Lectionary Commentary

May 17, 2009
6th Sunday of Easter

Commentary by Russell Pregeant

See also: [Year B Archive]

Acts 10:44-48
Psalm 98
1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

The gospel reading continues Jesus’ discourse on himself as the true vine, now introducing the theme of love, which was prominent in last week’s epistle reading. Jesus links discipleship to love, which he commends in the context of the Father’s love for the Son and the Son’s love for the believers. Those who would be disciples must abide in the Son’s love, as he abides in God’s love; and to abide in Jesus’ love means to keep his commandment, which is that they love one another. The discourse thus defines life in Christ precisely as a life totally defined by love, and the depth of that love is illustrated in 15:13: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The reader will naturally link this statement to Jesus’ own sacrificial death, but on the basis of 16:2 we can also see that the principle applies to believers’ own possible martyrdom on behalf of the community. The Greek word translated as “friend” in vv. 13-14 is philos, which is related to the verb phileo, which means “to love.” Thus, as Gail R. O’Day notes, “when Jesus speaks of friends here, he is really saying ‘those who are loved.’” And since the Gospel of John uses phileo interchangeably with agapao (the verbal form of agape, which we usually associate with the type of self-giving love of God and Christ), the love he commends is precisely the kind he himself gives. (“The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, Abingdon Press, 1995, p. 759).

This reference to “friends,” or “those who are loved,” is clearly meant to indicate the Johannine community, especially in light of the fact that it comes immediately after Jesus issues the love command in its distinctive Johannine form: “love one another” (15:12, 17; see also 13:34). That is to say, the love he commands is specifically love among those who follow him. For this reason, some interpreters have criticized the Johannine writings for an ingrown, exclusive understanding of love; and scholars are generally agreed that the Gospel and Letters of John come from a sectarian form of early Christianity that felt very much alienated from the world at large. Indeed, we get a sense of this alienation in the language about conquering the world in the epistle reading. But is this criticism valid? Does phrasing the love command as an internal matter for the community mean that Johannine Christians are not called to love those in the outside world also?

One point to take into consideration is that in the Johannine world of thought, the fact that Christian love is grounded in Christ’s own love means that it is only within the community that access to that love is available. So it is not really a matter of intentionally refusing to love the world outside. But to say only this still leaves us with the impression of a rather hopeless attitude toward the world outside the walls of the community of faith. Another consideration is that the Gospel of John does in fact express God’s love for the world in 3:16 (“For God so loved the world….”) and clearly implies it in 1:2, which presents the Logos as “the light of all people.” And if human love is grounded in the love of God, who loves the world, then we can agree at least in part with Georg Strecker that

Whenever people let themselves be determined by this love, they stand completely under its claim, and are called to love even to the point of giving their lives. Every human limitation is excluded. The love of neighbor and the love of enemies are both therefore implied in the agape command, for whoever stands in unity with the Father and the Son is determined by the comprehensive and universal deed of love. (Theology of the New Testament, Westminster John Knox Press, 2000, p. 515).

Strecker’s statement admittedly involves a substantial logical extension of Jesus’ love command in John, which in and of itself still seems to be directed to the community. But it is just such extensions as this that a process hermeneutic, which intentionally weighs competing strains of thought within biblical writings against one another in light of our contemporary experience, proposes as valid interpretive moves. (See, further, Russell Pregeant, Knowing Truth, Doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Fortress Press, 2008, pp. 199-207: “The Johannine Ethic of Love.”)

An important aspect of the gospel lesson, from a process perspective, is that Jesus’ love command is issued precisely so that those who abide in Christ may experience joy (15:11). This emphasis upon joy is consonant with Whitehead’s insistence on the aesthetic basis of reality. This need not be interpreted as conflicting with a strong moral stance, since we can understand moral action as effort on behalf of the common good—that is, in Johannine terms, as directed toward increasing the joy of all. And, as Bultmann notes (The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Westminster Press, 1971, p. 529), through the use of the revelation formula ego eimi (I am) at the beginning of the discourse (15:1), Jesus “presents himself…as the object of the world’s desire and longing; if one asks about the ‘true vine’, then the answer is given: ‘The true vine am I.’” In other words, the life that Jesus brings (John 1:1) is precisely that authentic human existence for which all human beings, simply by virtue of their humanity, long for in the deepest recesses of their hearts. And this insight dovetails with the emphasis upon realized eschatology that pervades the Gospel of John. In 17:3, Jesus defines “eternal life” in qualitative terms, demonstrating that it is available in the here and now: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” But if in 15:11, Jesus defines the purpose of his words as to bring joy, in 15:17 he defines the purpose of his commands in these terms: “so that you may love one another.” Thus eternal life, knowledge of God, and love of one another are equivalents. To know God is to love, and to love is to have true life.

A similar point appears in the epistle lesson, which employs the term “born of God” as another way of speaking of true/eternal life. Here, however, knowledge of God is replaced with a confessional statement: “that Jesus is the Christ.” But we must not see the introduction of such a motif as the replacement of dynamic faith with a demand for doctrinal purity. In contrast to the Gospel, 1 John seems to be wrestling with a docetic tendency that has perhaps resulted from an overextension of the Gospel’s emphasis on Jesus’ divine status as the Logos incarnate. Thus the emphasis in 1 John 5:1 is on accepting the human Jesus (the word made flesh of John 1:14) as the one in whom God was truly present. And to that extent the verse is actually an affirmation of the material world. But if this is so, then how do we account for the language about conquering the world in vv. 4-5? The answer is that the Greek term kosmos is used in several different ways in the Johannine literature. In John 1:10, for example, it refers to the whole created order, whereas in 15:18-19 it is human society standing in opposition to God. And that is clearly how the term is used in 1 John 5: the “world” that the believer overcomes is a social system based upon values contrary to God’s own. The passage clearly reflects the community’s sectarian character in its use of the term “world,” but this is a usage that we should be able to relate to fairly easily, living as we do in the midst of a culture devoted to mindless consumption that worships at the feet of a soulless economic doctrine that breeds staggering injustices and ravages the earth.

The reading from Acts relates the Gentiles’ reception of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues after Peter’s preaching in the home of the Roman centurion Cornelius. It illustrates not only the action of the Holy Spirit in driving the Christian mission to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8) but also the theme of equal footing for all who receive baptism. The Gentiles, baptized by the Holy Spirit as were the Jewish Christians at Pentecost, are in no way distinguished from those initial believers who were privy to God’s revelation to Israel. If we bring this passage into juxtaposition with the Johannine readings, we can see it as an interesting complement. Although the world outside the community at any stage of its development is in some measure set over against the world, to say that “God so loved the world” is also to say that the world is redeemable—the Spirit is available to all persons who turn from their sin. Thus, once again, the command to “love one another” opens into a broader love that knows no form of exclusion whatsoever.

Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, Doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana Univesity (B.A., 1960).