Acts 10.44-end; Psalm 98; 1 John 5.1-6; John 15.9-17
IN THE ascension, Jesus’s body is taken back into the presence of his Father. “What is involved here is not change of location within the world but a transformation of state.” His physical concealment within the cloud — a biblical symbol of the Lord’s presence — reveals that he is taking our humanity into the Godhead (Hans urs Von Balthasar, The Threefold Garland: The world’s salvation in Mary’s prayer). Sunday’s Gospel prepares the disciples for this, promising that it will make possible a new form of presence, no longer confined to one place. In St Augustine’s words, the ascended Christ is still “with us by his divinity, his power, and his love”.
If the disciples keep Jesus’s commandment to love one another as he has loved them, then they will “abide” in him. As Augustine observes, “we cannot be in heaven, as he is on earth, by divinity, but in him we can be there by love.”
Jesus goes on to tell his disciples that they are no longer to be called servants, but friends. His words indicate that friendship in Christ had been made possible by grace alone. St Thomas Aquinas explains that Jesus is telling us: “Whoever has been called to this sublime friendship should not attribute the cause of this friendship to himself, but to me, who chose him or her as a friend” (Commentary on the Gospel of St John).
While Jesus commands us to love our enemies as well as our friends, the focus of John 15 is on the command to love those within the Church. The rationale for this focus is given in our epistle: “Who loves the parent loves the child.” To love God as our Father requires us to abide in love with our sisters and brothers in the Church.
To love those within the Body of Christ can be at least as demanding a task as to love those beyond it. Gail O’Day notes that “there are many circumstances in which it is easier to love one’s enemies than it is to love those with whom one lives, works, and worships day after day” (“John” in Carol Newsom, Sharon Ringe and Jacqueline Laspley (eds.), The Women’s Bible Commentary). The way in which Christians do or do not love one another constitutes a significant part of our witness to the wider world.
At a time when the Western Church is experiencing an increasing sense of tension with the prevailing culture, these words of Jesus contain two timely warnings. First, there is a warning against allowing our actions to be driven by anxiety. Jesus’s “commandments” are not a list of tasks. There is but one instruction: to abide in his love. This is the precondition of all fruitfulness, and must be the foundation of all Christian ministry.
Second, there is a warning against factionalism. Mutual love in the face of adversity is one of the Church’s most powerful acts of witness (John 13.35). As Jesus reminds us (in verse 13), the love that Christians have for each other should be modelled on his self-offering on the cross. When Christians descend into factionalism and mutual scapegoating, we are no longer abiding in that love.
These two warnings are related. When our actions flow from anxiety — rather than from the love in which Christ calls us to abide — then adversity is more likely to provoke conflict with our brothers and sisters in the Church.
If Jesus’s “farewell discourse” prepares the disciples for his return to the Father, the Acts of the Apostles shows them putting this teaching into practice. The inclusion of the Gentiles in the Church is a striking case in point. It is a result of the action of the Spirit: in the vision of Cornelius (Acts 10.3), the dream of Peter (Acts 10.9-16), and in the Gentiles’ “speaking in tongues and extolling God” (v.46). “Gentiles cannot be denied baptism because God has overtly and unmistakably included them” (Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Abingdon Bible Commentaries: Acts).
The fruitfulness and unity of the Early Church was not a human achievement: rather, it is a result of the apostles’ abiding in the love of their risen and ascended Lord, as they are united in prayer and the breaking of bread (Acts 2.42). For today’s Church, it charts a path beyond anxiety and recrimination; “so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete”.