Text Study for John 13:31-35 (Part Three)

What does Jesus, as portrayed by the Johannine author, mean in our text by the word “commandment”? We who live with a post-Reformation Protestant mindset in the West jump immediately to the idea of a “law” to be obeyed. We tend to think of the Ten Commandments, for example, as laws God’s people must keep in order to demonstrate their worthiness for a relationship with God. We tend to think, then, that such “laws” are bad since they are the scaffolding upon which we seek to build our works-righteousness.

That’s not a helpful or accurate understanding of the nature of the Ten Commandments. Nor is it a faithful exegesis of Paul’s arguments about the righteousness of God in Romans, Galatians, and elsewhere in the Pauline corpus. Mostly, this understanding of the nature of a “commandment” is yet another way to make Christians look good by making Jews look bad. That’s a post-Reformation Protestant sin for which we in that camp need to offer ongoing repentance and repair.

Photo by Flo Maderebner on Pexels.com

Thus, that’s not what “commandment” means here in John 13 and elsewhere in the Johannine account. But what, then, is the meaning of the term? Let’s look at the narrative logic of our text for some help in answering that question.

The disciple community is cracking under the strain of events and the threat of destruction. Judas has left to put in motion the end game which will bring the movement to a head or put it out of its misery for good. Jesus declares that this action has launched the “glorification of the Son of Man” and the “glorification” of God through the Son. In John, this glorification is the whole complex of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. This glorification means that Jesus is leaving the disciples to go where they cannot come.

Since Jesus is leaving to accomplish his glorification, he leaves the disciples with a “new commandment” to guide and form them in his absence. This is the commandment for the disciples to love one another just as Jesus has loved them. This isn’t a way to demonstrate their perfection or worthiness. Instead, I would suggest that Jesus leaves the disciples with a “community rule” to form them as a fellowship and to guide them in their ongoing life together in and for the world.

Dirk van der Merwe tracks the vocabulary of obedience in his recent paper. He writes that in the Johannine account, the disciples (and we who benefit from the testimony of the disciples) learn the meaning of “obedience” through the example of Jesus. Jesus tells them this explicitly in John 13:15. Anyone who wants to know God, van der Merwe continues, must obey God. In the Johannine account, he argues, the essence of that obedience is to love like Jesus loves.

The typical words for “obey” and “obedience” in New Testament Greek show up only rarely in the Johannine account. Instead, the word most often translated with some form of obey is the verb tereo. This verb to keep or observe as well as secondarily to obey. It has more the sense of maintaining a practice than obeying a law. If the new commandment in John 13 is really a community rule, then this vocabulary makes eminent sense. As Jesus goes to be with the Father, he leaves a rule to form and maintain the disciple community.

Van der Merwe writes that “in the Gospel of John, love is primarily understood as a bond of commitment.” It is more than a feeling, instead this love is actions based on that bond of commitment. “Because of his commitment to the world,” van der Merwe continues, “God has sent the Son, whom [God] loves, to communicate [God’s] love to a world, alienated from its Creator.” This reminds me that any message about God’s love based on the Johannine account must always be anchored, in one way or another, to the fundamental description of that love in John 3:16.

It’s important to remember at this point the proper translation and understanding of John 3:16. That passage is not about the amount or degree of God’s love for the cosmos. Rather, that verse offers a description of the method or means of God’s love for the cosmos. If love is an action in response to a bond of commitment, then God sends the Son into the world as that action – not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through the Son.

This new commandment of love for the brother or sister is discussed in 1 John 2:7-17. Scholars debate the relationship between the Gospel of John and this first letter, arguing over which document came “first.” It makes some sense to me that the letter precedes the gospel chronologically and gives us some framework for understanding that’s at stake in the gospel. At least some in the Johannine community seem to be separating their love for the Father from their love (or the lack thereof) for the members of the disciple community.

The discussion continues in 1 John 3. “For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning,” the writer declares, “that we should love one another” (1 John 3:11, NRSV). The counter-example of this love is the hatred that Cain has for Abel, enacted in fratricide. “We know that we have passed from death to life,” the writer continues, because we love one another” (1 John 3:14a, NRSV). But some in the community are not living out that new commandment, since they refuse to help other community members by sharing their resources with those in need (see 1 John 3:17).

