Sunday, May 13, 2012
1. Opening prayer
Father, you are the source of life and you always surprise us with your gifts. Grant us the grace of responding to the call of your Son Jesus who has called us friends, so that in following him, our master and shepherd, we may learn to observe his commandments, the new and definitive Law that is himself, the way leading to you and of remaining in you. Through Christ your Son, our Lord.
2. The text
9 I have loved you just as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my own joy may be in you and your joy be complete.
12 This is my commandment: love one another, as I have loved you. 13 No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends, if you do what I command you. 15 I shall no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know the master's business; I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father. 16 You did not choose me, no, I chose you; and I commissioned you to go out and to bear fruit, fruit that will last; so that the Father will give you anything you ask him in my name. 17 My command to you is to love one another.
The context of our passage already determines the tone: this is Jesus’ long discourse to his disciples during the last supper and after the washing of the feet of the disciples, which according to John characterises Jesus’ ministry of love even to the end, (Jn 13:1-15). If we look at these compact chapters, we can see a dynamism which goes from a gesture as such, the washing of the feet, a gesture in keeping with Jesus’ works as signs of his identity and which appeal to the faith of those looking on and listening, to the long discourse addressed to his disciples as an expression of leave-taking but also as an indication of the required attitude and the reality to look for, even to the so-called “priestly” prayer of Jesus to the Father (Jn 17), a prayer that goes beyond the circle of his disciples for the benefit of all those who believe in him in all times. There is an ascending movement of the narrative that coincides with the raising of Jesus on the cross, an upward movement perceived by John as the glorification of Jesus and one that ultimately describes Easter as the passing of the Word from humanity back to the Father.
In Jesus’ discourse, expressions follow one another closely forming a vortex of communication, which is neither oppressive in its rhythm nor tiring. Each expression is complete, simple and incisive and places the Jesus of John in a continuity of favourite themes and terms.
In the context just before this passage, Jesus spoke of himself as the true vine (Jn 15:1); an image suggesting two relationships: the Father who is the vinedresser and the disciples who are the branches. This image is revealing: besides being an exhortation to the disciples, it is a given fact: the Father looks after his precious plants, looks after the relationship established between Jesus and his disciples and so the disciples from now on live in a communion that defines them. The exhortation is expressed in the very image itself and is made explicit and is centred in the word “remain”. The disciples are called to remain in Jesus just like the branches remain in the vine so as to have life and bear fruit. The theme of bearing fruit as also that of asking and receiving, which recurs in our passage, is here anticipated, putting before us an example of John’s special style of hinting and echoing. The tone of verse 9 changes because there is no longer an image but a direct reference to a relationship: “I have loved you just as the Father has loved me”. Jesus places himself in a descending movement that goes from God to humanity. The verb “to love” already occurred in chapter 14 in connection with the observance of the commandments; now in our passage it occurs again in a new synthesis where the “commandments” give way to “the commandment” of Jesus: “My command to you is to love one another” (Jn 15:17). This reciprocal relationship is repeated immediately after in an incisive command: “remain in my love”. Jesus goes from the verb “to love” to the substantive “love” to show that the action flowing from the Father through the Son to humanity has created a new order of things, a possibility which until then was unthinkable. In verse 10 the reciprocity is accomplished in the inverse sense: the observance of Jesus’ commandments is for the disciples the way of responding to his love in an analogical and real continuity of the attitude of the Son who has observed the commandments of the Father and thus remains in his love. This perspective is quite different from that of the legalism that had been monopolized by the terms “law” and “commandments”. Everything is referred to Jesus in his truer perspective: a response of love to the love received, the proclamation of the possibility of remaining in the presence of God. Also the words in verse 11 become a further way out of the legalistic mentality: the aim is joy, a joy of relationship, the joy of Christ in his disciples, their joy present in its fullness.
