Commentary on the Readings
6th Sunday of Easter – Year B – May 6, 2018
We are loved—that is why we love
Baal, the great god worshiped throughout the ancient Middle East, was the lord of the rain, the “rider of the clouds” from whom depended the fertility of the fields and animals. They burned incense and bended the knees to him. The Israelites too did this thus arousing the Lord’s jealousy and the indignation of the prophets. In the Bible, his name appears often accompanied by that of a place—Baal-Safon, Baal-peor, Baal-gad…—corresponding to the mountain on which the shrine he was revered stood. Like him, the other gods of that area also were identified with the name of the place where the devotees rendered them worship.
In this cultural environment, it is surprising that the Israelites conceived their God as the one who binds his own name not to a place but to the people: “I am the God of your fathers—he declares to Moses—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” (Ex 3:6); “I am with you—he often said to his people—be not dismayed, for I am your God” (Is 41:10).
Israel understood that the Lord tied his heart to persons and took care of his people, yet she imagined him also ready to punish “the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” (Ex 34:7). He contemplated the work of his hands, but he had not yet seen his face of Emmanuel—God with us—and, above all, had not yet discovered his heart.
The disciple who, during dinner, rested his head on the breast of the Lord revealed to us that God is love, only love and everyone who loves is begotten of him.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“When I will understand Love, I will learn to love.”
The fact happened at Caesarea, the splendid capital founded by Herod the Great.
The Roman procurator lived in this city and a strong military garrison was stationed there. One of the commanders of the garrison was called Cornelius, a centurion, who, like his colleague at Capernaum (Lk 7:1-10), cultivated a deep respect for the religion of Israel. He prayed, handed out alms, loved the people of Israel, but this was still not enough to be associated to the heirs of the promises made to Abraham. He was not circumcised and therefore remained impure, unapproachable by pious Israelites and Peter was one of them.
Peter was a traditionalist, proud of his election (Deut 7:6; 26:19). He had always avoided contact with foreigners, not to be led into idolatry. He defended his religious identity, bearing in mind that a clear line of demarcation separated him from the pagans. He had scrupulously observed the prohibitions and requirements that the rabbis had taught him, but, a few years after Pentecost, events began to chip away at his confidence. An increasingly insistent doubt tormented him: discriminations, impositions in the name of God, were they really willed by God?
He did not know what to do, groping in the dark. To decide is always to sever and, in his case, it meant to break off with the past, his mentality, culture, religion or to sever with the impetuous newness of the Spirit who sent him where a family waited for him in prayer.
Peter was not the type led to transgression. He hesitated, but in the end believed and, with six other disciples, went to Caesarea.
Cornelius waited and met him. He welcomed Peter and fell at his feet in worship. It was the common practice with which one revered a “man of God” (2 Kgs 4:27). Peter reacted: “Stand up—he said—for I too am a human being!” (v. 26). He refused the deference, even if it was just a compliment, a normal manifestation of respect. He remembered too well how insistently and clearly the Master had condemned the search for honor and the mania for the first places (Lk 22:24-27). He did not want such ceremonies, which were held important by the scribes (Mk 12:38-39), introduced into the Christian community.
Then he continued: “Truly, I realize that God does not show partiality” (v. 34). It was not all clear for him but he began to understand a fundamental truth introduced by Christ in the world: there are no two categories of persons, those pure and those impure, for God all people are pure, because all are his creatures, all are his children.
Peter was not responsible for his narrow-mindedness. He was just a victim of an age-old concept that made him think in an exclusive way. The Spirit took charge of disrupting the patterns dictated by alleged racial privileges. He showed that he could descend on the pagans even before they were baptized. With his irresistible dynamism, the Spirit bore witness to the freedom of God’s unconditional love which reaches every person, even if one does not belong to the institutional Church.
The embrace between the group of Jews, arriving at Caesarea along with Peter, and the pagans of Cornelius’ family is the meeting of two peoples who, until then, had cultivated reciprocal prejudices and preconceptions. It is the sign of the kingdom, of the new world in which discrimination will completely disappear.