“Love from the Father is fundamental for God’s children,” van der Merwe notes, “because they are requested to share their love with others…After communicating to his followers, the Father’s love,” van der Merwe continues, “Jesus called them to love one another.” The shape of the community between the Father and Jesus will also be the shape of the community between the disciples. “Little children,” the writer of First John urges, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18).

Loving one another will be the rule that forms the disciples as community and the behavior that identifies them to the world. This behavior is most clearly modeled in the foot washing, the “example” that Jesus gives for how this community rule is to be implemented and imitated over and over in the life of the disciple community.

The word for “example” really translates best as a “type” or “pattern” or “model.” I think that the Johannine author sees this example as a kind of recursive model that produces deeper intimacy with the Father through Jesus and deeper intimacy within the disciple community. I don’t think that Jesus means we should spend all of our time washing one another’s feet, although that might be a good start. Instead, the community will be formed and deepened each time disciples act according to this pattern of behavior.

For the Johannine author and community, the recurrent application of this rule for life together will deepen and expand the community and each disciple’s relationship with Jesus and with one another. In a real sense, doing will lead to believing rather than the other way around. That’s contrary to modern ways of imaging the relationship between belief and action. We’d like to belief ourselves into acting, rather than acting ourselves into believing. But that’s not the rule described here in the Johannine account.

Van der Merwe outlines the “rewards of being obedient” as described in the Johannine account. I would use the word “result,” perhaps, rather than “reward,” since the latter term always has something of the sense of merit associated with it. Instead, the Johannine author expects that keeping the community rule will have certain desirable outcomes for the disciples. Those outcomes would include experiencing the presence of Jesus and God in the lives of believers, becoming friends of Jesus, being honored and glorified by God, and honoring and glorifying God in return.

These outcomes of living the community rule are listed as well in 1 John 3. Even when we disciples are convicted by our own conscience that we have not loved as we ought, God is greater than our own self-condemnation. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, the writer told us in the first chapter of the letter. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. “Because if our hearts do not condemn us,” we read in 1 John 3:21-22 (NRSV), “we have boldness before God; and we receive from [God] whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.”

The fourth chapter of First John expands further on the meaning and outcomes of this community rule. Everyone who loves (according to this rule) is born of God and knows God. God’s love is the root of our love, and we love in response to that gracious gift. Loving one another as God loves us is the way to see God in our lives and our communities, and to have that love made complete in us. This is the work of the Spirit who testifies to God’s love and causes us to abide in God.

The bottom line in chapter four takes us back to the importance of this community rule. “The commandment we have from [God] is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4:21, NRSV). This is the “one simple rule” for life with God in Christ, embodied in life with the community of faith.

References and Resources

Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Augsburg Fortress, 2006.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.

MOLONEY, FRANCIS J. “A Sacramental Reading of John 13:1-38.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 53, no. 2 (1991): 237–56. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43719525. van der Merwe, Dirk G.. (2022). The concept and activity of ‘obedience’ in the Gospel of John. Verbum et Ecclesia43(1), 1-9. https://dx.doi.org/10.4102/ve.v43i1.2367.


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Text Study for Mark 12:28-34 (Pt. 2); October 31, 2021

Commanded to Love

What does it mean to say that we as Jesus followers are “commanded” to love God and neighbor? How can Jesus (or God or Scripture) “command” an emotion? I have heard that question many times over the years of my parish ministry. Framed this way, Jesus’ words seem to be nonsense to twenty-first century ears and minds.

How can loving be a commandment? It’s a post-Kantian, Romantic question – at least in terms of the history of Western ideas. Immanuel Kant taught us that morality is about the rules that we would be willing to universalize. While Kant’s rule-based understanding of ethics is not the only option, it is a highly influential one.

