by William Loader, Murdoch University, Australia
Gospel Reading: John 15:9-17
Closely connected to last week’s reading, this passage moves away from the image of the vine to speak directly of love. Love characterizes the Father’s relation with the Son and the Son’s relation with the disciples. ‘God is love’ appears in 1 John 4:8, but is already the foundational idea here. It is interesting that the language of command also appears. The command is simple: ‘Love one another, as I have loved you’ (echoes of 13:33-34). Keeping God’s commandments is language familiar enough to John and his readers from their Jewish background. In typical fashion John has it all centre on Christ and reduces it simply to love. It is not, here, an admonition to keep the ten commandments or even a revised version of them based on Jesus’ ethical teachings.
Jesus offers himself as the model of love. He gave his life for his friends (15:13). John is probably not thinking of sacrificial or substitutionary atonement here, but rather of love, willing to go so far as to suffer danger and death to express love. Perhaps it is in the background. The focus is clearly love.
It is worth noticing how John pictures what happens when this love is fulfilled. 15:11 speaks of joy. It affirms human joy as the fruit of divine intention. Occasionally we need a reminder about this. The goal is not a purity which is spotless and stark, morbid and serious, but joy which fulfils itself in love.
Notice also how 15:15 addresses the issue of status. It abandons the imagery of servitude in favour of friendship. While the language of serving and servitude has dominated Christian tradition, this little correction deserves more reflection. Could we say: God does not want slaves; God wants companions? It creates a different model of spirituality. Of course friendship also means letting the other be and acknowledging that otherness in its integrity and sacredness. Certainly there is no thought of ‘pocketing’ God or Jesus in a way which reduces either - a kind of power-play which makes them manageable (pocket-able and in my control). Some people either want to dominate or be dominated. The model here is different. It does not compromise the integrity or holiness of the other, but affirms companionship in such holiness.
The language of intimacy returns with the notion of being chosen. It should probably be seen more as doxological language in which love expresses awe and gratitude than as the tip of an iceberg of analysis which is bent on proving some are chosen and some are rejected, though it easily forms such a solid mass in situations of conflict. John 8 and 1 John 2:18-19 illustrate that. The focus here is more on why the disciples are in this special relationship: to bear fruit (15:16). With this the writer brings us back to the image of the vine and returns to the intimacy which assures that we are listened to and loved. We will be heard when we ask (15:16). We ask no more, no less than fulfilment of the relationship in love.
We end in 15:17 with what we already read in 15:12, the command that we love one another. The passages points backwards and forwards. Backwards it recalls the washing of the disciples’ feet in John 13. That expressed Jesus’ lowly love and modelled how they should love one another. His love modelled love, but also generates love. There is more here than following Jesus’ example. John secures this insight by beginning John 15 with the image of the vine. The branches are not ‘huffing and puffing’ to love, but opening themselves to an enabling process, which, nurtured, fulfils itself.
The passage points forward to the great prayer of Jesus about unity. 15:9-17 is focused on the Christian community. Perhaps the vine image was wider than that with its image of fruit bearing, but a major crisis was developing within John’s community which needed Jesus’ instruction and his prayer - or, at least, the members needed to hear what Jesus would have prayed. The unity was not ‘airy-fairy’, but relational and practical. After the breakdown has occurred in these relations, we read in 1 John that such mutual love needed to express itself in real ways, in sharing material resources, in deed as well as word (1 John 3:17-18).
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