By Dcn. Eric Whitehair on the Sixth Sunday of Easter
In the Name ✠ of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In John’s Gospel, we see a different side of Jesus. We don’t see as much as in the – what they call the synoptic gospels: you probably already know that Matthew, Mark and Luke, the three Gospels preceding the Gospel of John, are known as the synoptic Gospels, and they fit together, they tell a very similar story, they have a very similar picture of Jesus. Indeed, some Bible scholars think that perhaps Mark was written first, and then Matthew and Luke used Mark as source material to add more of the tradition or experiences that people may have had and to expand their Gospels. And every Gospel has a different focus and a different intended audience.
The Gospel of John is very different from the preceding three; however. It’s not considered to be part of the synoptic Gospels. And what we see in the Gospel of John is a recording of Jesus’s words in long, treatise-like lectures, in a way that we don’t see a whole lot of, outside of perhaps the Sermon on the Mount, say, in the three Gospels preceding it.
And if you take a moment to look at the words of our Lord in the Gospel of John you’ll see that there’s a lot packed in there. That these lectures, if that’s what we are looking at, if we are look at the lectures Jesus delivered to his disciples, if that’s what the Gospel of John is, that collection, we see in there a lot packed in to every single line.
I ask myself whenever I prepare for – to do a sermon or a homily – one of the questions that I was trained to ask in Deacon training is, “What is the Gospel in this section? What is the good news that comes out of this?” Unfortunately, I usually find two or three sermons in every sermon I try to write, and so it becomes addition by subtraction.
This time though, I decided to just, as they say, lean into it. So I’m going to go into John’s recording of Jesus’s lecture, it’s a treatise, really, and give you what jumped out at me about the Gospel in each line, and there’s a lot here. It seems repetitive upon first glance, or at least it did to me, but upon further inspection things started to come out, and I wanted to share those with you. So indulge me as we walk through, and I’m going to read through today’s Gospel, and share what has marched out for me.
“As the Father has loved me, so as 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.” That seems like almost a repetitive statement that just says, “Do what I told you to do,” but look a little closer. He makes a finer distinction between my Father’s commandments and My commandments. He’s saying them like they’re two separate things. The possessive word, ‘my,’ is here used to designate two different sets: “If you keep My commandments, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments.” Jesus’s commandments are two: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. These are the two great commandments.
The commandments that He speaks of, we can assume, or I will assume, I’ll take that blame myself, I will assume that He’s referring to the Torah, what Jesus would have been brought up believing to be, of course, the Bible, which indeed is part of our Bible, the first five books of it. A great Jewish thinker named Maimonides in the Middle Ages went through, and, by his estimation, in the Torah there were 613 separate commandments that a faithful person was to follow if they were true about their practice of Torah. We kind of get a bargain here – 613 or 2?
I do not mean to denigrate in any way, and I’m not, I’m hoping that I’m not, intending to denigrate our Jewish brothers and sisters. They will be the first to tell us that it is easier to be a non-Jew than it is to be a Jew. They told me so, fair enough, two certainly seems like a lighter load to carry than 613. But, without – I might be being a little lighthearted about something that I shouldn’t – but without being too lighthearted, remember those two commandments, in fact, do have a great amount of demands. Love the Lord your God with ALL your strength and ALL your heart, that’s a lot. Love your neighbor as yourself – love your neighbor and love yourself. And just in case we missed that point, Jesus actually summarizes it for us, “This is my commandment: Love one another as I have loved you. No one has any greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Obviously we’re seeing a foreshadowing of what is to come in John’s Gospel, actually in all the Gospels, which, of course, is our Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection. He’s going to lay down his life for his friends.
But I think that Jesus may be speaking on more than one level when He says this. Yes, this is certainly a foreshadowing of His crucifixion. Yes, He could be speaking very literally that friends who indeed lay down their lives, who willingly suffer death or pain, but especially death, to help one of their brothers and sisters, there is no greater love than this.
But I was challenged to think that maybe, perhaps, maybe laying down one’s life isn’t just a euphemism for dying. That, when done right, people lay down their lives for each other all the time. Every parent lays down their life, if done well, for their child. That is, their life is not their own. They’re not holding tightly onto their own life just for themselves. They’re giving their lives to their children, on behalf of their children, to the benefit of their children, to some extent. Which led me to something that I was taught by one of my spiritual mentors, Fr. Parker. He would usually chastise me by saying, remember who you are and whose you are, the implication being that my life does not solely belong to me, and that I’m not to be using it just for myself and that in Christian community, if done the way that I think our Lord perhaps intended, what we would have is everyone laying down their lives for each other all the time without dying. That we live in community with each other, each of us understanding that our lives are something that we were to give away for each other all the time. These two commandments are getting heavier and heavier, aren’t they?
“You are my friends and if you do what I command you, you are our friends. If you do what I command you, I do not call you servants any longer because a servant does not know what the master is doing but I’ve called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I’ve heard from my Father.” We see Jesus going into a thought about what is different between a servant and a friend. And friend is a theme here: we are to lay down our lives for our friends, we are to love each other as friends, and we see a model of that here. And we also see a rejection of something that is not friendship.
The word here is, let me make sure I have the translation, it says this, the translation here is ‘servant.’ My understanding is, in the original Greek, is that servant, at least from, coming through a filter of 1865 to now, the word servant to us might imply a paid person. We also have the word ‘slave.’ My understanding is the word ‘slave’ and ‘servant’ in the Greek are not actually separate words. He’s throwing a word out here, and when I say throwing it out, I don’t mean giving it to us, he’s kicking an idea away: friends, love, self-sacrifice, not bondage.
You are not slaves any longer, you are friends. Are we equals? No, not all friends are equals, right? Lord help me, legitimately and sincerely I say this, if I were to pretend that my friend Brian, who’s a master electrician, would be coming to my house and that I would be his equal in helping him to rewire my house. Things would literally burn down. We’re friends, we’re not equals in that respect. He knows more than I do, he’s better at it, he’s got practice that I don’t. So well, of course, I’ll make a pitch for radical egalitarianism in the next sermon, perhaps, but I’ll say this: there’s a difference between friends and servants, we are told that we are all friends.
And then I really like what ends up here. It’s a promise. We are told that we are to sacrifice. We are told that if we really love each other, we would lay down our lives for each other. That’s a heavy order. We are told that they are commands, like these are commandments. These aren’t the suggestions, these aren’t the, “Well, if you get around to it on Wednesdays,” right, these are commandments, and that feels very heavy, we have two commandments to keep, but then we’re promised something. “You did not choose me,” He says. Our Lord says, “I chose you. I appoint you to go bear fruit and whatever you ask in my Name will be given.” And He closes, “I’m giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” Amen.