The lectionary reading for Easter 6 in Year B is the second half of what appears to be a single section of Jesus’ teaching, in his ‘Farewell Discourse’, John 15.9–17. On the one hand, it seems strange to have divided this teaching into its two halves. On the other, whilst there is a continuing overarching theme of being fruitful whilst abiding in the vine, there are several big new theological ideas that are weaved into Jesus’ teaching here.
We noted last week the three contexts for reading this passage—the idea of Israel as God’s (unfruitful) vine, the vine representing Israel around the door of the temple, and first century viticulture with its two kinds of pruning. We also noted the circular and interconnected ideas, which are stated and revisited, and that continues in this section; words in bold are new significant ideas when first introduced, words in bold italic are these ideas when they are repeated.
1. Jesus the true vine, his Father the gardener
2. Two kinds of pruning for fruitfulness
3. Pruning/being made clean by Jesus’ teaching
4. Mutual abiding; no fruit without abiding
5. Vine and branches; abiding gives much fruit
6. Within abiding, branches are thrown away
7. Jesus’ teaching abiding means asking and it will be done
8. Father’s glory, bearing fruit, being disciples
9. Father loved, I have loved, abide in love
10. Keep commands, abide in love
11. Joy in you, joy complete
12. My command is: love one another
13. Love means laying down one’s life
14. You my friends if you do what I command
15. You are friends not servants, since I have told you everything
16. I chose you and appointed you to bear fruit that abides and you can ask for anything
17 My command is: love one another
Just as the branches and tendrils of a vine grow, and clusters of grapes grow on them, as the discourse unfolds and ideas are repeated, new ideas are introduced in amongst the existing ideas to develop and enrich the imagery.
Having, in the first half of this section, woven together the ideas of the vine, abiding, fruitfulness, and his teaching, Jesus now weaves in a new perspective, that abiding in him means abiding in his love. This is expressed in the remarkable idea that, in experiencing the love of Jesus, we are experiencing that which Jesus himself experiences in relation to his Father.
This is the moment when some preachers will dive into the idea of our being immersed in the ‘perichoretic dance of Trinitarian relationships’ (and if you don’t know what that means, don’t worry). But first, we need to note (negatively, as Jesus often does in this passage) that there are some important ways in which the love of the Father for Jesus is unlike the love of Jesus for his disciples (and therefore for us). Within the narrative of this gospel, the Father’s love for the Son is the reason ‘he has given all things into his hands’ (John 3.35), that is, he has delegated author for life-giving and for judgment; it is drawn out by the Son ‘laying down my life only to take it up again’ (John 10.17); and it is from time eternal, since the Son is eternal (John 17.24). Having developed Trinitarian language as a way of thinking about the relationship of Father, Son and Spirit, we might note that the ‘persons’ of the Trinity are not distinct like human persons are; the love of the Father for the Son is not the love for ‘another’ in the way that Jesus’ love for us is. The Father and the Son will with one will, and so their love cannot be rejected—but we can decide whether or not to accept the love that is offered. Thus, Jesus never says ‘Love one another as the Father has loved me’ but ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ (John 15.12).
Nevertheless, ‘it remains an immense privilege or disciples of Jesus to be brought into the community of love that exists between the Father and the Son’ (Colin Kruse, TNTC, p 370). Though there are differences in the love between Father and Son, and the love of Father and Son for both the disciples and the world (John 3.16), it is clear that the latter is an overflow and consequence of the former. Because of this, our enjoyment of God’s love can never be separated from our obedience, the means by which we ‘abide’ in his love, just as the love of the Son cannot be separated from his obedience.
Remaining in the Father’s love was not for Jesus a passive thing: it involved obedience to his commands. The same is true for Jesus’ disciples. They remain in Jesus’ love by keeping his commands. (Kruse, TNTC, p 371).
This adds a complementary dimension to the earlier statement that Jesus’ teaching (‘the word I have spoken to you’, John 15.2); God does the pruning that we need, so long as we will allow ourselves to be pruned.
Joy is not a common theme in the Fourth Gospel (unlike in Luke’s gospel, where it is mentioned frequently), coming here, in John 16.20–24, and 17.13. But it is also mentioned by John the Baptist in John 3.29. On every occasion is it associated with ‘fulness’ or ‘being complete’ (the verb pleroo) and is accompanied by images of eschatological fulfilment—for John the Baptist, the coming of Jesus as the arrival of the long-awaiting bridegroom, and in John 16.21, illustrated by the joy of a woman who has given birth, in Isaiah 26.17, 66.7–9, Micah 4.8–10 and Rev 12.2, an image of the people of God suffering under oppression and awaiting ‘deliverance’ by God.