Combine that with the Romantic (as in the philosophical and literary school of thought called Romanticism) notion that emotions are the essential marks of our humanity and that love is the primary human emotion, and we have a problem.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Of course, Jesus is not a Kantian moral philosopher. Nor is Jesus a Romantic poet. Our protests about rules and emotions are anachronistic at best. That means that we need to hear Jesus’ words in the Markan composition within something approaching an “original” framework if we want to make any sense of them at all.

Let’s think about the “commandments.” It’s not really helpful to understand the commandments are rules for living. It is more helpful to understand them as practices or disciplines or patterns of character-forming behaviors.

In modern Jewish usage, the word for commandment (“mitzvah”) often refers to a good deed or set of good deeds. That usage goes back to quite ancient documents, including the Jerusalem Talmud, which takes us back to within a century or so of the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Tzvi Freeman notes that the word may be related to an Aramaic verb meaning “to attach” or “to join.” The Aramaic word can mean companionship or personal attachment, Freeman observes. Thus, a mitzvah is not about a rule but rather about a relationship. “In this sense,” Freeman continues, “a mitzvah bundles up the person who is commanded and the Commander, creating a relationship and essential bond.”

Given this framework, Jesus’ reply to the scribe makes good sense. The foremost commandment (mitzvah) is about our relationship with God the Creator. The second most salient commandment is about our relationship with our neighbor. It is “like” the foremost commandment because both are about the relationships which define us as human beings.

I find the description of commandments as character-forming patterns of behavior to be the most helpful understanding of the term. When I think, for example, of the Ten Commandments (found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), I don’t think of these statements as ways in which God legislates the fun out of life. Instead, God gives commandments because they are good for us. I find it to be a rule of thumb in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures that God wants from us what is good for us.

Keeping the commandments is a way to practice the habits that form our character in a particular way. I would argue that God’s commandments are intended to form us into the fully authentic and joyful human beings God created us to be from the beginning. Freeman quotes a commentary on the commandments from a thirteenth-century Jewish author in Spain. “A person’s attitudes,” the commentator wrote, “are molded by his behavior.”

If a preacher were to use our text on Reformation Sunday (as I am proposing), then some time meditating and reflecting on the nature of God’s law would be in order. Martin Luther is often caricatured as saying that the Law is uniformly bad and is the “opposite” of the Gospel. That cannot be right, of course. After all, Luther spends the majority of both his Small and Large Catechisms expounding the Ten Commandments. If the Law were bad, why waste all that ink on it?

Luther reminded the Western Church that the Law is the result of our relationship with God, not the road to that relationship. As he reads the Ten Commandments in the Catechisms, for example, he sees the words of Deuteronomy 6:5 as the “Introduction” to the Commandments. “I am the Lord your God,” we read in that verse, “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” It is only in light of that gracious act that the following commandments make any sense at all.

Therefore, Luther argues, it is faith that fulfills the commandments. By that he means that it is trust in that gracious relationship which God initiates which is the keeping of the Law. But even this trust in the relationship is not a “work,” something that we humans – in bondage to sin and unable to free ourselves – can produce on our own.

Faith itself, the capacity to respond to God’s gracious gift, is also God’s gracious gift. “Thus, God’s promises give what the law demands,” Luther writes in The Freedom of a Christian¸ “so that everything may belong to God alone, both the commands and their fulfillment” (page 496). Jesus roots the covenant connection with God in relationship, not rules. The scribe agrees with that assessment and is, therefore, “not far from the Kingdom of God.”

This faith relationship, according to Luther, is far more than a pleasant connection. He describes three “powers” of that faith in The Freedom of the Christian. First, the gift of faith forms us for our loving union with God. Second, the gift of faith equips us to treat God as God – as Jesus would put it, loving God with the wholeness of heart, soul, mind, and strength. Third, the gift of faith unites us with Christ (see pages 496ff.).

To illustrate this third power of faith, Luther uses the metaphor union between the “bride” (my “soul”) and the Bridegroom, Christ. The working of this union is what Luther describes in many places as the “Joyous Exchange.” He puts it this way in The Freedom of the Christian: “Accordingly, the faithful soul can both assume as its own whatever Christ has and glory in it, and whatever is the soul’s Christ claims for himself as his own” (page 500).

