At first reading, the words of Jesus in this passage from John are not very inspiring. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” It is that little word “if.” From our grandparents down to our grandchildren, we have all lived with or kept company with people who talk as though their love for us was conditional. “If you loved me, you would …” Fill in the blank.
What is stunning about today’s gospel passage is that it seems to vary from the unconditional love Jesus has been demonstrating in every gospel reading we have had since Easter Sunday.
In John 20, to the brokenhearted Mary Magdalene, Jesus simply spoke her name.
In John’s “Shepherd Discourse,” like the sheep hearing his voice, Mary recognized him with joy.
When the disciples were hiding behind locked doors in fear, Jesus simply stood there among them, sorrowful that they were unable to trust the good news brought to them by the women that morning, but not wasting any time with recriminations or scenes of righteous indignation.
In the “Doubting Thomas” passage, Jesus never said anything along the lines of “If you’d really loved me you would know me without my having to get undressed and show you my scars.”
On the road to Emmaus, Jesus, in the guise of a stranger, patiently did what he had so often done with his friends and disciples while walking along the road: he talked to them about the meanings of scripture. Keeping his disguise, he deliberately recreated a very particular memory for them while they were at table together: he took, blessed, broke, and shared bread. Once they recognized him, Jesus did not stay around to say, “Well it took you long enough.” He discretely vanished, leaving them to rejoice with one another.
These post-Resurrection appearances strongly suggest that the risen Jesus loved his disciples unconditionally. Yet suddenly in today’s reading, going back to a time immediately before his arrest in Gethsemane, we have the big “if.” There may be absolute, unconditional love for us on God’s side of things, but on our side, Jesus poses a condition: if you love me, you will obey my commandments.
The clue, of course, lies not so much in the “if” but in that word “obey.” We need to decide precisely what commandments John wants us to understand at this point. Are we to understand the whole tradition of commandments, from Sinai on down, or are we to infer the new commandment that Jesus handing over to his friends in John 13:34: “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another even as I have loved you”?
It may be, of course, that the distinction is beside the point. Loving Jesus is simply a matter of being gentle and reverent toward others, having a clear conscience, doing good. In other words, love as Jesus loved; be self-giving as Jesus was, receive others as he did, do the Father’s will as he did. Most of all open ourselves to the Spirit who dwells within us.
In the wonderful, treasured words of St. Paul, we may therefore be sure that nothing, “neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come … will be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.”