In rabbinic thought, joy was imperfect in the present age, marred by the certain prospect of death and the worries of this life (Gen Rab 42.3). Only the age to come, the messianic era, would see perfect joy (Koestenberger, Zondervan Illustrated, p 145).
In the Fourth Gospel’s realised eschatology, the joy of the age to come is granted to us now as we abide in the love of Jesus, the true vine, by keeping his commandments.
Friendship (φιλία) was an important concept in the ancient world—though, in contrast to most contemporary usage, friendships could often be between unequals, for example the friendship between a patron and a client (see Keener, volume 2, pp 1006ff for details). There is a striking sense in which Jesus is shifting the relationship with the disciples from one of inequality (‘I no longer call you slaves…’) to one of equality, since he is passing on all that the Father has given to him. ‘Friend’ (φίλος) means ‘having a special interest in someone’ or ‘one who is on intimate terms or in close association with another’ (BDAG). In Jewish law, slaves cannot inherit, but friends can be beneficiaries of a person’s will. This is notable, given that, throughout this gospel, the usual modus operandi for the disciples has been a failure to understand, with Jesus often acting alone and seeming elusive to them.
However, this friendship is not completely symmetrical; although he calls the disciples ‘friends’, Jesus is never called ‘friend’ by them. The relationship involves Jesus giving commands, and the disciples obeying—but this obedience flows from love and understanding, and never from blind obedience.
Neither should we see being ‘friend’, φίλος, as unconnected with the preceding language of ‘love’. Although in this chapter ‘love’ is mostly expressed with the verb ἀγαπάω, the Fourth Gospel uses the two terms interchangeably. Thus, the Father loves (φιλεῖ) the Son in John 5.20, but the Father also loves (ἀγαπᾷ) Jesus in John 10.17. The beloved disciple is the one whom Jesus loved (ἐφίλει) in John 20.2 but also the one whom Jesus loved (ἠγάπα) in John 21.7.
The love Jesus offers is ‘greatest’ not because they are friends (rather than enemies), but because he is ready to lay down his life. This picks up the image from the paroimia about the shepherd and the sheep in John 10. Just as Jesus is the true vine, in contrast to false Israel, so he is the good shepherd, in contrast to the failed leaders of Israel who have abandoned the flock. The true vine gives life to the branches and the good shepherd gives life to the sheep by laying down his life for them (John 10.15). He lays down his life both in obedience to the Father (John 10.18) and because he loves the disciples. And his ultimate laying down his life in the crucifixion is of a piece with his laying down his life in acts of service and self-giving (John 13.1) expressed in his washing of the disciples’ feet. Thus Paul is able to make the connection in the reverse direction in Phil 2: because Jesus’ humbled himself in obedience to death on the cross, we his disciples should therefore live lives of humility, valuing the needs of others above our own (Phil 2.3–4).
In the Fourth Gospel, there is no account of Jesus seeking out or calling people to himself, in stark contrast to the opening chapters of the Synoptic gospels. And there is no account of Jesus’ prayerful calling of the Twelve to be his closest group. Rather, in this gospel people come to Jesus and seek him out, whether on the direction of John the Baptist (John 1.38), at night in order to ask him questions (John 3), in the daytime by accident (John 4), or at a feast because they have heard about him (John 12). And yet, here Jesus again reinforces the asymmetry of the friendship: ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you’ (John 15.16), against the common practice of rabbis and disciples in the first century, and against the grain of this gospel’s narrative—but theologically in agreement with the Synoptics.
The disciples here function not as a special, distinctive group, separate from ‘ordinary’ followers of Jesus, but archetypal of them. All who follow Jesus have been chosen by him, are friends because he teaches them all the Father has given him, and are appointed to ‘bear much fruit’. This communicates both Jesus’ superiority over his friends—he is Lord of their choices and destiny—and a sense of challenge and responsibility. But it also connects us back to the beginning of this section, confirming that these two lectionary passages a real a single discourse: just as branches will naturally produce fruit as long as they remain in the vine, so the natural expectation of Jesus having called and appointed us is that we will bear fruit. The fruit here ‘abides’, a further pun on the term deployed throughout the gospel since John 1.38, meaning that this fruit will have an eternal significance and legacy.
Jesus’ command to us, by obeying which we abide in him and in his love, is to love one another. Though a common translation suggests this is a single command (‘This is my command…’) in fact the text says ‘These things I command you, [so that] you love one another.’ This can hardly be read reductively, as if all else that Jesus has said and taught, both in this gospel and in the others (since the writer clearly assumes that we are familiar with at least Mark, if not the other synoptics); instead, we should read it as summing up all that Jesus has taught, and be the thing to which all other commands point to and serve. The goal is love, but in order to reach that goal we need to abide in Jesus, find our home in him, be rooted in his teaching, obey all his commands, allow ourselves to be pruned, and be ready to lay ourselves down for others in acts of practical service.