Here the elder John proclaims the eternal life they have seen, their hands have handled, and they have experienced in the here and now of earthly life. When I first read this text I took it to be a description of how in Jesus God took on flesh and blood, with hands that held children and washed the feet of disciples. There is truth to this, but recently I realized another level in which this is true.
For many if not most of us this eternal life is seen, handled by the hand, heard through the ear through the imperfect lives and examples of other human beings who, like us, stumble and fall in their spiritual lives.
This text seems to be aimed at a community that is beginning to paint an ideal of spirituality so high and lofty that they have trouble imagining how Jesus could really have been an imperfect person like them. They have so idealized the Christian life it has become something hard to imagine who broken, sinful, imperfect people could express it.
John reminds them that it is only in such flesh and blood, imperfect people that the life of God has ever been experienced and shared. Jesus, though without sin, was a man who hungered, tired, made mistakes, and shared in all of our imperfections. Since his death, resurrection, and ascension, it is through just such imperfect people and communities that make mistakes, that sin, that hurt others, that can be short-sighted and wrong-headed, that Jesus has chosen to make himself known.
This reminder should be an encouragement and a challenge. It is an encouragement because it reminds us when we feel too imperfect, flawed, and wrong-headed to make a difference, not to give up. We need to realize that it is only through imperfect people that God’s life has ever been made known. Our imperfection, if we are honest and humble about it, is in fact what makes us fit to be people who demonstrate a God who loves without condition, forgives without limit, and gives power to the weak and humble. In our weakness, God’s strength is displayed in beauty and wonder.
This message also calls us to lay aside our judgment. It can be very easy, having rightly seen how the people of God in every age, nation, culture, and brand of religion, have made mistakes, hurt others, failed to live up to their calling, to then toss aside any idea of faith. We can say “Organized religion is a sham”, and try to be solitary people of spirit. But the reality is that it is only in community with imperfect people that the life of God is communicated. The only way to avoid imperfection, wrong-headedness, and those that may hurt you completely is to avoid people altogether. But it is only among others that we can see demonstrated what it means to love others, to serve others, and only among them we can ourselves practice those things which are the goal of spiritual practice.
Clearly you and I should avoid abusive and destructive communities, but we need to realize that in our weaknesses God’s strength is revealed. To grow in the spiritual life we need others. Learning to embrace the imperfect around us as ones in whom God’s life can flow frees us to also learn to embrace ourselves in all of our imperfections as ones who can be carriers of God’s love and life.
Finally, this word calls all of our religious and spiritual communities to lay aside messages that only perfect people who have it all together are welcome in our midst. Too often people come looking for a connection with God, spirituality, or community and get the message from the spiritual or religious community they reach out to that until they fit a particular image, master the right doctrine or practice, or have it figured out they are not fully welcome. This is why 1 John goes on to say that to send the message our group, whichever one it is, is without sin and has all the answers is to lie and make God out to be a liar. Ultimately all of us are only on a journey, only imperfect travelers finding our way. When we shut the door to another for not being perfect in our eyes, we shut the door to another opportunity to know God and ourselves more deeply. None of us have arrived, and we all can help each other in this journey.