Gospel for Sixth Sunday of Easter (21 May 2017)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” (John 14:15-21 – NRSV)
Today’s Gospel brings together three essential themes in John’s Gospel: “Love” and “obedience” and the power of the “Advocate” to ensure the possibility of both. This is not an appeal to will power – “Get out there and love people!” and “Do as you are told!” – but rather an invitation to accept the graciousness of God, abundantly available in Jesus Christ.
We also hear the recurring themes of “abiding”, “seeing” and “truth”.
If you love me ...: One scholar observes that this phrase “controls the grammar of the next two verses (15–17a), and the thought of the next six (15–21)”. (C. K. Barrett, The Gospel according to St John: An Introduction with Commentary and notes on the Greek Text (SPCK, 1978, 461.) This is the first time in John’s Gospel we hear Jesus speak to the disciples of their love for him. It is a statement of fact: If there is love there, then ....... It is definite though: If this then that, if not this then not that.
my commandments: It is not entirely clear what is meant by this phrase. One scholar suggests that “commandments” is “not simply an array of discrete ethical injunctions, but the entire revelation from the Father, revelation holistically conceived (cf. 3:31–32; 12:47–49; 17:6)”. (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 498.)
Advocate: The Greek word is paraklēton, meaning helper, advocate or intercessor. It is related to the verb “parakaleō, (which means) ‘to call alongside’, and hence ‘to encourage’, ‘to exhort’”. (D A Carson, op cit, 499.) In the world of Jesus, the word paraklēton, was typically used in a legal sense – a legal assistant, witness or advocate in court. Although Jesus is never explicitly given this title of paraklēton in John’s Gospel, it seems likely that the reference to “another” here implies that the Holy Spirit is going to take up the work of Jesus.
the Spirit of truth: See similar references in a title used here and in 15:26; 16:13. For John’s explicit and clear references to the Holy Spirit, see also on 1:32–33; 3:5–8; 4:23–24; 6:63; 7:37–39.
You know him: The suggestion here is that the disciples actually know Jesus and his work much better than they realize. The idea of knowing is not the rational idea – common to the modern western mind-set – of propositional or creedal knowing. Rudolph Schnackenburg warns us: “In the twentieth century ... consciousness of the presence of the ... Spirit has to a very great extent disappeared, even in the believing community. It is possible to say that the only person who will understand the words about the Spirit is the one who has already experienced the presence of the Spirit.’ (Rudolph Schnackenburg, The Gospel according to St John, tr. by K. Smyth, C. Hastings and others, 3 vols. (Burns and Oates, 1968–82. Volume 3, 500-501.)
Over forty five years as a priest, I have had the privilege to facilitate and guide a number of retreats. On those retreats, I frequently met older folk, deeply human men and women, who had been vowed religious for more years than me. I asked them: How come you have persevered and you remain more or less sane and happy? Three responses regularly emerged. Firstly, they felt a deep, loving connection with Jesus. And Jesus himself was the origin of that love. It is a love that cannot be won or lost. It is given. That’s it!
Secondly, they demonstrated epikeia. This term comes from the Greek word epieikeia meaning “reasonableness” or “the becoming”. Aristotle used it. In other words, we cannot foresee every possibility and enshrine that in laws and rules, so we must allow for the reasonable or becoming response. St Thomas Aquinas developed the concept – see for example Summa theologiae 2a 2ae, 120.1 ad 2 – noting that epikeia is necessary to protect the higher values of the natural law in the face of the imperfections of human-made laws. Jesus showed epikeia when the religious authorities challenged the disciples for picking corn on the Sabbath – see Mark 2:23 and Matthew 12:1. The retreatants told me stories of bending or even setting the demands of laws aside in order to maintain reasonableness – for example they ate meat on Friday when there was nothing else to eat or they missed Mass on Sunday because of the dangers in attempting to cross a flooded creek.
Thirdly, they demonstrated a healthy sense of the absurd. They all had a good sense of humour. Often, in telling their stories of the application of epikeia they would laugh quite a lot. Good humour and good faith go hand in hand. I have learned to be wary of those who cannot laugh – especially at themselves. Isn’t it reasonable to think that God laughs with us? “For the Lord takes delight in his people” (Psalm 149:4. See also Psalm 35:27 & 147:11.)
A simple, loving relationship with Jesus anchors us and sets all else in perspective. And a good sign that our love of Jesus is real will be the presence of epikeia and a sense of humour.
Why would we not trust Jesus’ promise? “If you love me .... I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” When all is said and done, being a disciple of Jesus is about being in love – literally being in love. And it is all gift! “He will give you another Advocate ....” Jesus is not issuing an order but an invitation: “Let us love you into freedom. You do not have to earn our love. There is nothing you can do that will make us love you more or less. Open your heart. Get out of the way and let us be love in you!”