The gospel for May 9th (John 15:9-17) continues Jesus’ farewell discourse at the Last Supper. It follows immediately after last Sunday’s gospel with its parable about the vine and the branches, the need for pruning and the command to abide in me. In today’s gospel Jesus expands his meaning with abide in my love and repeats the command to love one another.
At first glance it may seem strange to include a passage from the Last Supper in a reading for Eastertide when the liturgical tone is more celebratory (Alleluia!). Today’s gospel context is somber. Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet, including those of Judas, and told them that he would be betrayed and die.
Yet, the passage also alludes to another, brighter theme: joy. The gospel opens, 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. In the continuation of his farewell talk at the Last Supper, Jesus spoke of joy five other times, including, most significantly, this description of a reversal, very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. (John 16:20) In the next three days he, and they, would experience the pain of his death and the joy of his resurrection.
In addition, John’s gospel frequently mentions the Father in Jesus’ life (about 100 times). The Father is Jesus’ constant reference point. By saying, As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, he drew the parallel between the Father’s love for him and his love for the disciples. Jesus’ love went beyond respect for the Father’s wisdom and power. By inference, we see that Jesus shared and celebrated the Father’s perspective with joy. He was inviting the disciples to share that joy with him and the Father.
Jesus also said, if you keep my commandments... Earlier during the Last Supper while he washed their feet, Jesus had said, I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. (John 13:34) Jesus himself was the standard of behavior for “loving the Lord your God and loving your neighbour.” Loving your God and neighbour were the new commandments he wanted them to keep.
Love one another as I have loved you. As we look back from a post-Resurrection perspective, we know what Jesus meant by as I have loved you. He was preparing to show that there was no suffering that he would not endure to demonstrate his love. By the same token, the Father loved him and would glorify him in his resurrection. At the time he said it, though, Jesus’ disciples may have wondered how they were to follow this instruction.
As I have loved you was to become the measure of how we are to love. As I looked for a more contemporary example of painful love…and joy, in the same spirit as Christ loved, I was reminded of Martin Luther King.
He was in Birmingham, Alabama on September 28th, 1962 giving the closing speech at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, (SCLC). The auditorium was packed with black and white religious and civil rights leaders.
Nearly everyone was dressed formally, except for one, Roy James a 6-foot, 2-inch, 200-pound white man, who stood out, not just because of his color but, because he was wearing a casual white T-shirt, jeans and boots. The meeting was open to all, so members didn’t learn until later that James was a Storm Trooper of the American Nazi Party. And he grew angrier as King spoke.
Finally, James bolted on to the stage and slammed his fist into King’s left cheek, hitting the 5-foot 7-inch civil rights leader so hard, it sent him backward. James jumped on King and punched him again as the audience screamed and some rushed the stage to help. Before they got there, King was able to escape momentarily and stand to face James. Instead of backing away King dropped his hands and looked his assailant in the eyes. King was already bleeding profusely from the punches, his lips and face swelling rapidly. He was completely vulnerable, as though being prepared to lay down his life.
In the next instant, the people who had run to defend King grabbed James and began to pummel him.
King shouted, “Stop. Don’t touch him. We have to pray for him.” And no one harmed James, instead, as King had suggested, they prayed for him. King assured James he wouldn’t be harmed. Then he took James to a private room and the two men calmly spoke. After talking with him, King showed James a back exit from the auditorium so he could avoid the crowd.
King did not hate James, but rather tried to reach him with reason and love in the spirit of Love one another as I have loved you. (James was later convicted of assault, jailed 12 days and fined.)
The gospel continues, 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. Jesus said this shortly after he had performed a servant’s task of washing the disciples’ feet. When he had finished, he said, “You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So, if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. (John 13:13-15) He wanted the disciples to care for one another, and their flocks, with acts of humble service.
Yet, this phrase, I do not call you servants any longer, is ironic. While he wanted the disciples to care, without regard to their sense of status, he also wanted to enhance that status, by sharing with them everything that I have heard from the Father. In other words, he was privileging them with the innermost secrets of his relationship with the Father, something that no servant could comprehend.
… 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. Recall that this passage followed immediately after the parable of the vine and the branches, so “bearing fruit” echoed the parable even if bearing fruit, sometimes involves the “pruning” of our self-esteem.
Martin Luther King didn’t insist on his self-esteem as a revered leader. He became a living lesson of this morning’s gospel of humble service. And his lesson bore much fruit and became celebrated.
• Recall a time when someone took you into their confidence and shared with you an experience or a sensitive thought. Did you feel privileged to have the person’s trust? Can you imagine the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ sharing the knowledge of everything that I have heard from my Father?
• “Loving one another” is Jesus’ command. Often, when we experience communal affection for another person, or we feel loved by the community, there is a sense of joy. But there are also times when loving one another takes discipline and requires us to surrender a sense of self-esteem. In the Ignatian daily examen, the third step is to pray for the grace we need in the near future. Often, this is the grace to love someone who is abrasive, has high self-regard or who worries about something that you don’t regard as important. It is a time when we can submit to “pruning” and to love.
• The reference to the Father in today’s gospel is, somewhat ironic, coming on Mother’s Day. As we have become more sensitive to gendered language, some have suggested that the truer translation of the word should be Parent… though the Greek is clearly Father. Does thinking of “parent” make the gospel more or less pleasing to you?