At first glance, the search for mercy in the Johannine letters ends quickly. Of the three letters attributed (almost certainly inaccurately) to the apostle John, the second refers to mercy in its opening salutation of “grace, mercy, and peace” (2 Jn 3). That letter, written from an anonymous Presbyter (elder) to the “chosen” or “elected” Lady, reflects strife within a particular community over both false teachings and a lack of charity.
Indeed, all three of these letters reflect a certain in-group/out-group mentality. The first features opponents who apparently reject the true humanity of Christ, while the third references Diotrephes (who opposes the Presbyter that wrote the letter). The letters use language comparable to that of the Gospel of John, with strong images of light (the good team) and dark (their enemies).
A question underlying these letters, and particularly 1 John, is what does it mean to “walk in the light as he is in the light” (1 Jn 1:7)? What is it that makes a person part of the community of Christ’s disciples?
1 John emphasizes a twofold necessity: orthodoxy and orthopraxis (right belief and right action). Indeed, it is union of these two that demonstrates one’s fellowship with God.
Right belief here is mostly focused on the question of who Christ is. Some members of the Johannine community left, apparently because they denied that Jesus is the Messiah (1 Jn 2:22) and that he has “come in the flesh” (1 Jn 4:2). Although scholars debate what precisely this departed group believed, many have argued that they were Docetists. This early Christian heresy claimed that Jesus only appeared to be human, largely out of a desire to protect the divinity of Jesus from any messy fleshiness. By denying that Jesus is in fact human, Docetists lose the idea that God comes into solidarity with human beings through the incarnation. The orthodox claim is that God takes on our flesh, our limits, and our suffering. But if Christ has not assumed our nature, then our nature cannot really be saved.
Right action focuses on the love command. This command, which we see in the Gospel of John 13:34, runs through this first letter: “whoever loves his brother remains in the light” (2:10); “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning: we should love one another, unlike Cain who belonged to the evil one and slaughtered his brother” (3:11-12); and “This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (4:21). Moreover, this letter does not settle for the vagueness of “love;” it even offers at least one concrete example:
“If someone who has worldly means sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion, how can the love of God remain in him? Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.” (1 Jn 3:17-18)
While 1 John does not talk about mercy explicitly, we can clearly see that this love command calls us further to mercy. Catholic ethicist James Keenan, SJ describes mercy as “entering into the chaos of another so as to meet them in their need.” If we are commanded to love our brothers and sisters, then surely this includes showing such mercy to those who suffer, who lack, who are oppressed.
Ultimately, these two commands, to believe rightly and to act rightly, are united for the author of 1 John (1 Jn 3:23). In fact, it is from 1 John that we get the statement that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:16) and that “we love because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19). It is through our loving that we become like God and that we come to know God. Thus it is not simply that having right belief leads us to perform loving actions, but also that being a loving person is how we come to know God more fully. Through loving one another, “God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us” (1 Jn 4:12).
We must make our love incarnate, give it the flesh of our presence and the bones of our commitment. Just as Christ is no mere appearance but fully human, our love for one another must come out of genuine charity and not from thinly veiled indifference. Just as Christ is a concrete, embodied person, so too are those we are called to love real, specific people with their own bodies and histories. And just as Christ is not an abstract concept but a real person, neither are the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed hypothetical groups. Love must be made incarnate in real encounters with concrete others. We must go out and meet them.
It is this love that leads us deeper into the truth of the Gospel, deeper into fellowship with the one true God who loves us. We are called to walk in the light of the God who enters into the chaos of our lives and who exhorts us to enter into the chaos of others so as to meet them in their need.
We are called to have faith in this merciful God: a God who creates us, who confronts us in our sinfulness, and who has compassion for us. And we are also called to act mercifully towards one another: to love, to suffer, to accompany, and to be in solidarity.
Indeed, we might take as a theme for the Year of Mercy a paraphrase of 1 John 4:19: “we show mercy because God first showed mercy to us.” Discipleship means being called to faith in this merciful God and to enacting mercy with one another.