perfected in them, brought to completion in them, brought to its fullness in them precisely through obedience.
So for John, it’s not like obedience is over here and love is over here. No, no, no. Obedience and love go together. That’s the way we express love for God...is through obedience to His commandments.
Alright, then one last thing about this that is very Jewish (I can’t help it) but very important — is the last line of that verse. It’s not in the lectionary, but I’m going to read it anyway. At the end of verse 5, it says:
By this we may be sure that we are in him: he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. (1 John 2:5b-6)
What does that mean? Well, it doesn’t mean that you have to walk in the same way that Jesus walked literally, that your stride has to match Jesus. It’s a Jewish way of actually referring to the manner of life that you live. So in contemporary Catholic circles, if we talk about keeping the commandments, of vices and virtues, we’ll tend to call that moral theology. It’s about morality. How do we keep the mores of a particular culture or religion? Or we’ll call it ethics. What is the ethos
of a particular culture, of a particular religion? And how do we abide by that ethos
through the keeping, the practice of ethics?
But in ancient Judaism, they didn’t use either of those terms. They use the term called halakha
. So the discussion of how you kept the law was called halakha
. And halakha
literally comes from the word (the verb) in Hebrew halak
, which means to walk. So halakha,
how you keep the law, is literally how you walk. It’s a very active image for the fact that in order to keep the commandments, we have to do it everyday. It’s like walking. It’s something that’s a constant process that lasts throughout our lives. So when he says we:
...ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.
It’s an image for the imitation of Christ in our moral life. So although we have an intercessor who atones for our sins, that doesn’t free us from the obligation of imitating the One who was without sin — namely, Jesus Christ.
So on this third Sunday of Easter, I think it’s actually significant that the Church is bringing before us the reminder both of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus that we celebrated at Easter during the Triduum, but also the implications of that sacrifice — namely, that we have to walk in the way that He walked and we have to keep the commandments of God.
So what I mean by that is — during the Easter season you’ll see this — the second readings that are chosen are often teaching us about certain truths of the faith but also about what life in Christ looks like. What does it mean to live in the power of the risen Jesus, to live as members of the Mystical Body of Christ in the new covenant age, in the new era after the Resurrection?
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