Thought for the day
There are odd expressions in the Fourth Gospel and in 1 John. It is strange to be commanded to love. Even stranger: “Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments.” What can “command” and “obedience” have to do with the love, the most free thing of all? It may help to recall that both human nature and divine nature are defined by love. We are being commanded to become what we most want to be in our deepest selves. Obedience here is the invitation to become our truest selves, true to our identity before God and our true to our mission simply as human beings.
You know us more deeply than we know ourselves: may your love go before us always and inspire in us a generous love for our neighbour.
John 15:9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Dwell in my love. 10 If you heed my commands, you will dwell in my love, as I have heeded my Father’s commands and dwell in his love.
John 15:11 ‘I have spoken thus to you, so that my joy may be in you, and your joy complete. 12 This is my commandment: love one another, as I have loved you. 13 There is no greater love than this, that someone should lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends, if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is about. I have called you friends, because I have disclosed to you everything that I heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me: I chose you. I appointed you to go on and bear fruit, fruit that will last; so that the Father may give you whatever you ask in my name. 17 This is my commandment to you: love one another.
The centrality of love to human experience and well-being is captured well in the Late Fragment by Raymond Carver, a poem heard equally fittingly at weddings and funerals:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
The last two words on line two have an understated power of evocation.
Our Gospel passage follows directly from the True Vine discourse. The metaphor of the vine is set aside, with one echo in v.16—fruit, fruit that will last. Instead, the writer expresses in the highly appropriate language of relationship the on-going love between the Risen Lord and the disciple. Perhaps it needs to emphasised again that here we are dealing with late first-century reflections, which focus on precisely that love which marks the relationships between Jesus and the disciples and between disciple and disciple. As happens in John, the meditation manages to speak of the deepest reality in the simplest of words.
Kind of writing
As we saw last week, this belongs to the genre of Farewell Discourse. In the central section, the core teaching is offered (15:1-16:3).
III. THE BOOK OF GLORY (13:1-20:31)
A. The Last Discourse (13:1-17:26)
i. Making God known: the foot-washing and the morsel (13:1-38)
ii. Departure (14:1-31)
iii. To abide, to love, and to be hated (15:1-16:3)
iv. Departure (16:4-33)
v. Making God known: Jesus’ final prayer (17:1-26)
The reader will notice that the first paragraph is dominated by the word “abide”, meaning remaining in the Lord, practicing the love commandment. The second paragraph takes up the theme of commandment, but, in a way, no longer as a commandment as from a master to a servant but an instruction to friends. The “up-grade” to friends is a fruit of Jesus’ self-sacrificing love.
Old Testament background
The text has as proximate background the teaching of Jesus on love of God and neighbour (see below). Behind that teaching lies “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18) The often noted Old Testament verse is not an isolated phenomenon. On the contrary, the characteristics of God are described thus:
“The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (Exodus 34:6)
In the covenant, God and the Israelite both commit themselves to being merciful, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
New Testament foreground
In one scene in the Gospels, Jesus gives the epitome of his teaching, which is open to all. The New Testament echoes this widely (see Paul below) and the Johannine reception of this teaching is especially vigorous and rich.
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbour as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question. (Mark 12:28-34)
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)
Verse 9 The little word “as” (kathōs) has a strong meaning in John’s Gospel. It is not simply a comparison but rather an indication of origin and continuity. It teaches that the love of the Father for the Son is continued in the love of the Son for those who believe in him. Because that is the case, we are commanded to inhabit that wonderful reality and remain in it.
Verse 10 This might look like a kind of “deal”, a quid pro quo. In reality, the commandment is to love, and in that loving, we abide in his love. Again the parallel between the Son and the Father is not just a formal comparison, but rather an offer of actual participation in the love of the Father and the Son.
Verse 11 For the New Testament reader, this echoes the start of 1 John. We touch here the core symbolic universe of the Johannine community.
Verse 12 From here on, we reflect rather more on the command aspect. Notice the little word “as” again. This means that the impossible command to love as Jesus loved is actually possible if we ground ourselves in his love first.
Verse 13 This is really a comment on the last four words of the previous verse. For believers, this has already happened and renders possible our love in return.
Verse 14 The impression of command is suspended here: we are friends precisely because we have been so loved.
Verse 15 The ironies are many here: although we are not servants, we are commanded to do what cannot be commanded except by love.
Verse 16 V. 16 stitches the command to love into the foundational call as disciples, expressed here as “choosing.” The metaphor of the vine is given a last echo but in a context which makes both belonging to the vine and bearing fruit really clear—it is all to do with that extraordinary relationship with the risen Lord. The “blank cheque” at the end was taken up in St Augustine’s famous phrase “love and do what you will.” Because you love, you will always choose what is good. Likewise, because you are loved and do love, what you will ask for will be consistently loving.
Verse 17 A summary appeal, which makes a frame with v. 12 and brings this part of the meditation to a close.
Pointers for prayer
1. A commandment of love is something of a contradiction in terms. Love is a free choice. That is what gives the thrill to the experience of being loved. Recall times when you received gestures of love from another—a spontaneous embrace from a husband or wife; a wave from a friend; words of comfort and affirmation—not because the other person felt obliged to reach out to you but because they wanted to let you know that you were loved. What effect did that have on you? Did it bring you joy? Perhaps you have had a glimpse of the truth of what Jesus said, that it is in loving that our joy is complete.
2. Often love and friendship make demands on us. Parents give freely of their time and energy to the care of their children but sometimes it requires a lot of effort. Also in responding to the needs of friends or spouses we can be challenged to ‘lay down’ our own ‘lives’ at least for a time. Can you recall when a time when putting yourself out for others bore fruit for them and for you?
3. “I chose you”. Have you had the experience of being ‘chosen’ by someone? What was it like for you to be chosen? What is it like for you to consider yourself as one chosen by Jesus?
4. Jesus called the disciples ‘’friends' not ‘servants’ because he had told them everything about himself. When have you allowed yourself to be known and loved? When has friendship blossomed for you because you made the time available and took the effort to understand another?
5. The presence of God is revealed to us in the love we experience from others. Sometimes it can be clearly seen in the love between husband and wife, or parent and child when it doesn’t have to be proved but is the nature of the relationship in which they live. Love can also be apparent in difficult situations like when someone is ill or dying or in any kind of trouble. Abiding in the love of another is one of the greatest joys of life. When have you had that experience?
God of all nations, in the gift of your Son you have embraced the world with a love that takes away our sin and bestows perfect joy.
Grant to all who have been reborn in baptism fidelity in serving you and generosity in loving one another.
Grant this through Jesus Christ, the first-born from the dead, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit God for ever and ever. Amen.