Our trusting relationship with God is not something already within us that Jesus uses to build us up into perfection. In the words of Tuomo Mannermaa, faith is the presence of Christ in us. “Christ gives his person to us through faith, Mannermaa writes. “’Faith’ means participation in Christ, in whom there is no sin, death, or curse” (Kindle Locations 321-322). To put it more simply, Mannermaa notes, “Salvation is participation in the person of Christ” (Kindle Location 319).

Faith – the presence of and participation in the person of Christ – forms us for works of love. And works of love then further form us for faith. Have you ever noticed that the real “virtues” are self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating? By that I mean that the best way to be more trusting is to practice trusting. The best way to have more hope is to practice hoping. The best way to be more loving it to practice loving. The practices themselves form us more fully into the Christ within us.

This sounds a great deal like the understanding of commandments with which I began this post. A person’s attitudes are molded by their behavior. And a person’s behavior molds their attitudes as well. While the Law cannot bring us into relationship with God in Christ, Luther asserts, it can help us to grow deeper in that relationship. The Law can guide us to discipline ourselves for living. And it can guide us into fruitful ways to love our neighbor.

Jesus notes that the “second” commandment is somehow connected to the foremost. We can and likely will examine that idea in more detail downstream. But for now, let’s think about it in terms of a kind of descent. The ancient principle is that “like begets like.” The second commandment is the “offspring” of the foremost. Love for neighbor as oneself is the natural progeny of the trust in God that produces love for God.

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul writes in Romans 5:1 (NRSV). He concludes that sentence at the end of verse five by noting that we have this peace with God “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” It won’t be a Reformation Day observance without some heavy-duty Paul-quoting, eh?

“God’s love” is a plenary genitive in this passage. It is both God’s love for us and our love for God. Not only has that love been poured into us through our Lord Jesus Christ. It is poured through us onto our neighbor. The second commandment is the offspring of the foremost commandment and is the expression of the presence of Christ in us – the clearest expression of our faith in Christ.

I’m not arguing that Jesus was a Lutheran and didn’t know it. I do hope, however, that Lutherans have a faithful way of talking about Jesus. That’s what theology is good for, after all – to bear witness to the Good News of God in Christ in ways that can make sense to people. Our love for neighbor is the result of our relationship with God in Christ.

Luther puts it this way in The Freedom of the Christian. “Therefore, I will give myself as a kind of Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me. I will do nothing in this life except what I see will be necessary, advantageous, and salutary for my neighbor, because through faith I am overflowing with all good things in Christ” (page 524, my emphasis).

In this time when the assertion of individual “rights” at the expense of the neighbor, the community, and Creation, has been raised to the level of an ultimate concern, a review of the Lutheran basis for love of neighbor might be a helpful thing. It should be clear that putting individual preference ahead of the needs of the neighbor cannot qualify as love for neighbor (or self, for that matter) according to Lutheran theological categories.

Luther’s “Golden Rule” is not “do unto others as you would have them to unto you.” Instead, Luther’s Golden Rule goes like this. In faith (that is, the presence of Christ in us) “in turn and mutually, we are a second Christ to one another, doing for our neighbors as Christ does for us” (page 525, my emphasis).

That’s the real application of the “second” commandment in the life of the Jesus follower: do for your neighbor as Christ does for you.

References and Resources

Freeman, Tzvi. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1438516/jewish/Mitzvah.htm.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Tuomo Mannermaa; Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Christ Present In Faith: Luther’s View Of Justification. Kindle Edition.

Powery, Emerson. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-mark-1228-34-4.

Wilson, Sarah Hinlicky. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-mark-1228-34-5.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for John 15:1-17 (Pt. 4); 6 Easter B 2021

I know people struggle with the idea that love can be commanded by anyone, even Jesus. He is not demanding the presence here of an emotion. That’s a modern, Enlightenment, and Romantic way of reading the text. Instead, Jesus is instructing his disciples in a set of practices. They are, after all, “learners” (the literal meaning of the Greek word for “disciples”). We teach children how to love and to be loved – sometimes in words but mostly through example.

