We are coming to the end of the Easter season. Ascension is on Thursday, and the readings are starting to look ahead to Pentecost. (In the many places where Ascension is transferred to Sunday, the Lectionary gives the confusing option to do the New Testament readings from that Sunday on this Sunday; I will comment on this Sunday’s readings.)
Our Gospel continues on from last Sunday’s reading in John 14. John expands on little details from the other Gospels. They tell us about the institution of the Eucharist. He takes us deep into the meaning of the Eucharist, not only in John 6, where he gives Jesus’s preaching about the multiplication of loaves and the Bread of Life, but also in John 13, where Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, and then 14-17, where he preaches at length about his love for his disciples, the Church.
Our Gospel this Sunday has two themes: the commandment and the Spirit.
Now, the other Gospels, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, emphasize how love establishes the old commandments: if you love, you won’t kill or commit adultery or lie, etc., in fact you’ll never come close to those things. John knows this point has been made – but he wants to emphasize the other direction, the necessity of love.
Our reading this Sunday begins and ends with Jesus saying that if you love him, you will keep his commandments. In the next chapter he will say, “if you keep my commandments, you abide in my love,” just as he keeps his Father’s commandments and abides in his Father’s love. “Abide” is one of John’s favorite words: we dwell in that love, live there, take time there, remain there.
But in that chapter after ours, right after he says “if you keep my commandments,” he says, “this is my commandment: love as I have loved you.” He has said the same thing in the chapter before ours: “a new commandment I give you: as I have loved you, love one another.” He has just washed their feet. The Tradition calls Holy Thursday “Maundy” Thursday because of the commandment, the mandatum, to wash each other’s feet and love one another.
Jesus tells us to keep his commandments, in the plural – but Jesus really only gives one commandment: love as I have loved you.
St. Thérèse points out the newness of this commandment. The Old Testament told us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. That’s pretty hard. But Jesus gives a new commandment: love not as we love ourselves, but as he loves ourselves, which is vastly more. That is his commandment. And that is the whole thing, that love is Christianity.
The other theme in our reading for this Sunday is the Holy Spirit. Jesus emphasizes that the world does not have the Spirit, does not see him or know him or accept him. But we do know him because – here’s that word again – the Spirit dwells in us, abides with us.
In John’s Prologue, he says we are born as children of God not by blood (not just because we are human), not by the will of the flesh or even the will of man, but from God. Here he makes the same point in a different way: love is not just automatically in “the world.” Love is the presence of the Spirit in us.
We can love as Jesus loves not because we try real hard – not by “the will of man” – and certainly not because it’s just human nature, but because he pours his Spirit, his love, into our hearts. This is why the sacraments are an essential part of Christianity: because they are the means, the instruments, by which Christ pours his Spirit, his love, into our hearts. Only his Spirit allows us to love as he loves.
Our reading this week from Acts continues the story of the deacons. Stephen has been stoned, now there are a few stories about the deacon Philip. The deacons have been ordained to free up the Apostles for preaching – but the deacons too, Luke tells us, are “full of the Holy Spirit,” and they too proclaim the Gospel, by word and deed.
And they go forth to bring the Spirit to others: they baptize, and then call the Apostles – the givers of the sacraments – to give the fullness of the Spirit by laying on hands.
Our reading from First Peter is about apologetics – it uses that Greek word. But it is not quite the apologetics we sometimes learn. Peter calls us to give a reason (a logos) not for our faith, but for our hope. Tell them of your hope in Christ!
And the whole reading makes clear that the context matters. Our “apologetic” begins with sanctifying the Lord in our hearts and ends with meekness, with fear – our translation says “reverence,” but Peter is saying, be ever so careful – and with a readiness to lay down our lives in gentleness, as Christ did, suffering not because we are obnoxious but only for the good we have done. Our apologetics is love.
How does dwelling in Christ’s love – or not – affect your witness to the faith?