Easter 6: 17 May John 14:15-21
This passage belongs closely together with last week’s, John 14:1-14. It forms another segment of Jesus’ last words to his disciples. See last week for why that is important and the role it plays in John compared with the other gospels.
While the opening verse might be read as referring to a range of commandments given by Jesus, or even to the ten commandments and the way Jesus expounds some of them in the Sermon on the Mount and adds more, this is not the focus in John. Keeping Jesus’ commands also features in 14:21, which neatly rounds off our passage by bringing it back to the theme with which it started. It is also the theme in 14:23-24, which speaks of keeping Jesus’ ‘word’ or ‘words’. 15:10 returns to the theme of Jesus’ commands and 15:12 explains: ‘This is my command, that you love one another.’ It recalls the so-called ‘new commandment’ of 13:34, ‘that you love one another as I have loved you’. 15:10 even speaks of Jesus, in turn, keeping the Father’s commands.
What does all this mean? A detailed set of moral commands? We look in vain in John’s gospel for such detail. Instead we have basically one command: to go as we have been sent, just as Jesus came as he was sent, and to make the Father known. It is about sharing a message of love for the world and that also entails being a community of love, which appears to have been a major theme at the time when the final drafts of the gospel were being prepared (see last week). This is not surprising, given that 1 John tells us that the community had subsequently split apart.
Here in John 14 the focus is on doing the Father’s works, just as Jesus had done, and doing them in all the world (14:12). When the disciples love Christ and get on with the job, two important things will accompany them. John lists them in 14:16-17 and in 14:18-21. Jesus defines his own role in 14:16 as a ‘helper’ (parakletos). It is the word used for a support person, especially in court, and can also be translated ‘advocate’ or ‘counsel’ or ‘counsellor’. Mark 13:11 speaks of the Spirit playing this role when disciples are prosecuted. This idea has produced further reflection in John’s communities, which led to people identifying Jesus himself as having this role before God (as in 1 John 2:1; see also Romans 8:34 and Hebrews 7:25 for a similar idea). Here the focus is on the Spirit, as a second ‘paraclete’. The focus is less on help as disciples are arraigned before the courts and more on help to enable them to do their job. The legal language still shines through: they are to bear testimony to Jesus as witnesses (15:26). 16:5-15 even portrays the whole mission of the Spirit and the disciples as mounting a case to the world about the truth of Jesus and winning it.
At the simplest level, in14:16-17 Jesus is saying: my departure is distressing you; but, take heart, I am sending the Spirit to help you to continue my work. The same point is acted out in 20:19-23, where Jesus declares: ‘As my Father sent me, so I send you’, breathes on them and gives them the Spirit. That sound like saying: I’m not going to be around; instead of me you will have the Spirit. But John immediately corrects such an impression in 14:18. Jesus is not going to abandon them. He will come to them.
There are various possibilities here. He could be referring in 14:19 to the second coming and be indicating that he believes that that will happen ‘in just a little while’. Or he could be referring to the resurrection when Jesus will appear to his disciples (as he does in John 20-21). John clearly affirms both the second coming (as 14:3 shows) and the resurrection appearances. 14:21 shows, however, that he intends something more. Jesus will make himself known to the people engaged in his mission.
At this point we have another confused disciple, Judas (see last week and 13:36; 14:5; 14:8), who asks the naive question (14:22) which produces further clarification (14:23-24). In this answer Jesus states that both he and the Father will come and take up residence in disciples engaged in mission. John is somewhat playfully reworking 14:2-3. Instead of ‘dwelling places’ with the Father in the beyond and of Jesus’ second coming, we now read of ‘dwelling places’ in people and the second coming of the Father and the Son into the lives of individuals. Like Paul, John understands the Spirit as bringing the presence of both the Father and the Son to the believer. Little wonder that later generations articulated a doctrine of the Trinity!
While not abandoning traditional beliefs (for instance, in the second coming and judgement), John handles them in a way which relates them directly to the present. He can do this because the chief focus of his spirituality is not a place or a time, but a person and a set of relationships. The focus is not quantity, but quality. The focus is not bigger miracles or stricter commandments, but the expansion of the initiative of love which comes from God and seeks to fill the world. This is why John’s account of Jesus’ last words does not expound the Law, as do the patriarchs in their final instructions in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and as one might have expected in Matthew (see 28:18-20). It is also why for all John’s talk about the Spirit, the focus is not ecstasy or miracle, as one might expect in Luke and Acts, but presence. The focus is not mystical experiences. If mysticism applies at all to John, it is focused on relationship and resultant action, on communities of love which ‘speak for themselves’ (13:34-35).
The passage is framed by human anxiety about the absence of Jesus and ultimately about the absence of God (14:1; 14:27). It does not deny the anxiety and distress, but offers a promise of presence and sense of meaning embedded in sharing God’s life and participating in God’s action in the world, recognisable by its ‘Jesus-shape’. John composed these parting words with more than the immediate disciples in mind. Do they not still make sense and help people make sense of their tradition?
First Reading: Easter
6: 17 May Acts 17:22-31
Epistle: Easter 6: 171 May 1 Peter 3:13-22