“Love” is not a feeling. It is an action. Or more properly, it is an ongoing set of actions. Therefore, “love one another” is a commandment. This commandment is found in verses 12 through 17. Therefore, these verses indicate a unit marked by an inclusion. This paragraph (12-17) is at the center, textually and thematically, of the Farewell Discourse in John. The inclusion begins and ends with the “love one another” commandment.

Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels.com

We must be careful how we interpret the word “commandment.” We would tend to hear that word as a law, a requirement, or a command. However, the Hebrew behind that word has much more the sense of a teaching that is put into practice. It’s probably worth some time to explore that Hebrew term, mitzvah.

The Hebrew noun is really a participial form of the verb zwh, which means to “order, direct, appoint, or command.” We Christians might think first and foremost of the “Ten Commandments” in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. Of course, in Exodus 20, there are more than ten “commandments,” and they are not called “commandments” at all, but rather “words.” Likewise, in Deuteronomy 5, there are more ordinances than ten, and once again they are not called commandments.

But I quibble a bit. The plural of the word does appear in Exodus 20:6. Following the prohibition of idol worship, the Lord promises multi-generational punishment for those who bow down and worship idols. The Lord also promises “steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments” (the promise is paralleled in Deuteronomy 5:10). It’s worth observing that “love” and “commandment” show up in the same verse already at this point.

The noun in Hebrew can and does indeed mean “command,” or “commandment.” The word appears over 180 times in the Hebrew scriptures in a variety of contexts. In traditional Jewish usage, the word can refer to a commandment in the Scriptures. It can refer to a religious duty or obligation. It can also refer to the deed or deeds necessary to carry out that obligation. Thus, it often refers to the actions, especially of kindness, compassion, or love that result in carrying out a religious duty or obligation.

We children of Luther have a deep and wide bias against “commandments” (even though they make up more than half the volume of our catechisms). We are sure that the commandments are “Law,” and that the Law is bad since it leads to works righteousness. We know we are not saved by works but rather by faith.

So, any discussion of commandments seems contrary to the Good News of justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. This line of thinking is not particularly Lutheran (as in being rooted in the specifics of Luther’s theology or Paul’s theology, for that matter), but it is certainly a baseline in popular Protestantism.

This bias causes us to be very confused about a passage which makes loving a commandment. I think the word “instruction” would be a much superior translation here in the place of “commandment.” But I think that “obedient practice” is perhaps the best translation of all. The description in Deuteronomy 30:16 (NRSV) captures this sense of the word:

“If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.”

Jesus engages in the obedient practice of laying down his life and taking it up again (see John 10:18). He has received the commission to carry out this practice from his Father. Jesus offers a description of this obedient practice as the conclusion to the Book of Signs (see John 12:49-50).

The Father has given Jesus the words to speak. What Jesus speaks is “eternal life.” The “commandment” is linked here in the Farewell Discourse to the “example” (or, as I prefer to translate, the “template”) that Jesus gave to the disciples in the Footwashing in chapter 13. (See Moloney, pages 114-115).

Jesus’ obedient practice requires that he will go away into the glorification by crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension which has been the goal of his mission from the beginning. As he prepares to depart in chapter 13, he gives his disciples “a new obedient practice” – that they should love one another. This practice imitates the love Jesus has embodied with and to them. When others see this practice, they will know that the disciples belong to Jesus.

Schrenk does a good job of connecting the scriptural dots for us. “The new factor is not the law of love as such, nor a new degree of love,” he writes, “but its new Christological foundation. They are to love one another as those who are loved by Jesus. They are to actualize the basic love of Jesus. Thus,” he concludes, “the loving self-giving of Jesus is the root and power of the new” love (page 553).

