NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: JOHN 14:23-29
SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER USCCB LINK TO ALL THREE READINGS
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Whoever loves me will keep my word,
and my Father will love him,
and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.
Whoever does not love me does not keep my words;
yet the word you hear is not mine
but that of the Father who sent me.
“I have told you this while I am with you.
The Advocate, the Holy Spirit,
whom the Father will send in my name,
will teach you everything
and remind you of all that I told you.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
Not as the world gives do I give it to you.
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.
You heard me tell you,
‘I am going away and I will come back to you.’
If you loved me,
you would rejoice that I am going to the Father;
for the Father is greater than I.
And now I have told you this before it happens,
so that when it happens you may believe.”
I have neglected to mention over the past few weeks that my prime source for the Gospel of John has been and remains Father Raymond Brown, whose two volume commentary on the Gospel of St. John in 1970 is the gold standard of English language Johannine commentaries of the twentieth century. He was teaching at Catholic University during my seminary years in Washington, but I was not fortunate to have him as a professor. One day I was having coffee in my seminary friary with my scripture professor friend “Corky” and he told me that he was off to the University for a distasteful assignment. Corky had been designated by Catholic University to settle an academic dispute; Father Brown was accused of heresy by another professor of teaching heresy, specifically regarding Mary in the Gospel. The protagonist was refused tenure, ultimately, and became something of a martyr of the Catholic Right, which still to this day conducts war against Father Brown, a fine priest and scholar who died almost twenty years ago. Corky told me that Brown, accused by his enemies as too liberal and progressive, was upset to see Coke machines in seminaries.
Father Brown, in his commentary of today’s Gospel, begins with a reminder that in the previous paragraph two questions had been posed to Jesus during this Last Supper discourse. Thomas, upon hearing that Jesus was going on to prepare a place for the disciples, asks plaintively, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. So how can we know the way?” Jesus replies with his powerful “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Philip follows up with another question, “Lord, show us the Father. That’s enough for us.” Jesus, demonstrating his own frustration, replies in his own famous way, “Philip, here I am with you all this time, and you still don’t know me?”
These questions, of course, provide the framework for Jesus to describe the oneness he enjoys with the Father. But it might be a mistake to write off the questions of Philip and Thomas as literary devices for more thorough “doctrinal” explanation of Jesus’ identity and purposes. John’s Gospel was written as much as seventy years after the life of Jesus; the Last Supper Discourse appears only in this Gospel and it is certainly not unreasonable to say that texts from the Discourse, such as Sunday’s Gospel, both interpret the struggle of the early Church to do theology (as “faith seeking understanding” in St. Anselm’s later famous phrase) and as a combination doctrinal/pastoral exhortation of the divine plan for later generations of Christians.
In our text at hand Jesus returns to the bedrock of Christian identity: to love Jesus is to “keep my word,” and the result will be that the Father will love him (who keeps the word. There is a strong Trinitarian cast to this reading. The lover of Christ will be visited by Christ and his Father, and this will not be a quick encounter, as Jesus adds that they (Father and Son) will “make our dwelling with him.” John has used this phrase before in Chapter 1, where “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Jesus adds that his words are actually the words of the Father who sent him. Unspoken, of course, is the fate of those who choose to reject the Word of Jesus and the Father.
In the next paragraph Jesus goes on to say, in so many words, I personally will not be around indefinitely to pull your chestnuts out of the fire. Thus he introduces the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom God will send in Jesus’ name to teach and remind the disciples (and presumably all of his followers to come) everything that Jesus has already taught during his earthly sojourn among them. In his commentary Father Brown reports that many scholars of his time and earlier in the century had seen this sentence as a kind of revelation of the Trinity. (II, 642ff) Brown is not quite prepared to go that far, but he does comment that there is a three-fold reference to God’s presence. The human Jesus, the ever-present Paraclete, and the Father with whom they are one would seem to indicate a full presence of God in all his persons in the drama of Redemption.
When Jesus bids his disciples “peace,” Brown argues that the best way to understand “peace” is as a term for salvation, and that an interpretive way of reading this text is “I wish you eternal life.” (II, 653) Faulty interpretations of peace would include peace as an absence of war or psychological tension, and sentimental feelings of cheer. John’s Church, with its years of difficult experiences, would have had a fair idea that John’s use of “peace” conveyed something far beyond current day experience. The word “peace” also carried futuristic tones, as in wishing the recipient the full future glory of the delivering God. Personally I was struck by these insights on peace, as I suspect the universal Catholic understanding of the “Kiss of Peace,” for example, is understood more for its symbolism of fellowship (as it is) than as a fervent wish for future and everlasting life, a fitting rite prior to consuming the Bread of Eternal Life.
Jesus returns to the theme of farewell. Father Brown notes the similarity between Jesus’ farewell remarks and those of Moses in Deuteronomy 31. The fact that Jesus has announced that this night (Holy Thursday) marks his ultimate battle with the evil of the world makes fear an appropriate response. Jesus’ words that his disciples should be truly happy for him to go is not a rebuke of the disciples as much as a counsel that their love of him is possessive and conditional. His return (or Ascension) to the Father in eternal glory—on Easter Sunday, in St. John’s chronology—is an event that should bring the disciples inestimable joy, if their love was truly altruistic.
The final lines include Jesus’ declaration that “the Father is greater than I,” a phrase that would stoke contentious debates in the Fourth and Fifth centuries when the Creed of the Church and the formal doctrines of the nature and work of Jesus were effectively stated. This is an issue more appropriate to the branch of theology known as Christology. For the moment, one may consult Christology: A Biblical, Historical, and Systematic Study of Jesus by Gerald O’Collins, S.J. For our purposes, suffice to say that Jesus’ words are best described as an expression of love, not as a statement of identity.