In verse 12, as we have already said, the discourse becomes more urgent. Jesus says that his commandments are a single one: “that you love one another as I have loved you”. Notice how the line of relationships remains the same, always as a response: the disciples will love one another in the way that Jesus has loved them. What follows, however, re-establishes in absolute terms the primacy of Jesus’ gift: “No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (v. 13). This is the work beyond compare of his love, an action that lifts the quality of involvement to its highest point, the gift of life. Here we have a conspicuous digression in the new name given to the disciples, namely that of “friends” as opposed to that of “servants”. The difference lies in the fact that the servant does not know what his master is planning. The servant is called to do and that is all. Jesus’ discourse follows a thread: it is because he has loved his disciples and is about to give his life for them that he has revealed to them his Father’s plan. He did this by means of his signs and works. He will do this in the greatest of his works, his death on the cross. Again Jesus shows his close relationship with the Father: “I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father” (v. 15). Yet at the centre of this affirmation to his disciples as friends Jesus expresses an order of things: “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (v. 14).
The final verses of our passage recall the image of the vine with the added statements above: It is Jesus who has chosen his disciples not the other way round. The initiative is his. However, the process of the image of the vine planted in the soil is presented differently. The disciples are called so that they may go and it is in this going that they will bear fruit, then the fruit is meant to remain (the same word used as in remaining in Jesus’ love).
The identity of the disciples is based on the choice made by Jesus and points to a journey to be undertaken, a fruit to be borne. The picture is complete: the call in the past, the present listening and the future bearing of fruit. Yet there is still Someone who must be considered, there is still an attitude to acquire. “To bear fruit” may lead the disciples towards unilateral action. However, the words “so that”, connect the bearing of fruit to what follows: to ask and to receive, to experience need and the gift abundantly and freely given (“anything you ask”). That Someone whom Jesus reveals is the Father, source of love and of the mission of the Son, the Father to whom we may turn in the name of the Son in so far as we have remained in his love. The conclusion is given in a solemn and concise form: “My command to you is to love one another”.
Jesus’ words just before his glorification tell the Church the meaning of following him and of his demands. They are strong words, mirroring the glory of Him who will freely give his life for the salvation of the world (cfr. Jn 10:17-18); but they are also precise words and thus simple, essential, close, connected and typical of a farewell discourse where repetition becomes a pressing and gentle appeal. To be a disciple of Christ is first of all a gift: it is He who has chosen his own, it is He who has revealed to them his mission and in doing so has revealed the “background” of the project of salvation: the will of the Father, the love between Father and Son, which is now communicated to humanity. The disciples now know, not as were the first steps of the past history of salvation and the present of those who chose to close themselves and not want to understand the value of the works accomplished by the Son by the will of the Father. This knowledge will demand of them consequent options so as not to remain in an empty and sterile pretence (cfr. 1Jn 4:8.20). “Remain” in the love of Jesus and observe his “commandments” is above all a revelation, the gift of a supreme possibility that frees people from a servile state even in respect of God and places them in a new, full and reciprocal relationship with the Him, typical of friendship. “To remain in his love” is what the Synoptics would call the “kingdom of God”, a new stage in history, at first wounded and now freed.
In the Hebrew culture, the observance of the commandments was connected with pedantic teaching that often went into the smallest details. This had its value because it witnessed to an effort by pious Jews to remain faithful to God. However, they ran the risk, common to all human endeavours, that they would lose sight of God’s initiative and emphasize the human response. In John’s Gospel, Jesus restores and thus renews the semantics of the “law” and of the “commandments” with the concept of “love” and the invitation to “remain”. When Jesus proclaims and shows the love of the Father in the act of giving his life for the salvation of the world, he renews and personalises this observance. It is love that reveals its quality, not in the abstract, but in the concrete and visible face of Christ who loves “to the end” and lives in person the greatest love. Several times Jesus describes his relationship with the Father. The fact that here he places himself under the sign of obedience to the Father gives new meaning to obedience. It is not the obedience of a servant but of a Son. The work to be accomplished, that is, “the commandments of my Father”, is not something separate from the person of Jesus, but that which he knows and desires whole-heartedly. The Word that was with the Father is always with him to accomplish the things that please the Father in a concrete communion that is life giving. This is precisely what Jesus asks of his disciples: to keep in mind that “as the Father has loved… as I have loved you” must not remain on the level of an example, but on the level of a generative source. The love of the Father is the source of the love expressed by the Son, and the love of the Son is the source of the love that the disciples will give to the world.