In a heated dispute, referred to us by John, with the Jews who said, “Our father is Abraham,” Jesus replied, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do as Abraham did. What you are doing are the works of your father.” Those reacted: “We have one Father, God.” Jesus replied, “The father you spring from is the devil, and you will carry out the evil wishes of your father, who has been a murderer from the beginning” (Jn 8:38-44).
Only Jesus could claim to be the only Son of God. The works of his Father are manifested in full only in him (Jn 9:3). However those on whose faces the appearance of the heavenly Father is revealed, they are called and really are children of God: “those who work for peace” (Mt 5:9), those who love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them (Mt 5:44), those who act as parents to orphans and widows (Sir 4:10). It is a likeness, from which even the greatest saint will remain infinitely distant, but to which we must continually strive for. In fact, Paul says: “As most beloved children of God, strive to imitate him” (Eph 5:1).
In the first part of today’s passage (vv. 7-8), the apostle John takes this image of sonship to indicate what is the foundation, the source of the commandment of love. It does not come from an external provision given by God, but it is the necessary manifestation of a new reality, intimately present in man, the divine seed that God has placed in him.
Who is God? We do not even know who we are, how can we define God? John does not give a definition, but explains how He manifests himself: not as a legislator and judge, as the rabbis believed, but as love. “Let us love one another—he says—for love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Those who do not love have not known God, for God is love.”
Love is the life of God, and it is this love that he communicates to his children. Who loves, even if he does not belong to the ecclesial institution, has in himself the life of God, is God’s son.
In the second part of the passage (vv. 9-10), he explains what it means to love. God’s love is manifested by giving us what was most precious to him, his Only Begotten. He sent him into the world, not as a reward for our good works, but as “propitiation for our sins.” He loved us, not because we were good, but has made us good by loving us gratuitously: “When we were still helpless and unable to do anything, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:6).
This is generous and unselfish love which also manifests itself in the children of God.
One does not receive the divine sonship as a reward because one loves. It is the presence of this love that reveals who has become a child of God.
Today’s gospel is a continuation of last Sunday’s. After introducing the allegory of the vine and the branches, Jesus explains what happens in those who remain united to him.
There are fleeting infatuations for Christ, dictated by temporary emotion and enthusiasm. There is a lasting attachment that no opposing force is able to break. This strong and decisive adhesion is expressed by John with the verb to remain (μενειν in Greek). It occurs seven times in the parable of the vine and mentioned thrice at the beginning of our passage (vv. 9-10).
Jesus remains in the Father’s love because he is always united to him. He is faithful to the Father and “always does what pleases him” (Jn 8:29). The disciples can become in the world a reflection of this union only if they remain in His love and keep his commandments: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him; and we will come to him and make a room in his home” (Jn 14:23).
These words and images, full of mysticism, make one clearly perceive, the appeal to the Eucharist. This is sacrament where this intimate union with the Lord is celebrated and realized: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood, live in me, and I in them” (Jn 6:56).
That’s why, before receiving communion, everyone must “examine himself,” to see if he really is determined to remain in the Lord, otherwise his act is a lie and “he eats and drinks his own condemnation” (1 Cor 11:28-29).
In these first verses (vv. 9-10), Jesus does not present his love as a role model, but as a life that continues in the disciples. In baptism, they were inserted in him, becoming his members. So it is he who acts in them. In the disciples it is Christ who announces the good news to the poor, loves, cares, comforts, dries the tears of the widow and of the orphan. The result of this union with Christ and with the Father and of the observance of his commandments is the fullness of joy (v. 11).
The word “joy” recurs seven times in the Gospel of John. The first to employ it is the Baptist when he says: “The friend of the bridegroom rejoices to hear the bridegroom’s voice. My joy is now full” (Jn 3:29). It’s always Jesus who insistently repeats to his disciples the promise of his joy.
The conviction that remaining in Christ is tantamount to giving up what makes one happy is still rooted. It is not so. Jesus warns, yes, of vain and illusory joys arising from selfishness, the pursuit of pleasure at any cost. He offers, instead, the authentic joy, that which comes from union with him and with the Father. This only true and lasting joy can be obtained by going through pain: “You will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy” (Jn 16:20). Trying alternative paths, choosing easy and spacious roads means getting lost, being far from the goal.
