Love for the Sake of Joy: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Easter 6
1) This is the sixth of the seven weeks of Eastertide, and the third of four weeks exploring Jesus’ teachings about living in intimacy with God. Following directly on last week’s passage in which Jesus casts himself as “the vine” and the disciples as the vine’s fruitful branches, here Jesus elaborates on just what sort of “fruit” he has in mind: works of love for the sake of joy.
2) As we saw last week, the interpretive key for understanding the “farewell discourse” in John (John 14-17) is to remember that Jesus is engaged here in urgent pastoral care, assuring his distraught disciples that his imminent departure is not abandonment, but rather a move that will make way for an even deeper intimacy. Accordingly, the exhortations in this week’s passage (“love one another”) should be heard as expressions of care and reassurance. Hearing Jesus this way shifts the tone from mere imperative (“you must go and do such-and-such”) to warm encouragement and consolation (“take heart, I’m not abandoning you - as you go and do such-and-such, we’ll be together!”).
3) This passage introduces a key theme in the farewell discourse - arguably the indispensable theme, nothing less than the raison-d'etre for Jesus’ mission in the first place. That theme is joy. In this passage, and again in chapters 16 and 17, Jesus frames joy as the ultimate goal of his ministry to his disciples, and by extension to the whole world: "that your joy may be complete" (John 15:11). Jesus has come to dwell with humanity, and now will lay down his life, and promises to equip the church and “draw all people” (John 12:32) - and he does these things out of love, he proclaims, a love for the sake of "complete joy."
4) The larger context of the passage from Acts is the Jesus movement’s official shift toward including in its ranks Gentiles as well as Jews. Just a few verses earlier, Peter has preached on God’s openness to all people; the phrase the NRSV translates as “God shows no partiality” is literally, “God accepts no one’s face” - in other words, God doesn't crassly play favorites, and so God's love isn't restricted to any in-group, but rather spills over, expanding to include supposed outsiders (Acts 10:34). Accordingly, Peter’s question in this week's reading echoes the Ethiopian eunuch’s rhetorical-yet-subversive remark, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36).
1) In the context of Jesus assuring his disciples that he is by no means abandoning them, these reflections on love, joy, and friendship function as soothing words of solace. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “On one level, I am about to leave you, but on a deeper level, we be even closer than before. Just continue along the path I have shown you - and we’ll be together. Love one another - and you’ll thereby abide in my love, which is to say, you’ll abide in me, as intimate as a vine and its branches. Your love itself will be the sign of all signs that we are acting together, living together, abiding together. Look at my intimacy with God: it’s based on my listening and embodying and abiding in God’s commandments to love, and in this way, God and I are inseparable. So - go and do likewise! Listen and embody my commandment to love, and we’ll be inseparable, too. And here’s the point of all this: I want us to be so close that my joy is yours, so that your joy will be perfect joy, complete joy, joy in all its fullness. Isn’t that what every loving parent wants for his or her children? That’s what God wants for you! And so: even though the heavens may seem to fall over the days ahead, as I am handed over and sent down into the valley of the shadow of death, remember this: what I want for you, and what I promise you, and what I give to you - is joy.”
2) To what shall this “complete joy” be compared? A little later in the farewell discourse, Jesus compares it to childbirth: “When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:21-22). Jesus’ mission is for the sake of joy, yes - but not just any joy. Think of it, he says, like the joy of a new mother, strong and creative, exhausted and exultant, a joy that is no stranger to anguish, and above all the joy of having brought new life into the world. From this angle, we may put the poetry this way: every Christian disciple is a mother or a midwife!
3) What do we typically call a relationship characterized by this confluence of listening, love, togetherness, creativity, and joy? In this week’s passage Jesus calls it friendship, another note of assurance and consolation for his disciples, as if he's saying: “I no longer call you ‘servants’ but rather ‘friends’ - and of course I would never abandon my friends! On the contrary, I will lay down my life for my friends - precisely so we can be even closer in our life together, abiding in one another, so that your joy may be complete.”
4) While Jesus mentions many imperatives in John’s gospel (“abide,” “believe,” etc.), he gives his disciples only one commandment: to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34-35; 15:12). And so the emphasis in this passage on “keeping commandments” betrays no authoritarianism, but rather the opposite: we should do nothing, and follow no command, that does not build up our neighbors in love, ourselves in love, and the world in love. In other words, Jesus is calling not for the sort of "obedience" found in relationships of coercion, but rather the sort found among genuine friends, companions who listen to each other in loving-kindness (“obedience” is from the Latin ob (“to”) and audire (“listen”)).
5) Likewise, Jesus assures his disciples that his love doesn’t depend on them; rather, they can depend on his love, come what may. The poignancy here, and therefore the consolation, is almost unbearable: for these “friends” to whom Jesus speaks in this passage will deny and desert him later that very night! It’s as if he’s saying, “You don’t know it yet, but just a few hours from now you will have good reason to doubt yourself, your faith, your integrity as never before. But don’t worry. You didn’t choose me; I chose you. You may find yourself fickle and afraid, but my love for you is steadfast. Nothing you do can change it - even the unspeakable things you will do tonight. I chose you, I choose you, and I commission you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last: works of love for the sake of joy.”
1) For some Christians today, faith is the most important dimension of a disciple’s life. For others, love is the ultimate goal toward which any truly living faith will lead. But for John, there is yet another, even higher aim, for the sake of which faith and love abide. Jesus calls it “complete joy.” This is the “for what” of God’s love and deliverance, the “for what” of salvation, the “for what” of Jesus’ ministry and therefore the ministry of the church. For joy! Faith, yes - but faith for the sake of joy. Love, yes - but love for the sake of joy. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11).
2) What kind of joy? In this week’s passage, Jesus evokes the delight-in-being-together of genuine friendship - and in our own best relationships, we can catch glimpses of what he has in mind. And just a few paragraphs later in the farewell discourse, he explicitly compares “complete joy” to the jubilation of a new mother: her spent, exhilarated delight following the anguish of labor, celebrating the new life that has come into the world.
3) Finally, in light of this week’s passage from Acts, we can add this: Love seeks a world in which this “complete joy” is not just for a privileged few, but rather for all. Peter’s rhetorical-yet-subversive question - “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47) - echoes the Ethiopian eunuch: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36). Potential obstacles and withholders abound, of course, and the next chapter in Acts narrates the ensuing inclusion/exclusion controversy Peter's openness provoked in the early Christian community - certainly not the last such debate! But the way Peter puts his question is telling, both then and now: “Can anyone withhold the water...?” Like love, water tends to permeate and overflow limitations. Like joy, water resists attempts to contain it. The Holy Spirit goes where She wills. As Peter goes on to explain, “Who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17). God’s love had already overflowed his denial and desertion, including him when he might well have been excluded. Jesus had spoken of love and “complete joy” that very night! Far be it from Peter (and far be it from us!) to presume to withhold or prevent. God’s love for the sake of creation’s joy cannot and will not be confined.
p.s. If you liked this commentary, you'll love Mary, Midwives, and God's Kairos.