Dear friends, if God so loved us, then we also ought to love one another. – 1 John 4:11 (NET)
When we trek through the New Testament letters, one thing that becomes glaringly obvious is the focus on community first and the individual second. Though we understand that a community is comprised of individuals, when it comes to the kingdom of God, the individual first operates in accord with the community. It is this communal involvement, which consists in the subsuming of individual desires and pursuits (primarily in relation to gaining honor and avoiding shame), that then translates into individual service.
This individual service, in an aspiration towards holiness (a concept which cannot be removed from the concept of sacrifice, especially self-sacrifice), is only valid as it relates to God’s end of the establishment of His kingdom on earth, and if it is performed with an eye towards the service of the community. As soon as one’s service becomes something performed with an eye towards a personal salvation that is connected with attaining heaven as the perceived final goal of the Christian, with this service regularly taking the form of abstention from sin (as defined by oneself or a spiritual authority figure), then service quickly converts from self-sacrifice to self-idolatry. Thus, the covenant end of reflecting the glory of God into the world in representation of what it means to be truly human, as God intended when He created a being in His image, is left unaccomplished---usurped by misdirected worship.
This notion of individual concerns being subsumed to the concerns of the community is part and parcel of recognizing that the kingdom of heaven is meant to come to earth. Additionally, it is a component of the resurrection of the body being a point of focus for the people of God. If we are to take seriously the idea that Jesus was physically resurrected into this world, and that we are ultimately to be resurrected as He was---into this world, then concerns for this world as the place in which God will eventually consummate His kingdom will play an increasingly important role in the life that is lived as a continual confession of the Lordship of Jesus and the fact of His reign. Consequently, the cultivation of an isolated, personal holiness with thoughts of the kingdom of heaven as removed and distant from this world, falls off the page.
Ironically though, and as a testament to the transformative power of the Gospel message, the more a person lives and serves with thoughts of the community and the presence and coming of the kingdom of heaven at the forefront of every day concern, the more “holy” and “sanctified” that person will become. Without a personal striving, a personal transformation is undergone, as the person that demonstrates a constant communal concern, in the mode of our Lord, is continuously and steadily transformed into the image and likeness of Christ. All of this, which also reinforces the oft-stated importance of the meal table of the earliest Christians (in imitation of Jesus) as they sought to embody the kingdom through their messianic banquet, allowing themselves to be a transformed and witnessing community before they presented themselves as transformed and witnessing individuals, is said as an introduction to what appears to be an affirmation of this idea in the fourth chapter of first John.
This notion of community taking precedence over individual, as we contemplate the importance of the people of God (emphasis on people---God directed Adam and Noah to multiply, Abraham received the promise that he would be a nation, God made a covenant with Israel), appears to ring true when we read “Dear friends, if God so loved us, then we also ought to love one another” (4:11). Here, we notice the emphasis on the community of believers with the use of “us,” and we cannot help but consider the mutual love that was encouraged at the meal table when we hear about the love for one another, with this said within a culture that meted out love in a highly discriminatory fashion based on honor, shame, patronage, benefaction, and patriarchal constructs. In contrast to this, the Christian is called to love in a radical way, with none of these considerations in play.
The author goes on to write “No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God resides in us, and His love is perfected in us” (4:12). In that time, there would be no better and no more radical and visible way to express the love of God than the egalitarian meal table of the church. Continuing with communal emphasis then, we hear “By this we know that we reside in God and He in us: in that He has given us of His Spirit” (4:13). Having presented this community oriented dissertation about the evidence of the love of God and of the presence of His Spirit, the author then goes on to discuss the individual, writing “If anyone confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God resides in him and he in God. And we have come to know and to believe the love that God has in us. God is love, and the one who resides in love resides in God, and God resides in Him” (4:15-16). Still, the use of love, contexted by the need to “love one another,” informs us that individualistic concerns are connected with the community, as we have made clear.
Going further, we find words regarding judgment that are connected with the proper approach to the meal table of the church communities as they sought to adequately represent the Jesus-inspired ideal of the messianic banquet that signaled that God’s rule had begun in the Resurrection of Jesus, as we read “By this love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment, because just as Jesus (doing and teaching, crucified and resurrected---crucially important points), so also are we in this world” (4:17). We notice, as outlined above, the quick shift back to the concern for the community as the author continues on to write “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment” (4:18a). Indeed, if the community demonstrated the love for one another in their table fellowship that is demanded by the witness and the Gospel message of Jesus, they would have no fear of God’s judgment falling upon them. To that point, “The one who fears punishment has not been perfected in love” (4:18b), in that they have not yet properly approached the meal table in the spirit of humility and service, seeking first the kingdom of God (His rule on earth) as opposed to personal concerns of honor and shame.