After speaking of his commandments, as if they were many, Jesus declares: “This is my commandment: Love one another as I have loved you” as if it were only one (v. 12).
It is true, the commandments are many, but they are only clarifications of a single commandment, that which Jesus perfectly practiced: love of people. All moral choices, provisions and laws must refer to the good of all because it is the only way we have to show God our love: “How can you love God whom you do not see, if you do not love your brother whom you see?” (1 Jn 4:20). Who loves the brother or sister has fulfilled all the law: “for the whole Law is summed up in this sentence: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal 5:14; Rom 13:8-10).
At the Last Supper, after washing the feet of his disciples, he said: “Now I give you a new commandment: Love one another! Just as I have loved you, you also must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35).
Comparing the two formulas with which the only commandment is presented, one notes a slight but significant difference. Before the commandment was “new”, now it is “his”, as if it was no longer “new”.
There is a reason why the change is introduced. The evangelist writes after the events of the Passover, when Jesus has already passed from this world to the Father. First he practiced the new commandment: he loved up to giving all of himself. That is the reason why the commandment is no longer new, but has become his, what he has done. The measure of love of neighbor is no longer the one indicated by the Old Testament: as yourself (Lev 19:18); but: as I have loved you, and with this expression, Jesus refers to the highest love he has shown on the cross.
Remain in him alone who is always willing to “give life” because “there is no greater love than this, to give one’s life for one’s friends” (v. 13) and “Christ loved us and he gave himself up for us” (Eph 5:2).
His commandment is not intended as a demanding, precise and well-defined law in all the details. It is a life orientation that, in its practical implications, should be determined from moment to moment. It requires constant attention to the needs of the brother/sister, imagination, discernment and courage to make decisions even at the risk of making mistakes.
Jesus does not call his disciples servants but friends (vv. 14-15).
This statement is not immediately clear because in the Bible, “servant of God” is a title of honor, given to people such as Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets. The old man Simeon, Paul, Peter and many others are classified as “servants” and Mary is called “the handmaid of the Lord” (Lk 1:38). Jesus, above all, is indicated by the Father with the words: “Here is my servant whom I have chosen” (Mt 12:18). In the famous song of the Letter to the Philippians, Paul reminds us that he “took on the nature of a servant” (Phil 2:7). Hence the exhortation to become servants of one another (Mk 9:35).
Jesus gives the reason why he does not call his disciples servants, but friends.
The servant is involved only exteriorly in the project of the master. He is an executor of orders and tasks assigned to him. The friend is instead a confidant. He is the one with whom he cultivates a communion of life, projects and intentions. The friend is happy when he can make a favor to a loved one. He does not hide anything from him. He does not charge a compensation for the service provided.
Jesus calls his disciples “friends” because he revealed the plan of the Father to them (v. 15). He called them to collaborate with him on its realization.
The Christian community is made up of “friends”. Superior-subject, master-slave, teacher-disciple rapports are therefore excluded. All its members are in the same level and enjoy equal dignity.
After washing the apostles’ feet, Jesus admits being “lord and master,” but he gives a whole new meaning to these titles: “the first,” one who is “great” in the community is the one who washes the feet of the last. There is no place for one who, instead of serving, aspires to prestigious positions and honors.
The whole passage is a hymn to love. But who is to be loved?
The exhortation is clearly directed only to the disciples and love seems restricted to their group. One wonders then why Jesus did not require a universal love, extended to all, even to enemies, as he did in the sermon on the mount (Mt 5:44).
That’s right, here Jesus speaks directly only to members of the Christian community and only to them he recommends unity and mutual love. It is a limitation, but there’s a reason: Before talking about love and peace to others, it is necessary to cultivate love and peace in the church.
Only a community whose members make a lively and profound experience of acceptance, tolerance, forgiveness, mutual service, sharing of goods can announce brotherhood or sisterhood and peace to the world.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading: