This is a Sunday for reaching toward nuances around the word “love” and the meaning of being “chosen” by God as a “friend.”
We are given the question: What is the meaning of “love one another”? In the scene read from John’s Gospel, Jesus is speaking to his disciples, his friends, and we might conclude that the love he intended to foster was an in-crowd thing. In Homily Service from 2006, Mary Katharine Deeley sets the stage for thinking about how to understand what Jesus’ means.
The highlight of this passage comes when Jesus tells the disciples they are no longer slaves, but friends. Moses, Joshua, David, and even Paul described themselves as servants (or, literally, slaves) of the LORD and encouraged their listeners to be slaves for the LORD rather than to the Egyptians or to the world or to sin.
With the appellation friends Jesus ushers in a new dimension of the relationship that suggests a voluntary decision to follow Jesus out of love, knowing full well what some of the consequences might be. Jesus also comments on the sacrifice that one friend might make for another, even if it means death. Finally, in his exhortation to the disciples to love one another, Jesus shows them that this new understanding of relationship informs the Christian community as well. – Mary Katharine Deeley
If we are to understand love through Jesus’ way of loving, Lucy Bregman notes two problems:
Following on [Jesus’] self-comparisons with the Shepherd and the Vine, it evokes a picture of a small close-knit group of followers who flock together under his guidance. They relate individually and collectively to him as branches to the vine. But the text that follows shows such a group hostile to the world outside its borders. ‘‘Love each other’’ functions as an in-group ethic with no relation to outsiders. This ‘‘sectarian’’ quality of the Johannine church is criticized in Raymond E. Brown’s remarkable reconstruction of The Community of the Beloved Disciple (New York: Paulist Press, 1979). The other problem Brown addressed is that ‘‘love each other’’ offers no guidelines for how to handle disagreements. The conflicts expressed in the Johannine epistles reveal how unresolvable these became, finally resulting in one side completely excluding the rest. Brown’s account may not be historically accurate, but it is painfully psychologically plausible. – Lucy Bregman
Bregman explains that Christians have long seen Jesus’ command of love as one that did not entail either eros (sensuous desire) or agape (self-sacrificing love). But she finds a problem with disallowing the rich aspects of those definitions because sometimes love of God can come through love of another person. Likewise, we cannot always assume that an individual’s self-sacrifice is an unquestionable good.
The command to love each other, she writes,
. . . may be better understood as the space within which all more specific commandments, rules and guidelines can be lived out, rather than as a substitute for them. – Lucy Bregman
Perhaps the experience of the Holy Spirit coming to non-Jews speaks to us today as our own society struggles to stretch the notion of love to those who have been disallowed from expressing theirs. What does it mean or look like for a nation to make space for love within and beyond its borders? What does Peter’s question mean for us today: “Can anyone withold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
1 John 5:1-6
The last chapter of John’s letter expresses the close connection between love of God and obedience to the commandments and between faith in Jesus and victory over the world. Those who love God will obey God. In obedience to God we show that we love one another. Typical of John’s writing style, he repeats the same message in different ways, reversing the elements of the sentence in an attempt to put into words the relationship Christ has with his Father and with his followers. The result is nearly hypnotic, but manages to capture the theological implications of Christian relationship. – Mary Katharine Deeley
[Jesus] commands us to love him and one another with the same fidelity with which he has befriended us. So we embrace each other with the peace which is his peace regardless of arguments and sentiments of like and dislike. And when we do, it is the Holy Spirit in us and Christ’s command of friendship living in us. – John E. Smith
Lucy Bregman is professor of religion at Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the author of several books, most recently Preaching Death: The Transoformation of Protestant Funeral Sermons (Baylor, 2011) and The Ecology of Spirituality (Baylor, 2014). She is a member of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Norwood, Pennsylvania.
John E. Smith has served as a United Methodist pastor for many years.
Mary Katharine Deeley is the director of Christ the Teacher Institute of the Sheil Catholic Center, the Roman Catholic campus ministry at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois. She is the author of many books, a frequent speaker on diverse topics, and a pastoral advisor.
Homily Service 39, no. 6 (2006): 22-30.