Sixth Sunday of Easter (B)
Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48; 1 Jn 4:7-10; Jn 15:9-17
"No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." (Jn 15:13)
As a youngster I had two best friends. It troubled me when others would ask me who was my best friend. I knew there was supposed to be only one, but I had two, and I loved them both equally. Today's readings speak of how God befriends humanity and shows no partiality. In the verses previous to today's reading from Acts, Peter struggles with this new insight. Three times God speaks to him in a vision, so that he is able to say to Cornelius, "In truth, I see that God shows no partiality." He recognizes that in every nation whoever fears God and acts uprightly is acceptable to God. The "fear" about which Peter speaks is not cowering or cringing before One who has the power to crush you. Rather, it is becoming enraptured with awe at the Holy One whose immense love is beyond comprehension, and then responding by acting "uprightly," that is, in right relation toward all: God, self, others, and all that is created. Even as Peter is speaking and still trying to grasp the implications of this, the Holy Spirit preempts any further attempts at explanation, and in the divine erratic, inexplicable way, falls upon all without distinction. As Peter rightly asserts, those who consider themselves already to be God's best friends, must not try to put any obstacles in the way of the new best friends upon whom the Spirit falls. Like a parent who loves each child differently yet equally, so too the divine embrace.
The Gospel is a continuation of the Last Discourse of Jesus to his disciples. The Fourth Evangelist uses the term "disciple," more than seventy times to refer to all the women and men who believed in and followed Jesus. There is no scene in this Gospel of choosing or sending the Twelve, nor do the Twelve figure in any prominent way in the narrative; they are mentioned only in passing at 6:67, 70; 20:24. In today's Gospel, Jesus speaks of having chosen and befriended all who have remained with him. The offer of friendship to disciples is part of a chain of love that begins with the Father, whose love is poured out in the self-gift that is Jesus, who offers friendship to all. Jesus then tells his friends how to keep that chain unbroken: pay the love forward to others, befriending them in the way that he has done for them. He speaks of this as a "commandment," which seems an odd term in the context. How can one be commanded to "love" another person? In biblical parlance, "love" signifies not so much the feelings one has toward another. Rather, it designates deeds of loving kindness toward another that communicate to that one that they are part of the community of chosen friends of God and Jesus. We are commanded to act this way toward others, no matter how we might feel about them and no matter if they reciprocate or not the love that is offered.
Jesus demonstrated what such love entails when he washed the feet of all "his own" (13:1), the many beloved friends, gathered for their final meal with him. He did not skip Peter and Judas. He explains this as the greatest kind of love: the willingness to lay down one's life for one's friends. This is not an obligatory service, such as that which a slave is bound to render. Rather, the love of friendship is freely chosen self-surrender. The most challenging aspect to this kind of love is that friends of Jesus are asked not only to embrace within the community of beloved disciples all those whom Jesus befriends, especially those to whom we are not naturally drawn, but even to be willing to risk our own lives for such a one. When this seems a humanly impossible choice, Jesus assures disciples that when they ask God in his name, the necessary grace will be given. Abiding with Christ in communion with all his best friends, brings an inner joy that is full to brimming over (John 15:11).
PRAYING WITH SCRIPTURE
- Spend some time with Jesus, your best friend. Let his love and joy abide in you.
- Ask God for the grace to love those you find most difficult to befriend and love.
- Savor with Jesus the joy you experience in choosing to surrender yourself in love to another.
By Barbara E. Reid, O.P., Professor of New Testament Studies, Vice President, and Academic Dean
This essay first appeared in Abiding Word. Sunday Reflections for Year B (Liturgical Press, 2011).
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