I am the officiant for two wedding ceremonies this month and, while these couples are very different in some ways, they have each selected 1 Corinthians 13 as the text for their homily. Of course, this is neither surprising nor inappropriate: few texts describe love so beautifully. However, 1 John 4 might be mentioned in the same breath.
To inform our weekly Bible study on this epistle, I have been reading D. Moody Smith’s commentary. He makes a pithy observation relating to John’s famous claim that “God is love.” Since God is love, we are to love one another (1 John 4:11, 21); therefore, “The theological indicative grounds the moral imperative” (Interpretation, 109). While 1 Corinthians describes the characteristics of love, 1 John offers a theological rationale for a love ethic, a way of relating to one another in a community.
This is heady stuff and easy for me to sit in my office thinking big thoughts about theoretical concepts. But, as 1 John makes clear, love is not an abstraction: God so loved us that God sent the son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (4:10). Love has flesh and blood. Not only is love concrete and tangible, but it also deals with painful realities, like sin, rather than mere ethereal musings.
We the Animals, the début novel by Justin Torres, poignantly and poetically illustrates such love in action. With incredibly vivid language, he has blessed us with a coming of age tale about three brothers, who grow up in a poor, often violent, multicultural home. In my opinion, the genius of this work is the movement from “we” to “me/I.” For most of the book, the action is narrated in first person plural. “We” describes the brothers, who stick together by playing and dreaming. “We” cope with an absent father and a depressed mother. This “we” is a connective bond that embodies a love strong enough to overcome adversity.
Towards the end of the book, the narrator experiences an awakening. His realization about his sexual identity separates him from his brothers as never before. The grammar shifts to the first person singular, as he feels compelled to experience life apart from his siblings. Suddenly, the narrator as “I” starts doing things apart from his brothers; experiences, thoughts, and emotions become “mine.”
Reading We the Animals cued me to the importance of the first personal plurals that inundate 1 John. Time and time again, the biblical text states that “we” should love one another. Don’t misunderstand me: I do think it is important, developmentally speaking, for us to differentiate as individuals, whether from our siblings or parents. Part of growing up is to realize that “I am” in order to become an independent adult. I have experienced this myself. However, I wonder that, as a community of believers seeking to understand the divine “I am” (Exodus 3:14), we might do well to recapture a sense of that first person plural bond we have for one another.
Returning to the beginning of this post, I do think it is far preferable for adults to possess a healthy sense of self-awareness before they marry. But then perhaps they can join us in a body of believers. We, too, can share a love that is a connective force, which is as concrete as the harsh realities of life and yet as profound as the bonds of childhood siblings.