The Gospel reading today from the Gospel of John is one of my best-loved lines of scripture, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete”. And as I was thinking about it this week three very important, three crucial elements of our faith stood out for me. Those are: gratitude, love and empowerment. I believe this passage from John encompasses all three.
Whenever we approach a Gospel text, but in particular I think the Gospel of John, it is important to keep in mind three cultural contexts. One is the context of the passage itself in relation to the whole story. The context of this passage from John - in relation to the Gospel of John - is Jesus’ message, the parting instructions Jesus gives to his followers, his closest friends the night before he is to die. The second context is historical, that is to say the time in which this Gospel was written. John’s Gospel was written we believe near the end of the first century of the Common Era. The final context is of course our own. Given the importance of this passage in the Story of Jesus, and given the story was put to pen at a critical time in the church’s history, what then do we glean from this reading today, how does it fit into our context and how does it move us forward as Christians. It is my belief that all three are intricately connected with the notions of gratitude and love leading to empowerment.
The first context, the portion of the story itself, is of course central to our faith as Christians. The Last Supper is where we get our holiest of Sacraments, the Eucharist, it is where Jesus washes the feet of His disciples, it is where we get the improbable but magnificent and genuine promise of communion with God and where Jesus in his earthly form says goodbye to those he loves, those who have been so close to him. But Jesus also knows that things are about to unravel. Jesus knows his ministry for which he worked so hard, and the message of the Good News of God’s love for us would soon be questioned. Jesus knows he is about to be betrayed by one of his twelve, he knows that no less that Peter will deny him three times in just the next few hours to save his own skin. He knows that he will be tortured, ridiculed and endure a very slow and public death of sheer agony. If that were not enough to bear, he knows that the disciples will all go into hiding for fear of their lives, that they will question his message of hope and will doubt their calling to spread the word of God’s healing, peace and love.
In this context, knowing all this, Jesus at the Last Super turns to his friends and says in effect, “I love you. I love you as much as God loves you and that love has no limits, no measure no qualifications and no end. I love you from within, and I want you to always remember and accept that love. I love you and that love gives me joy, and living in my love will change you, it will make your joy complete”. Jesus here doesn’t ask Judas why, he doesn’t admonish Peter, and he doesn’t even condemn those around his table who will worry so much about their own lives that they will not even be with him when his life ends. Instead Jesus says, “I love you and will continue to love you, and that love will forever change you until that day when your joy is made complete”. Through his love, Jesus here is empowering his friends to live into something greater, to imagine a future where equality and justice and peace are the touchstones of life, and work for a world where love can indeed move mountains and make broken people whole once again. Through his love, Jesus is empowering his friends to get through the demanding days ahead and to envision the coming of God’s kingdom to all of the people of the earth. Through his love, Jesus is empowering his friends with the message of resurrection and the knowledge that with the love of God all things are possible.
The circumstances in which John’s Gospel was written, at the end of the first century, was also a politically charged and turbulent time for the early church. The division between Christians and the Synagogues was increasing and it is always vital to keep this in mind when reading this Gospel. The split between Jewish Christians and those who did not believe the Messiah had come was forcing a separation between the two faiths and we must always be aware that John’s Gospel is written through this prism and that as Christians today we must be very aware of the historical harm the more anti-Jewish portions of this Gospel have caused. It was also a time of Roman persecution of the early church. Christians were being tortured and martyred because they would not profess Cesar as their leader and would not renounce Christ as their Lord and Saviour. Christians were under the thumb of the mightiest military empire the world had ever seen. In this time and under these circumstances the author of the Gospel of John wrote these words, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete”.
There is no equivocation here; there is no caveat that what Jesus is saying should be taken with a grain of salt. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete”. Where was the joy in persecution? What complete joy could be found in martyrdom? In fact, a Christian might have written at the end of the first century, ‘Where is God, where is the God who says He loves us’? Instead we hear, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love”. As St Paul would write, nothing can separate us from the love of God, nothing at all – not even persecution and not even death. These words first written in the Gospel of John were to have the same effect for its readers as the words spoken by Jesus in the upper room decades earlier. The love of God is with us, the Joy of God is literally in us and we are made complete when we realize no matter the circumstances, that bond of love between God and us is unbreakable, that bond of love empowers us to endure and move beyond our time of trial and that bond of love will have the final word in reality.
And so, we come to the context of this passage from the Gospel of John for us today. With your indulgence I have a short personal story. A number of years ago in my early thirties I walked through the doors of St Barnabas Anglican Church for the first time. To be honest I was scared and trepidatious and a good part of my mind was saying to myself, “Look, turn around, just pretend you have come to the wrong place and leave now before any more people see you and you make a fool of yourself’. Thankfully another part of my mind was saying, “I have thought this through, God is calling and it is time to answer the call and start the journey – wherever that may lead”. As I came in I was greeted warmly and like all good Anglicans I tried to sit near the back in a place where I would not likely be seen or noticed. I soon realized the church was too small for that. Everyone noticed me and said hello. I said to myself, ‘It’s just one Sunday, I’ll get through it and I can go back to watching football on TV next week’. A voice at the back of the church announced the First hymn and the service started. The procession was simple, just a crucifer and the Priest and the hymn was being played beautifully, but on a piano that I could tell was slightly out of tune. The hymn being played was Come And Journey With A Saviour. The service was sincere and elegant and by the time we got to communion I knew I had found a new home. I left that Sunday with a joy I had not experienced before, it was the joy of knowing that God loved me from within. I left that Sunday and even if in a small way I was changed – I was empowered to begin my journey and it felt so incredibly good. I felt and experienced the power of God working within me and I felt it in that first procession with that one crucifer, one priest and a hymn being played on a slightly out of tune piano. I was empowered by the love of God and that church community allowed me to envision a whole new future.
That future for me included service for the love of God and for the love of all others. And it has been my experience that in all the work that I have done for God and for others, there is real joy. When we realize and authentically include God’s love for us into our lives we cannot help but to be empowered to do what is right for others and for the earth and in that ministry, whatever it may be, we find joy and that is the joy that makes us complete. The synchronicity of this plan has God’s imprint all over it, and its beauty and life giving nature of personal joy and fulfillment through service to others takes always my breath away. May God through Her love empower all of us, and may St John’s continue to be a community that abides in God’s love and feeds people on their journey of joy. For all of that we are grateful and give our thanks. Amen.
The Rev. Patrick Blaney