Gospel of John 15:9-17
“Jesus said to his disciples: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. 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. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I love 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 no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father. It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you. This I command you: love one another.”
“If,” No, this is not about the Christopher Moore’s Gospel According to Biff, Jesus’ Childhood Best Friend, but about “If.” The state of possibility. But what is “IF”?
“If” is typically half of a conditional statement. It is half of an agreement, if – then, right? Therefore, like the good legalese Pharise,es as the Jewish scholars are portrayed in the New Testament, we can reason that if we do X, then Jesus will do Y.
But that’s not what the line from this allegorical gospel says, is it?
Let’s read it again together: “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love.” To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there’s no then, then, is there?
The point is what we, as good little literalists expect to see and read, is simply not there. It does not say If you keep my commandments, THEN you will remain in my love. Oh, but Tom, is there, but it’s just understood! Like the grammatical rule of the invisible YOU UNDERSTOOD, the THEN is there, it’s just not written out…
Now, I’m not a scholar of ancient Greek, so forgive me if I stick to the text as its written today, but, what if, it’s NOT an accident? What if the statement is intended as written: If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love… that the onus is not on us to complete a contractual agreement, but the continuation of a relationship and a state of harmonious being.
Personally, I have never been a huge fan of the Gospel of John; don’t get me wrong, it is such beautiful prose… but when I stop listening to the flowery language and read the text, I have visions of a high Christology Super Jesus and the fiery pits of Dante’s hell and the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. I see hand-held signs at sports stadiums declaring, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
“THAT whoever believes shall not perish…”
“IF you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love.”
So what if I don’t believe or keep the commandments? I suppose that’s always been my problem… I’ve always considered John to be a veiled threat. OK, maybe not so veiled, after all, the next line shortly after John 3:16 is: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” You see my problem… or, maybe you don’t…
Yes, the Catholic Church, in particular, teaches that people must accept Jesus to enter the Kingdom of God. But the Catechism also says, “the window of Heaven is also open to those “who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart.”
What about atheists who are aware of Christian teaching but still don’t subscribe? What about people like those who may live in a culturally Christian society but who has no use for irrational dogma?” The key concept that many supposed orthodox who profess to be Christian seem to miss is the understanding behind Line 847 of the Catholic Catechism, as already stated, that none of us know anything about the personal experiences of one another, experiences or intellectual hang-ups, hurt, anger, or questions… Who are we to know each other’s hearts and minds?
If we accept the Catholic Church’s teaching, and that’s just one perspective, but if we start here, we presume that the received Good News was authentic… what about if someone was abused by a representative of the Church, someone in a war zone who sees bombs dropped by Christian soldiers, someone who witnesses a crime committed by a purported believer at a formative age, etc., etc. These are all inauthentic experiences of the Good News which would mean that Heaven would still be open to those “who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart.”
And yet, not all our Christian sisters and brothers would probably agree. For the sake of argument, however, let’s consider an alternative.
What if John, with all his If’s and That’s, what if John is not a veiled threat of suffering and hell, but an invitation of love and a no-strings-attached invitation to a state of being. What if, as Paul VI stated in Nostra aetate, all people of good will and good faith are welcome into the Kingdom of Heaven?
Yes, the consortium of John writes, “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.” Amen, my friends, what if that is as easy as it is!! Keep the Commandments, remain in the state of love! Just as Jesus, our translation of his name Yeshua exists, in a state of God’s love!
[For contextual purposes, let us remember that the Gospel and Epistles of John were as famed British Methodist scholar C. K. Barrett, and later Fr. Raymond E. Brown of Union Theological Seminary, as both theologians pointed out, a Johannine community most likely wrote those parts of the New Testament ascribed to St John, the Beloved. The Gospel of John, being the last of the canonical Gospels, was written after Christianity and Judaism had separated, and, particularly in the regions of Judea, were now rivals… thus, John is written with a bit of an “us v them” competition, so perhaps that’s where the veiled and not-so-veiled threats come from? It is not exactly the same in the Gospel of Matthew, for example, which is written more to invite and entreat Jews of the early 1st century C.E. So, yes, John is more allegorical and have more articulated/implied consequences than the Synoptics, and is written later, but John also continues the evangelical call for all people to hear and accept the Good News.]
