This morning’s Gospel reading is John 15:9–17:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.
“I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father. It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you. This I command you: love one another.”
When I began discerning on what today’s Gospel reading means to me, I immediately got a sense of déjà vu. One of the first connections that arose in my mind was a contrast to the modern concept of love, especially as exemplified by one classic song, and had the nagging feeling that I’d mentioned it before. Sure enough, several months ago, I wrote about the song The Greatest Love of All in a reflection from a different Gospel passage, one in which Jesus emphasized love of neighbor and service rather than the song’s exaltation of self-love as love’s highest form.
In today’s Gospel, though, Jesus goes farther in describing just how far from self-love we must go in order to achieve love’s highest form. In this part of John’s Gospel, Jesus spends the time immediately preceding his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane giving a long discourse on salvation, the church to come, and the need to persevere.
He tells the disciples that He reveals all this now “to keep you from falling away,” but Jesus accompanies that with dire predictions about what their life of service will entail. The world will hate them because of Christ, and even more so when they have the Holy Spirit to guide them. “They will put you out of the synagogues,” He warns; “indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.” Jesus speaks in this passage of His own sacrifice and resurrection, of course, but He also gives us the model for love of the Lord and each other in the process.
We see Jesus’ warning play out almost literally in Acts of the Apostles. The first martyr after Jesus, Stephen, gets stoned to death for blasphemy by an angry mob convinced that they are service to the Lord. They are led by Saul of Tarsus, who later is converted by the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. And in that conversion, Saul becomes Paul, Christ’s ambassador to the wider world, taking up the Gospel with as much zeal as he had previously persecuted those who had done so before him.
In his conversion, Saul lays down his previous life to become Paul. He gives up his standing in the Judean community and his ambitions for temple authority to serve Christ. He sometimes clashes with his brethren in the nascent church, but Paul does not seek authority or power. Paul dedicates his life to the Gospel, and in doing so becomes the church’s first great theologian, serving others to this very day in his wisdom and insight. For all his service, Paul endures imprisonment and execution for merely spreading the Good News among the Romans.
Nor was Paul alone in this, of course. According to tradition, all but one of the Apostles is martyred for their work for Christ. John lives to an old age in exile, but the rest all literally lay down their lives for the salvation of their neighbors. In its first three centuries, most of Peter’s successors follow him into martyrdom, and to this day people are still persecuted and murdered for their love of Christ and their sharing of that love. There was, and still is, a very literal interpretation of today’s Gospel for those who would be disciples of Christ.
But there’s more to it as well, which brings us back around to what we see as the highest form of love. This exhortation is not just about martyrdom, but also of sacrificing ourselves for the good of others and for the Lord. What parts of our lives do we not lay down for Christ? What do we hold back for ourselves?
This is where self-love reaches its limits and leads us astray. We should love ourselves as children of God, but we should love God for His creation more. That love should be directed outward rather than inward, as the latter tends to blind us to both sin and the sufferings of others. Self-love is easy; other-love is much more difficult to achieve.
The former is what leads us to compartmentalize the Lord and our faith. It’s very easy to be a Sunday Christian, an impulse with which I constantly struggle. I’ll lay down an hour for the Lord each week, but then keep the one hundred and sixty-seven hours for my own purposes. I’ll pray as the Lord commands, but performing service has to fit into my priorities. When I get too caught up in myself and my desires and priorities, I’m not laying down my life for Christ; I’m laying down boundaries for myself and putting the Lord in a very small box.
This is the essence of sin, and what led Adam and Eve to fall from grace. We arrogate to ourselves the judgment that belongs to the Lord and attempt to make ourselves into our own gods. It is only by laying down our lives, figuratively speaking at the least, that we see beyond ourselves and beyond the creation to the Creator. That puts us on our own road to Damascus, where the love and salvation of Christ can pierce our hearts and bring us back into full communion with the Lord. When we trust the Lord enough to lay down our lives for Him, we get our true lives given back to us – the lives for which we were created.
The front-page image is “The Last Supper” by Tintoretto, c. 1594, currently on display at the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, Italy. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.