Progressive reflections on the lectionary #15

John 15: 9-17 All you need is love

Progressive reflections on the lectionary #15

The gospel lectionary reading this week follows directly on from that of last week, now the writer has Jesus continue with his ‘vine’ symbolism, but move from an emphasis on ‘remain’ or ‘abide’ to an emphasis on ‘love’. Here the virtue of love is presented as the primary ethic in the Jesus movement, the thing on which everything else depends and relies.

The crucial thing about love, of course, is that it is relational. To love means to be, in some way, in relation with an ‘other’. In John’s gospel the importance of relationship has already been emphasised by Jesus’ symbolic foot-washing action, he demonstrates that he relates to them, he loves them, as a servant. Now he calls them to love and serve the world. Love here is a divine action, ‘John’ insists that it stems first from God, which puts God in the position not of king, or emperor, but of the ultimate servant.

The John community may, it is thought, have been based in Ephesus - certainly that would synchronise John’s prologue nicely with the emphasis on ‘Logos’ that can still be found in the work of Heraclitus, a native of Ephesus from some centuries before. It would also be helpful for an approach to this passage.

The main thing that Ephesus was famous for was the temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Artemis was a fertility deity and Ephesus related symbology depict her with oval shapes covering her torso. Some have speculated that she was, therefore, a ‘many breasted god’ - a concept which would put her alongside ‘El Shaddai’ which can be translated as the ‘god with breasts’ but somehow ended up translated as ‘God almighty’. Other fertility related options for the ovals include eggs, or even bull scrotums… if this email has ended up in your spam folder I suppose this sentence is to blame.

The great theatre of Ephesus, another massive building was dedicated to both Artemis and Dionysus - the latter being the Greek god with whom ‘the vine’ was most strongly associated. Also a fertility god, by the way, and - of course - closely linked with wine.

But the point is that in a place which has such a strong tradition of fertility symbolism, the idea that Jesus as the vine (rather than Dionysius) tells his listeners that they are appointed, as the branches, to “go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” would, of course be very familiar - home ground territory. Now, though, they learn what they must do in order to be fruitful which is to say they must love - and in order to love they must serve. This is the model that Jesus sets up.

God’s ultimate power, after all, is God’s ultimate nature. Which is love. And for this love, this power, to have effect, for it to make a difference in the world, then those who believe in it must enact it. “ I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another,” says Jesus at the end of the passage. The point is clear - God is love. God’s nature is love. Love loves and therefore leads, always, towards love.

Artemis was not just a fertility goddess, but more broadly the goddess of ‘wild nature’ - the unpredictable, uncontrollable, natural world. The God whom Jesus calls ‘father’ is also the creator God, the one from whom all nature flows. Now John has Jesus assure his disciples that behind all of this, underlying or underpinning all of this natural world is love, and to take their place in the natural order they too must learn to love, and the way to do this is clear - they must learn to serve.

According to the same way of thinking, the book (in this case ‘John’s gospel’) was written in the context of the writer’s first priority, which was the pastoral care of the community, so each passage that we look at can be thought of as being directed at a particular need or concern within the community itself.

Part of the context of the John community would likely have been a growing sense of disconnection between the Jesus movement and the Judaism from which it had sprung. As Judaism found itself under increasing pressure and threat after the destruction of the second temple, there was a lean towards legalism, phariseeism, and self preservation. As a result the Jesus movement found itself increasingly on the outside of its parent tradition.

Indeed, according to this way of thinking, it would sometimes have been for this reason that separate Christian communities, like the John community, were formed - because Jesus followers felt excluded from mainstream Judaism. They had become the subject of regular prayers against heresy, and now felt themselves to be marginalised.

This explanation would certainly offer a reason for the gospel’s apparent anti-Jewish slant, and a reason for the inclusion of this particular passage. In the preceding chapters the writer sets up the Jews as hostile towards Jesus, giving a reason for the John community necessarily becoming separate from Judaism. Now he develops the theme of how to keep going when times are hard - encouraging them to understand that it is Jesus who is the ‘true vine’, and that they should abide in him. A reassurance to those who feel cut off from the Jewish (parent) tradition.

The writer seeks to motivate and encourage his community, he wants them to stick with the programme despite the pain of dislocation, and despite the claims of ‘heresy’ levelled at them. “You will only bear fruit if you stick with Jesus,” he warns, advises, or remonstrates.

This way of thinking offers an approach to John’s gospel that says it was written for a particular people, at a particular time, in a particular context. From that perspective, this particular passage seeks to offer comfort and encouragement to a community troubled by difficulties and doubts. It has a pastoral emphasis. On that basis it can, of course, continue to offer encouragement to those who feel dislocated or discouraged, whilst also offering a case study of the way in which the gospel writers constructed their narratives with the perceived or felt needs of their own communities in mind.

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Image: Photo by Ali Gündoğdu on Unsplash


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