Interestingly, in the passage of John that we are discussing, Jesus distinguishes between the Father’s commandments, what we call the 10 Commandments, and Jesus’ commandments, what he refers to a “my commandments” and later, even more specifically, he says “This is my command.” It seems to me that a lot of our sisters and brothers who may congratulate themselves for “following Jesus” may have read this passage a bit too quickly because, if I’m reading this correctly, Jesus has said that:
If you keep my commandments (which he lists in the next line is the commandment to love one another) you will remain in my love.
My brothers and sisters, it seems that, even if you’re still holding out hope for that missing “then” part of the If statement… even if it were here, some of us, including my self might be in trouble. For if it’s the Ten Commandments that I’m being judged on, I’m doing pretty well… Don’t Kill, check, don’t covet thy neighbors donkey, check, honor the Sabbath, well we’re here right now, aren’t we?
But, if its Jesus commandment to love one another that we’re being judged upon, then Dante’s Hell and Bosch’s paintings are getting a little scarier right now… and, is it me? Or is it getting a little warmer in here too? (Smile)
I confess, I have judged people for how to dress, how well they speak, and other superficial characteristics that I would not want to be judged upon.
I sadly can tell you that I have avoided making eye contact with people who are homeless and the needy.
My family can definitely tell you that I have lost patience at times and may have even raised my voice once in the distant, distant past…
Friends, I am aware that the Golden Rule is not repeated anywhere in the Gospel of John, but does any one of us believe that the Golden Rule, then does not exist?
Amen ,I say to you, if the Golden Rule is real, if we are to do unto one another as we would hope that they doo unto us, then, should or WOULD God be any different? If we believe that God is a merciful God, a God of Forgiveness, and a God of the Washing of the Feet, yes, that God. Would THAT God not uphold the Golden Rule of the Universe… No, I do not think that God inspired the wring of John to build a relationship with us based upon fear or conditions, nor threaten us with hell…
For, in the very next part of today’s reading, as I’ve already pointed out, says, “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” That is a relationship of love and sacrifice.
One of my many favorite stories of heroism, in 2015, New England Patriots Vince Wilfork, was leaving Gillette Stadium after the AFC title game, and saw a car, overturned on the side of the road, pulled over to the accident and carried the driver to safety… do you know, apparently, he didn’t even ask the woman if she was a Patriots’ fan?
In 2016, I watched the movie Hacksaw Ridge about the life of Desmond Doss… you know what? Shockingly- there are no records of Doss doing any quick 10 Commandments “check-in” before he saved any of the 50–75 wounded soldiers he carried to safety.
Just last year, in the chaos of the Congressional Baseball Shooting, I don’t remember Brad Wenstrup checking with Steve Scalise about his charitable donations as he fought to control the bleeding in Scalise’s wounded thigh.
And just two weeks ago, James Shaw Jr. ended that deadly shooting at a Tennessee Waffle House before more lives were lost. Does anyone here think he counted off the sins of the bystanders while counting the number of rounds and waiting for the moment to take wrestle the gun away before anyone else was hurt?
Sure, these events are remarkable stories of heroism, but also of the Golden Rule. Every day in this country and around the world, there are house fires and tragic car accidents. And, as far as I know, first responders don’t check the church attendance of those in car accidents or burning homes… Would our God be any different?
Amen, I say to you, John 15:9-17 is NOT a story of exclusion, self-congratulations, and hubris. It is a story is IF. It is a story not just invitation, but IF-vitation. Join me; join the “if” – and together, we will uncover the meaning of what it means “remaining in God’s love.
If/That, and God… Amen.