"'If you want to become my followers, you must deny yourselves and take up your cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit you if you gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit your very self?'" (Luke 9:23-25)

Gospel for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (6 May 2018)

Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
JGospel

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. (John 15:9-17 – NRSV)

Introductory notes

General

Today’s text must be taken together with the Gospel of the Fifth Sunday of Easter – John 15:1-8. Verse 8 – the last verse of last Sunday’s text – is: “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples”. This leads nicely into Verse 9 – the first verse of this Sunday’s text: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love”. The basis for both texts is the metaphor of the vine: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower” (John 15:1). Central to each is a reference to the Father.

The role of the Father is a crucial theme of John’s Gospel. The following are just a few other references to this teaching:

“Then Jesus cried aloud: ‘Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me’. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me’” (12:44-45).
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16).
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
“No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me” (John 6:44).
“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:9-11).
“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11).
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).

A key to understanding the way the Father and the Son work together for us, is found in John’s use of the Greek verb menein, “abide”. “The verb menein appears ten times in vv. 1–11 and is the unifying feature of that section of the discourse.” (Francis J Moloney SDB, The Gospel of John, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998, 423.)

Read the following sentences thoughtfully, in the manner of lectio divina. Let the word “abide” speak to your heart:

“Abide in me as I abide in you” (15:4).
“The branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me” (15:4).
“Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (15:5).
“Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (15:6).
“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (15:7).
“Abide in my love” (15:9).
“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (15:10).

Recall The Letter of Jude verse 21: “Keep yourselves in the love of God”.

Specific

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you: The key is the last phrase – “as I have loved you”. The Greek verb, here translated as “love”, is agapao. We are called to the highest form of love – the love with which Jesus has loved us. How can this be? That kind of love is surely beyond us? We must understand this in the light of what we have discussed above. The life of the Father – the life of Love – is made available to us in and through Jesus. “Abide in my love” (15:9). This is not a call to Stoic self-mastery. It is rather an invitation to let God be God in us.

To lay down one’s life for one’s friends: When we “abide in (his) love” everything changes. The deeper and more all-encompassing that “abiding”, the deeper and more all-encompassing the consequences. It may even lead to laying down one’s life. “Christian love does not simply consist in laying down one’s life; but because it stems from Jesus, there is a tendency in Christian love that produces such self-sacrifice. That is why John 15:13 has left a greater mark on subsequent behavior than, for example, a similar sentence in Plato (Symposium 179B): ‘Only those who love wish to die for others’.” (Raymond E Brown, The Gospel according to John (XIII-XXI): Introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 29A), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 664.)

Raymond Brown continues: “The English word ‘friend’ does not capture sufficiently this relationship of love (for we have lost the feeling that ‘friend’ is related to the Anglo-Saxon verb frēon, ‘to love’). In Johannine thought Jesus is not addressing the disciples here as casually as he addresses them in Luke 12:4: ‘I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body’—the only Synoptic use of philos for the disciples. Rather vs. 14 is similar to 10, and the ‘You are my philoi’ of 14 is the equivalent of the ‘You will remain in my love’ of 10. Lazarus is the philos of Jesus (11:11) because Jesus loves him (agapan in 11:5: philein in 11:3). Sometimes in relation to this verse of John, the title of Abraham as ‘the friend of God’ is recalled (philos in James 2:23). However, it should be noted that the LXX of Isa 41:8 speaks of Abraham as the one ‘whom God loved’ (agapan). Thus the title of Abraham becomes another example of our thesis that philos means ‘the beloved’.” (Ibid.) The statement of Jesus to the disciples – “You are my friends” – must be understood in this way.

I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last: This is a corollary of the foregoing. The true disciple, the one who “abides in his love”, will “bear fruit”. When God is allowed to be God in you and through you, there is no telling – in fact, no limiting – what can be achieved. Further, if that is the way you live, you will know what you should ask for and “the Father will give you whatever you ask him in (Jesus’) name”.

Reflection

There is a remarkable novella written by Henry James (1843-1916), called “The Beast in the Jungle” (1903). The main character, John Marcher, is a self-absorbed man, convinced he has an extraordinary destiny. A lady – May Bartram – loves him but finds he is so caught up in himself and his “destiny” that she cannot reach him. She dies. The one person who loved him enough to save him from his selfish illusions has now gone. He is more confused than grief-stricken. He was never willing to face “the beast in the jungle” of his own existence so he never got to meet himself. He missed his life.

The truth of our lives is both much more wonderful than we can possibly imagine and much less terrible than we can possibly fear. However, that fear – of “the beast in the jungle” – can be very destructive if we let it. It can stand between us and the liberating and transforming truth that we are made in the image and likeness of God and loved infinitely. Simone Weil (1909-1943) makes an insightful observation: "God's love for us is not the reason for which we should love him. God's love for us is the reason for us to love ourselves. How could we love ourselves without this motive?" (Simone Weil, The Simone Weil Reader, Ed. George A. Panichas (New York: David McKay, 1977), 351.)

Listen to today’s Gospel – John 15:9-17: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you”. And the invitation that follows: “Abide in my love”.

Moralism has tended to obscure this wonderful truth. Moralism reduces the Christian life to choosing right behaviour and avoiding wrong behaviour, thereby gaining rewards and avoiding punishments. There is a simplistic and utterly untrue line of thinking that drives moralism: If you do the “right” thing – whatever “right” might mean – then God will love you and you will be rewarded with heaven; but if you do the “wrong” thing – whatever “wrong” might mean – then God will not love you and you will be punished, perhaps with eternal damnation. Moralism thus makes God’s love dependent on our behaviour. That is a terrible lie.

God’s incomprehensible love, so scandalously manifest in the saving death and resurrection of Jesus – see John 3:16 – is freely given to anyone who wants it. It cannot be earned or bought. It is available to everyone, everywhere all the time! In God we find our true selves because it is only there, in the safety of Infinite Love, that we can allow ourselves to enter the jungle and successfully face the beast that – when faced – yields and opens the way to the truth of who and what we are. We discover that the life we fabricated out of fear is a pathetic illusion.

Etty Hillesum was a Dutch Jew who died in Auschwitz in 1943. She knew the terror and the liberation of facing one’s fears. Pray with her: “I accept everything from Your hands, oh God.” (Etty Hillesum, Etty Hillesusm: An Interrupted Life, An Owl Book, 1996, 199.