The Focus of the Commandment

This coming Sunday is the 5th Sunday of Easter in Year C of the Lectionary Cycle. In yesterday’s post we explored a possible understanding of Jesus’ command to love each other. Today continue to read O’Day  reflection (734):

To interpret Jesus’ death as the ultimate act of love enables the believers to see that the love to which Jesus summons the community is not the giving up of one’s life, but the giving away of one’s life. The distinction between these prepositions is important, because the love that Jesus embodies is grace, not sacrifice. Jesus gave his life to his disciples as an expression of the fullness of his relationship with God and of God’s love for the world. Jesus’ death in love, therefore, was not an act of self-denial, but an act of fullness, of living out his life and identity fully, even when that living would ultimately lead to death. …

To love one another as Jesus loves us does not automatically translate into one believer’s death for another, nor does it mean to deny oneself for others. Jesus did not deny himself; he lived his identity and vocation fully. Rather, to love one another as Jesus loves us is to live a life thoroughly shaped by a love that knows no limits, by a love whose expression brings the believer closer into relationship with God, with Jesus, and with one another. It is to live a love that carries with it a whole new concept of the possibilities of community

This love command seems to focus on relations within the new community rather than toward outsiders, a focus that has led many to view John as a narrow sectarian with no concern for outsiders. Such a view, however, misses the larger picture. John is quite clear that this divine love, in which the disciples are to share, is for the whole world (3:16; 4:42; 17:9). Indeed, their love for one another is part of God’s missionary strategy, for such love is an essential part of the unity they are to share with one another and with God; it is by this oneness of the disciples in the Father and the Son that the world will believe that the Father sent the Son (17:21). Jesus’ attention here in the farewell discourse, as well as John’s attention in his epistles, is on the crucial stage of promoting the love between disciples. The community is to continue to manifest God as Jesus has done, thereby shining as a light that continues to bring salvation and condemnation (cf. chaps. 15-16). Without this love their message of what God has done in Christ would be hollow.

John was known in the ancient church for his concern for love. Jerome tells of John in his extreme old age saying, whenever he was carried into the assembly, “Little children, love one another.” When his disciples got tired of this, they asked, “Master, why do you always say this?” “It is the Lord’s command. If this alone be done, it is enough” (Jerome Commentary on Galatians at Gal 6:10).

In the earliest centuries of the church divine love was indeed the hallmark of the community of Jesus (e.g., Ignatius of Antioch Letter to the Ephesians 4.1; Justin Martyr 1 Apology 1.16; Minucius Felix Octavius 9). Tertullian reports that the pagans said of the Christians, “See, they say, how they love one another . . . how they are ready even to die for one another” (Apology 39).

The love that Jesus is speaking of is not simply a feeling. One cannot really command a feeling. It is willing and doing the best for the other person (1 Jn 3:11-18). Since God’s will alone is that which is truly good in any situation, love acts in obedience to God’s will, under the guidance of the Spirit. Jesus has revealed such a life – only doing what he sees the Father doing and only speaking what he hears from the Father. The same pattern is to be true of the disciple, because “whoever claims to abide in him ought to live (just) as he lived” (1 Jn 2:6). Feelings of compassion and concern will be present as the disciple more and more perfectly shares in God’s own love for those around him or her, but such feelings are not the source nor the evidence for this love that Jesus demands of his followers (cf. 15:1-17).

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