Knowledge and practice are thus closely connected in the “spiritual Gospel”, as John’s Gospel has been called by the Fathers of the Church. When faith is authentic, it will not put up with a dichotomy concerning life.
In this passage, the disciples appear as the object of the caring cure of their master. He will not forget them, not even in the imminent trial to come, when he prays for them to the Father and “for those who through their teaching will come to believe in me” (Jn 17:20). At the end of their listening, their welcoming and their commitment there is their joy, which is the same as that of their master. He has chosen them using criteria that only God knows, a choice that recalls the choice of Israel, the smallest of all nations. It is Jesus who has formed, taught and strengthened them. All this acquires a new and more intense meaning in the light of Easter and Pentecost. It is like a paradox, and this is what they are called to: to be steadfast and remain and yet to go. Steadfastness and dynamism whose source is the mystery of God, whereby the Word was with the Father and yet built his tent in our midst (cfr. Jn 1:2.14).
Formed in steadfastness and going to bear lasting fruit, this is what defines the task of the disciples after the Pasch of the Lord, but in our passage all this is connected with the invitation to ask the Father in Jesus’ name. It is, then, from the Father, in Christ and with the power of the Consoler that will come the grace to love and, in loving, to bear witness.
There are some points in this passage that may help us renew our style of prayer:
- A prayer that is truly “Trinitarian”, not just theoretically or in its expression, but also as an inherent dynamic of the prayer itself.
- The need for prayer and life to be one. Prayer is the mirror, the expression and the measure of our life of faith.
- The joy that must accompany our attitude of prayer.
- Appreciating all that is human (awareness of relationships, love of prayer, experience of joy, perception of union with God) and being aware that all is gift.
Wonderful are your instructions,
so I observe them.
As your word unfolds it gives light,
and even the simple understand.
I open wide my mouth,
panting eagerly for your commandments.
Turn to me, pity me;
those who love your name deserve it.
Keep my steps firm in your promise;
that no evil may triumph over me.
Rescue me from human oppression,
and I will observe your precepts.
Let your face shine on your servant,
teach me your will.
My eyes stream with tears
because your Law is disregarded.
The Word of God calls us to confirm in our heart and in our actions the newness of being disciples of the Son. The four aspects: relationship with God, reading reality, commitment and attention to the life of the Church are like seeds of contemplation, attitudes and possible choices.
Relationship with God: growing in an awareness of being in relationship with the Trinity; we are thought of, wanted, gifted, saved between the Father and the Son in the Spirit; presenting our actions in response to the love of God who first called us.
Reading reality: recognizing personal reactions to persons and institutions, such as the trivialising of the concept of “love” in a materialist interpretation as well as in spiritual escapism. On the other hand, to be aware of the expectations of free and freeing relationships as experiences of an authentic gift often not recognised.
Commitment to reality: to give one’s life (in all its forms) as a concrete expression and appreciation of love; the importance of new communications of experiences of wisdom in following the fruits of the witness given to the Gospel in the world that God wishes to save.
The life of the Church as a life of relationship in relationship: to see the Church not only as an image of the Trinity, but “within” the Trinity; to regain the feeling of freedom and joy in the community of believers.
7. Closing prayer
Lord Jesus Christ, we thank you for the loving care with which you have taught and still teach your disciples. We praise you, Lord, conqueror of sin and of death, because you have gambled all that was yours, even your infinite relationship with the Father in the Spirit. You have presented this relationship to us who risk not understanding it, trivialising it, forgetting it. You spoke of it to us so that we may understand how great a love has given us life. Grant, Lord, that we may remain in you as the branches remain united to the vine that nourishes them and allows them to bear fruit. Turn your gaze of faith and hope on us that we may learn to go from words and desires to the concreteness of actions in imitation of you who have loved us to the end when you gave your life to us so that we may have life in you. You who live and reign with God the Father in the unity of the Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.