Last Sunday’s Gospel introduced us to Jesus’ farewell discourse- a final series of teachings to disciples before his arrest and crucifixion. Through these teachings, Jesus reveals that his heavenly union with God, the bridging of the human and divine realm, will forge a permanent relationship between Jesus and all believers. Jesus continually invites us into deeper relationship with Him, and we accept this invitation by fulfilling what Sr. Jeanne Cover beautifully named last week as our life’s vocation of love.
And so, it is no surprise that in a direct continuation from last week, love is the foundational teaching of today’s Gospel.
Jesus’ words are clear, but perhaps deceivingly simple: “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
Though familiar messaging in the synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John does not record Jesus saying anything about loving one’s neighbour or loving one’s enemy. Jesus asks that disciples love Him because Jesus does not merely show his disciples a spiritual way or share some spiritual truths, Jesus is the Way and the Truth. Jesus is also the Life, and through love for Him and consequent adherence to his commandments, believers experience the joy and fulfillment of life as God envisioned.
But this command to love cannot be an individualized task or an expression of personal piety. Jesus’ love command translates love as a verb- and putting one’s love for Jesus into action must extend into community. In other words, an identifying feature of the quality of one’s relationship with Christ is the quality of one’s love for another member of the body of Christ.
According to Bishop Robert Barron, the deeply relational aspect of the Christian faith is expressed in the first line of the Gloria during Catholic liturgy: “Glory to God in the highest. And on earth peace to people of good will.” Bishop Barron calls this a formula for fruitful relationships. If God is glorified, the community of believers is sustained in love and is oriented to a transcendent good that transforms communal bonds. In this way, if we say we love Jesus, it is impossible not to act upon this love by keeping His commandments and loving one another as Jesus has loved us.
Biblical scholar Gail O’Day claims that, despite its simplicity, we cannot dismiss the language of love and mutuality as a serious ethical command, stating “to love one another may be the most difficult thing Jesus could have asked.”
Jesus’ command for us to love Him is about relational love, and deceiving because it is really a two-pronged challenge. Not only is loving Jesus and having that love pour out into the body of Christ definitely easier said than done, but actually serving as an effective witness of Jesus’ love is a sort of high stakes enterprise.
In many cases, it may be almost easier to love a stranger or forgive an enemy. But because it’s so personal, love towards the ones we see every day, the ones who for us are the Kingdom of God and who we turn to to help nurture our own relationship with Christ sometimes requires an extra special effort.
The love command is a real challenge for us today just as it was for Jesus’ own disciples. Jesus’ love command foreshadowed that the life of the early church would be fraught with internal tensions and hardships. If the command to love seemed all too familiar to his disciples because the word “love” appears so often in John’s Gospel, I like to imagine Jesus pulling threads of his teaching together, and saying in no uncertain terms: ‘What I’m asking is challenging, but please remain in community and love one another as I have loved you. In spreading the Good News, many may be inspired by your care for one another- and it is that very love between my followers that will draw others to me.’
No less relevant for today, the stakes are still high because if done with intention, the love command is a model of true discipleship. If Christ’s love is genuinely enacted between members of the Body of Christ, this love will serve as an outward sign of grace that enables the communion of believers to flourish and multiply.
To help in our challenge of true discipleship, Jesus promises his disciples the everlasting gift of the Holy Spirit, also known as “the Advocate” or “spirit of truth.” The Holy Spirit will be sent to the world in Jesus’ physical absence and will animate His spiritual presence in all believers- “because I live, you also will live.” Upon His death, the Holy Spirit enables believers to remember Jesus’ words and act upon them.
Without the Holy Spirit to draw awareness to the everlasting indwelling of Christ’s spirit in the believer, believers risk merely internalizing a Christ-like love, driven by individual ego, a spiritual climate in which relationship with Christ can wither and grow stagnant. It is the abiding power of the Holy Spirit that renews and sustains the believer in externalized love, and sanctifies a living relationship between Christ and the believer. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are not given to the individual alone but for the purpose of building up the body of Christ.
The mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit and the command to love is desperately needed now- especially as we navigate the paradox of remaining connected as a loving body of Christ while in a time of social-distancing and isolation.
In the coming week, take time to ponder how you have revealed a love for Jesus by keeping connected to your family of faith. How has your membership in the body of Christ- the local and Universal Church- offered you consolation or hope during this time of quarantine?