This coming Sunday is the 5th Sunday of Easter in Year C of the Lectionary Cycle. While it appears after Easter, the gospel reading is taken from the evening of what we call Holy Thursday. So, perhaps we should place this short gospel passage in context. The public ministry of Jesus has drawn to a close with John 12. Here in Chapter 13 begins the “private ministry” of Jesus preparing his disciples for his impending death.
John 13:1-17:26 is characterized by Jesus’ being alone with his disciples before his betrayal and arrest. While there may have been others present, such as those who were serving the meal, the focus is on the Twelve (so also Mt 26:20; Mk 14:17; Lk 22:14). The section begins with an account of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and the prediction of Judas’ betrayal (13:1-30). Then there is a lengthy section known as the farewell discourse, which consists of teachings (13:31–16:33) and a concluding prayer by Jesus (17:1-26). Our gospel is from John 13:31-35.
These five chapters (13-17) veer sharply from the previous presentation of Jesus’ teaching and performing signs to an insistence on the Christian’s actual, realized life in Jesus. In the course of offering assurance and comfort in the face of his impending departure, Jesus develops various themes that have been introduced earlier in his ministry, including glory, mutual indwelling and love. His main point is the realized experience of life in God the disciples already have and will continue to have.
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23) – and thus is explicitly stated the theme of the second major part of John’s gospel: The Book of Glory. While John has already provided us with his Book of Signs, this second part of the gospel contains the great sign – the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Yet this discourse is not John’s commentary on these signs. It is John’s way of telling us that the heavenly realities signified in the miracles/signs are now present and available to humanity. The category of sign has blossomed into the realm of Glory.
The emphasis is not on the future but on the present. We hear the voice of Jesus speaking to “his own” (13:1) for whom he is willing to lay down his life because of his love for them (15:13). The Jesus who speaks here transcends time and space, as though already risen and glorified, speaking to his disciples of present life, of indwelling, of love, of affected judgment, of the Spirit Paraclete who is at once both advocate and revealer. Jesus leaves to go to the Father and, in a little while, to return. Fr. Raymond Brown notes “Although [Jesus] speaks at the Last Supper, he is really speaking from heaven; although those who hear him are his disciples, his words are directed to Christians of all times.”
The central stress is on union: the union of Father and Son; the gift and indwelling presence of their Spirit; the union of Son and disciples; the union of disciples with one another. The dynamism of all this is love, a word that now begins to take over John’s good news. If we really want to know who and what Jesus is, so that we might know who and what God is, Love is the answer. In these chapters, therefore, is the most profound teaching on God and discipleship in the Bible – the life of believers described in relation to the persons of the Godhead.