Jesus promises that the disciples (then and now) are not on their own in living out this obedient practice. Instead, we receive another Encourager, “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:15-16). Even though the lectionary committee splits this section of John’s gospel (John 15:1-17) over two Sundays, the passage from John 15:1 through verse 17 is of a piece. “The vine can only be understood in light of its definition as an abiding in love, and the fruitfulness of this love,” Meda Stamper writes, “as described in John 15:16 only makes sense in light of the vine.” The point is that we remain connected to the Vine by the Encourager.

This verse is, among other things, the conclusion to the conversation that began in John 3. God loves the world in a particular way. God sends the Son into the world to die so that the cosmos might have abundant life. In John’s Gospel, Jesus expands on and illustrates that love over and over. It is, for example, the identifying mark of the Good Shepherd that the Good Shepherd lays down the Shepherd’s life for the sheep.

Love, as described in John 15 is, therefore, a set of obedient and intentional practices that flow from our connection to the Vine and make that connection more intimate as we continue our obedient and intentional practices. Loving does not graft us into the Valid Vine. Rather, loving is the clearest sign that we are branches of that Vine and the surest expression of the life we share with that Vine and with the other branches. We did not choose Jesus, after all.

What can it mean to lay down one’s life for one’s “friends?” Clearly, the “friends” Jesus means here are other disciples. That is perhaps too narrow a framework for understanding the whole of New Testament theology, but if we simply started by loving other Christians as an obedient, intentional, and concrete practice, our world might change a great deal.

For example, it is indisputable that some of my Christian co-religionists are Black, Brown, Native, AAPI, and of other ethnic heritages. They are, in terms of John 15, my “friends.” Will we white Christians be willing to give up our power and privilege, our wealth and property (or even some of it), that is, our “lives,” in order to fight the racism that infects our churches and our lives?

Here is a website that lists a number of actions that white people can take to fight racism – “103 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice” (it used to be 75 things, but hey, we’re trainable, right?). If you can’t bring yourself to grapple with the systemic racism that exists in our country (and it does, not matter what some public figures would have us believe), then at least consider taking one or more of these actions because millions of your “friends” will benefit.

Working for justice always has a cost for those of us who are privileged, positioned, propertied and powerful. That’s the deal, so, white friends, let’s deal. I don’t believe the folks who think they can make real justice painless for the privileged. Loving our friends will cost us something that we experience as “life.” Otherwise, it’s probably not love.

At our house, for example, we support through weekly donations a black congregation in our community. I don’t think we’ll ever attend there or be involved in any significant way. That’s for the best. We don’t attach any strings or conditions to the gift. We don’t assume we know anything about how that money should be used. In fact, it’s not a gift at all. It’s repayment on a debt long overdue.

I think every white Christian church should dedicate ten percent of its revenue right off the top for repayment to a congregation or organization rooted in a different heritage and history. If there’s some sort of partnership or relationship that develops, well and good. But connection with and listening to white people should not be a condition for us making the reparations we need to make in order to begin to approach justice.

Perhaps that would be one small step in our obedient practice of loving our friends. If we could make progress on that practice, we might be better positioned to love others as well.

References and Resources.

deSilva, David A. “Patronage and Reciprocity: The Context of Grace in the New Testament.” https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/ashland_theological_journal/31-1_032.pdf.

Eng, D. K. (2021). ‘I Call You Friends’: Jesus as Patron in John 15,  Themelios 46.1 (2021), 55-69. Themelios, 46(1), 55–69. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/i-call-you-friends-jesus-as-patron-in-john-15/.

Moloney, Francis.  https://repository.divinity.edu.au/2586/1/Moloney_LoveGospelJohn.pdf.

O’Day, Gail R. “I Have Called You Friends.” Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 2008. https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/61118.pdf.

Stamper, Meda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-159-17-3.

Rodriguez, William. “Love and Friendship in Toy Story 3.” Journal of Religion and Film 14:1 (April 2010). https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1480&context=jrf.

Knowing Love

Krista Tippett had a conversation with Bryan Stevenson on the latest “On Being” podcast. You might find that on a local public radio station this weekend. But the podcast can be accessed at https://onbeing.org/series/podcast/.

