Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (Cycle C):
1. Acts of the Apostles 14:21-27
Psalm 145: 8-9, 10-11, 12-13 Response: "I will praise your name for ever, my king and my God."
2. Revelation 21:1-5a
3. John 13:31-33a, 34-35
John the Evangelist casts Jesus' last supper discourse in the form of a symposium. This was the last part of a banquet in which the guests drank wine and carried on a discussion initiated by the host or the principal guest. The liturgy of the Easter season adopts some elements of this practice that was common in the ancient Greek-speaking world. It is as though newly baptized Christians were reclining at table with the risen Lord and listening to his words. Along these lines, the readings for the Easter season can be seen as a mystagogic catechesis, a further interpretation of the Christian mysteries of initiation that broadens and deepens the baptismal catechesis of the Lenten readings.
This Sunday's reading stands at the beginning of Jesus' last supper discourse. Jesus’ first gift was an example to follow. As we heard in the gospel reading for Holy Thursday, after washing the disciples feet Jesus says: “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” (John 13: 15)
Immediately after Judas leaves the light of Jesus’ presence for the night of betrayal and just before the prediction of Peter's denial, Jesus gives his disciples a second gift - a new commandment: "As I have loved you, so you also should love one another."
The settings for the two gifts are very similar. Throughout chapter 13 of his Gospel, John contrasts the love of Jesus for his disciples with his foreknowledge of the same disciples’ failings, especially the betrayal of Judas and the denial of Peter. Both accounts contain a dialog between Jesus and Peter; both accounts mention Judas’ impending betrayal; and both accounts have sacramental overtones – Baptism for the footwashing and Eucharist for the commandment of love.
There are few things more historically certain about Jesus than that he proclaimed a message of love. However, it was a many-faceted teaching, and each of the four gospel writers stress aspects that have particular meaning for their readers. This Sunday we ask: How did John's readers understand the commandment to love, and what message is there for us who live in radically different circumstances?
John the Evangelist was writing for a minority within a minority. Around the year 100 adherents of the religion of Israel made up about 10% of the population of the Roman Empire. The first members of the Jesus movement comprised a minority among Israelites, along with groups like the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and Essenes. These earliest Christians did not see themselves as distinct from the People of Israel. For them the Christian Way was not a rejection of the religion of Israel but the next step in its long development. They tried to convince their co-religionists that Jesus was the Messiah, the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.
This endeavor ended mostly in failure. Only a handful of Israelites joined the Jesus movement. After the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 most of the Israelites followed the leadership of the Pharisee movement. Toward the end of the century when John's Gospel was written, Christians and Jews as we know them today were emerging with separate identities.
Relationships seem to have become increasingly hostile. This made things very difficult for the Christian Jews of John's community. Not only did other Jews shun them, but also, to the extent that public officials acknowledged the verdict of exclusion, they lost the protection Jews had under Roman law. Jews were considered to be part of a "legitimate religion" and not required to offer sacrifices to the genius of the emperor. If Christians were no longer considered a movement within Judaism, they could be denounced at any time as members of a forbidden religion and forced to offer sacrifice under pain of death.
It appears that actual persecutions were relatively rare, but in their situation of double jeopardy it was vitally necessary for Christians to join together with a special kind of love. They had to sacrifice their own interests and even their lives for the survival of the community. In this context Jesus' command to love one another as he had loved his disciples spoke to their lived experience. In the face of common enemies who were a threat to their very existence as a community, they needed to set aside differences and to demonstrate their love for each other by action. Love between and among the disciples of Jesus became the first order of business.
Deep but Narrow and New
It should be noted that this love was deep but narrow. It was deep in the sense that it participated in the mutual love between Jesus and the Father. Toward the end of the Last Supper Discourse, John’s Jesus prays: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us . . . .” (17.21) A few verses later Jesus declares that he will make his “Righteous Father” known to his disciples “so that the love with which you [Father] have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (17.26) “According to John’s theology, this mutual love participates in the love flowing between the Father and the Son and between the Son and individual believers. . . Mutual love is grounded in mutual indwelling.” (Meier 2009, 563)
This love commandment is narrow in the sense that it only applies to Jesus’ loyal disciples. (At this point in John’s Gospel, Judas has left the light of the table and gone into the night.) By extension it applies to the members of the Evangelist’s community, but it does not extend to “the world” in the sense of Israelites who have rejected Jesus or the wider world of all humanity.
