For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome,” writes John in his letter to his young community. “His commandments are not burdensome,” yet as N.T. Wright points out any talk of “commandments” can be a hard sell “in a world where…. anybody telling anyone else what to do—even God telling his creatures what to do—is felt as an imposition, a belittling or patronizing attempt to keep people down.” For the most part, this is an age in which we’d rather not have rules, binding commandments, laws, and the such—guidelines or maybe strong suggestions are about as far as most of us want to go, particularly when it comes to matters religious and spiritual. Even in secular legal matters, we tend to be most convinced that laws are most necessary for those troublesome others. As for me and my house, we don’t really need to get a building permit for this renovation. And what’s a little shared software between friends?
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Yet John seems pretty clear that there are commandments of God to be obeyed, and that to redeemed by the grace of God isn’t the same thing as being handed a free pass to do and be whatever I damned well feel like doing and being. No, this business of actually obeying the commandments of God is crucial for John. “By this we know that we love the children of God”—in short, that we have love one for another—“when we love God and obey his commandments.”
But what is John referring to when he writes of God’s commandments? Is he attempting to drive his community back to a thoroughgoing observance of the law, of the torah? No, at least not a narrow sense. The Greek word for the law is nomou, while here the word used is entole, which can be translated as “commandment,” “direction,” or “precept.” The two terms are not unrelated, though in the Johannine letters the emphasis is not on the laws of the torah as constitutive of a good or holy or righteous life, but rather on two overlapping concerns: belief in Jesus as the Son of God, and love for one another. “And this is his commandment,” John writes in the third chapter of this epistle, “that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” (1 John 3:23)
Now it must be added that in the tradition of John’s letters and gospel, as in the other three gospels, there is also a deep conviction that love of God is of a piece with love of neighbour (Matthew 22.37-38 and parallels), and that this emphasis is itself deeply rooted in the Hebrew scriptures. The unique contribution of the Gospel according to John is that this claim is placed on the church community in a very specific way. It begins to be unfolded for the disciples—and so for both that ancient community for which John was an elder and for us—in the 13th chapter of the gospel, when Jesus says to them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34) It is then extended and deepened in the passage we read today.
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (John 15:10-12)
No shying away from commandment language here, as Jesus reiterates the “new commandment “to love one another as I have loved you.” In what might seem like a bit of circular reasoning, the claim is made that to love God is to keep the commandments, and at their core the commandments are a call that we love. But lest we think that this has taken the whole tradition of the law and the prophets and reduced it to something soft and doughy—the ancient world’s version of the old Beatles song, in which they sing, “It’s easy / All you need is love, all you need is love / All you need is love, love, love is all you need”—here a new angle is added: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” It’s easy? Maybe not.
This teaching is set on the night of Jesus’ arrest, as he shares his last meal with his followers, meaning that the air is thick with the cost of a life being offered for sake of others. And yet the truly remarkable teaching is what follows, as Jesus says to them,“You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Two things here. First of all, if it sounds as if Jesus is making his friendship conditional—if it sounds as if the phrase “if you do what I command you” sounds like a bit of playground banter… “I’ll be your friend if you share your candy”—remember that his new commandment is that they love one another, just as he has loved them. It is not a piece of relational bribery, but rather a descriptive call to a deeper mutuality.
And secondly, that he is calling them his friends would have been all but unthinkable in that ancient context. He was their rabbi and master, and they were his students. For all that there could well be real warmth in the relationship between master and student, a clear distinction in status would have remained. And yet here in John’s telling, Jesus says very clearly, “I have called you friends.”
It is often observed that the modern age has a very thin concept of friendship, and that’s not the fault of Facebook, either… though I wish the label there was something a bit more neutral like “contact” rather than “friend.” No, Facebook simply reflects the thinness of our modern appreciation of friendship, which the philosopher Cicero ranked as an eternal virtue, and which the medieval mystic and theologian Aelred of Rievaulx saw as a foretaste of eternity in God. We think of friendship as a casual thing, a half step beyond a simple acquaintance; the ancients saw it as the highest of all human relationships. And so now listen to these words:
I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. (John 15:15)
You have been elevated to a new status, or perhaps better, matters of status have been wiped away. I have trusted you with everything I know, Jesus says to them, and my life is being laid down for you. It is all different now; be that difference for each other. The selflessness of agape/love rolls into the virtue of philos/friendship, and a new people is birthed.
It’s a high calling, actually, and a brilliant vision, but I hardly have to tell you that in reality much of the story of the church has been a grand adventure in missing that point. Its heartbreaking, really, what has happened in the history of the church and in the stories of individual communities. Yet there have been equally grand exceptions to all of that, of course, along with those countless moments when we do catch the rumours of glory that arise whenever the Gospel is proclaimed and the love of which Jesus spoke is extended, received, exchanged. But people and structures being what they are, time and again we will need to hear Jesus utter his new commandment and extend to us his friendship. Time and again we’ll need to hear these things, examine our own lives and patterns and assumptions, and take a hard look at how we structure the life of our church. And time and again, we might just hear a rumour of glory and become that new people willing to be that difference for each other. If on some days that seems a bit of an idealized long shot, remember this: we are a death/resurrection people, and we lie now on the other side of the cross of that great death. And on this side of the cross all things become possible, even what seem like idealized long shots. It is Eastertide, after all.