Tippett is the founder and long-time host of the programs and the beating heart of a much larger enterprise devoted to, for lack of a better phrase, faith, hope and love in a changing world. Stevenson is the author of Just Mercy, and the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, another enterprise, as he notes in the interview, that has grown into a much larger and multi-faceted effort than he originally envisioned.

Photo by Ihsan Aditya on Pexels.com

Stevenson is committed the need for “proximity” in the work he does. “I think sometimes when you’re trying to do justice work, when you’re trying to make a difference, when you’re trying to change the world,” he said, “the thing you need to do is get close enough to people who are falling down, get close enough to people who are suffering, close enough to people who are in pain, who’ve been discarded and disfavored — to get close enough to wrap your arms around them and affirm their humanity and their dignity.”

This is a very Advent-y sentiment, for us Christians who are into such things. We are in the season of remembering and celebrating the God who chooses proximity to humanity as the path to redeeming Creation. It shouldn’t surprise us to hear that we, who are made in the image of that God, do best when we choose proximity as well.

Stevenson knows that getting close to people is one thing. How we see people is an additional thing. In his writing, he talks repeatedly about seeing ourselves and loved and seeing those around us as beloved. “Beloved in the Lord,” one of my seminary professors would regularly announce, “God knows you better than you know yourself — and loves you anyway!” No matter how many times I heard Jim Qualben say that to a class, a congregation, or a meeting of conflicted parishioners, it made my spine tingle.

In my atheist years, I was drawn back to the church in part by way of Psalm 139.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from far away.
 You search out my path and my lying down,
   and are acquainted with all my ways.

At first I found these words offensive. I didn’t want anyone that far up in my business. And I certainly didn’t want some purported deity there. But I came to treasure these words as a source of great comfort and peace. The gift of being fully known — deeply searched out and understood (and loved anyway!) — was a source of calm and joy like no other. That hasn’t changed.

N. T. Wright talks about the “epistemology of love.” He often quotes the line from Wittgenstein, who wrote, “It is love that believes the resurrection.” He writes of this way of knowing in a recent article in First Things.

Pure objectivity about other persons would appraise them at a distance, rather than engaging with them; pure subjectivity would use them to gratify one’s own whims or desires. Love means not just allowing others to be themselves but relishing them as being themselves, as being both other than ourselves and other than our initial hopes and expectations of them.

Bryan Stevenson practices the epistemology of love. He knows by coming close, by engaging, by becoming involved. He doesn’t maintain the distance of cool objectivity. He doesn’t have good boundaries when it comes to connection with his clients and causes. He is perhaps obsessed and is certainly consumed by his work. A certain perspective would describe this as unhealthy behavior. Stevenson would describe it as his life, his work, his love and his passion.

Objectivity is an Enlightenment conceit. It can never be achieved, even though it can be approximated. Objectivity may be useful in theoretical physics or higher mathematics or similar disciplines, although the best scientists are always the most passionate about their work. But objectivity leads so easily to privileging one position or perspective above all others. In the West this leads to privileging whiteness and making it the norm and standard by which all others are measured.

Engagement — the epistemology of love — is part of the Christian account of the good news of Jesus Christ. God comes close to you and me — closer than our very breath. God is a slob just like one of us and knows us better than we know ourselves.

The deepest element of an epistemology of love is enacting that love. Stevenson calls it “stone catching.” In his conversation with Krista Tippett, he remembers the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. He says, “it’s a powerful story about mercy and redemption and grace, and what I’ve realized is that in this era, I don’t think our righteous would put their stones down. I think that we have too many people who would, despite that exhortation, would still cast the stones. They feel insulated from the hypocrisy and judgment that that implies.”

That assessment could leave us hopeless and despondent (dare I say “acedic”?). But not Stevenson. If people are going to throw the stones anyway, then some of us must dare to become “stone catchers.” He describes it this way: “just because people won’t recognize what the right and just thing is to do, that it’s not right and just to cast those stones, doesn’t mean that that’s the end of the struggle. We have to stand up. We have to stand in front of those who are vulnerable and we have to catch those stones.”

Seeking proximity, looking with love, and then catching the stones — who says that Advent waiting is passive!