To some extent this kind of love can be found in any persecuted community that has managed to retain its identity. However, it was new in the sense that it was a response to the spontaneous and gratuitous love of God that forms the basis of the new covenant in Jesus. In the words of John J. Pilch, "the 'newness' of Jesus' commandment is implied in the themes that are woven throughout the farewell address: intimacy, indwelling, mutual knowledge. These are the themes that characterize a covenant, in this case, the 'new' covenant struck at the Last Supper." (Pilch 1997, 81)
What meaning does this new commandment of love have for us affluent American Christians who are not persecuted but part of the cultural majority in our society? How do we apply the words of Jesus to our situation? I think today's gospel reading challenges us in three ways.
First of all, it challenges us to love in a very concrete way those Christians with whom we live day-by-day – other parishioners, our leaders, and Christians of other denominations. The love commandment should affect the way we treat divisions within the Church such as those between laity and hierarchy, conservatives and progressives, fundamentalists and critical believers, etc. As we have seen in this and other passages from John’s Gospel, the bar of love is very high. We have to ask ourselves if we would be willing to die for our Christian counterparts in conflict.
Second, it challenges the scope of our love for fellow Christians. In this age of globalization and instant communication the gospel words of Jesus challenge us to love our Christian sisters and brothers throughout the world in a new and more catholic way. For example, we might ask ourselves how we can express our love for Christians living in countries where religious extremists are using violence to impose religiously based rule. How do we live in solidarity with the Christians of India, who make up less than three percent of India's total population, especially those who are currently subject to persecution? How do we demonstrate our attachment to the indigenous Christian community of Jerusalem, Israel, and occupied Palestine that is rapidly vanishing after decades of legally sanctioned discrimination and denial of civil liberties? How reliable are we in coming to the aid of persecuted Christians in Sudan and Nigeria or the tiny Christian Community of Iraq, devastated after decades of conflict?
Third, the words of Jesus about his new commandment of love should challenge American Christians to look at other reflections of Jesus' teaching about love in the gospel tradition. True, we are called to love one another in a new way, but that is not the whole story. Even in John's Gospel Jesus speaks of God's love for the world as the reason for giving his only Son. (John 3.16) If God loves the world that is outside the circle of Christian believers, why shouldn't we?
Matthew presents Jesus' many faceted teaching on love in a different form. "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." (Matthew 5.44-45) In Luke's Gospel Jesus praises the lawyer who sees love of God and love of neighbor as the way to eternal life. Then, with the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus makes it clear that we are to make ourselves neighbors to others by showing mercy. (Luke 10.25-37)
Thus, when we reflect on the entire teaching of Jesus about love, God challenges us to love not only other Christians but also all human beings. It is not a question of "either/or" but of "both/and." The love of those who share Baptism and Eucharist with us can transform us into a functional family in which the members care for and support each other. That same love can empower us, precisely as a local Christian community, to open our hearts to everyone in need.
In preparing these remarks the following works were consulted in addition to the biblical texts:
Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Gospel According to John (xiii-xxi), Volume 29A of the Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970), pp. 605-616.
James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword. The Church and the Jews, A History (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001), pp. 71-88.
Reginald H. Fuller, Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today (Collegeville [MN]: Liturgical Press, 1984), pp. 432-435.
Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998), pp. 226-228.
John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume Four: Law and Love (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), Chapter 36, “Widening the Focus: The Love Commandments of Jesus,” pp. 478-576, especially section V. “The Love Commandment in the Johannine Tradition,” pp. 558-572.
Joan Mitchell, CSJ, Sunday by Sunday, 5th Sunday of Easter, May 9, 2004, Vol. 13, No. 36, pp. 1-3.
Francis J. Moloney, S.D.B., The Gospel of John. Sacra Pagina Series, Volume 4, A Michael Glazier Book (Collegeville [MN]: Liturgical Press1998), pp. 381-391.
John J. Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle C . A Liturgical Press Book (Collegeville [MN]: Liturgical Press, 1997), pp. 79-81.