Part of the genius of the Easter Season, the fifty days between Easter and Pentecost, is the time it gives us to reflect on the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The season is modeled on the chronology in St. Luke’s Gospel and Acts, where the risen Lord spends time with the disciples after the resurrection, but there’s actually even more involved in the development of the season. In the early days of the church, new members were baptized on Easter Day, and then spent time growing in their relationship with Christ. The new Christians were baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection, as St. Paul says in Romans (Rom. 6:2-3); now, in the season after baptism, they continued to reflect on the experience of new life, and to grow in discipleship.
When I say that the early Christians reflected on the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, I don’t mean they got out their workbooks and tried to figure it out. I mean they reflected on what it meant for their lives. Heart knowledge, not simply head knowledge. The Easter season was a time to reflect on their relationship with Christ in the context of Christian discipleship, as members of Christ’s body the church. Prayers and readings during the season were keyed to this reflection, as they still are: an invitation to the entire congregation to consider what it means to follow the risen Lord.
Our reading today from St. John’s Gospel is a case in point, following immediately after last Sunday’s lection on Jesus the true vine. He is the vine, and we are the branches, as we heard last week. The image is an organic one, in which vine and branches are closely connected. The branches must abide in the vine, “because apart from me you can do nothing” (Jo. 15:5), as Jesus says. The branches are trimmed in order to bear more fruit, but they must not become separated. “Abide in me as I abide in you” (Jo. 15:4).
The theme of close connection is extended in today’s Gospel, now focused by Jesus on love and friendship, as he explores what it means to abide in him. I say “love and friendship” because in this chapter Jesus uses two words for love, without making a rigid distinction between them. The two words are used by Jesus, in the same breath, because they are closely connected.
The first word is best displayed where Jesus tells the disciples, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jo. 15:13). The “greater love” in the first part of the verse is the kind of love Jesus himself shows on the cross, where he is willing to risk everything, even his life, for the sake of the world. This is sacrificial love, borne at a huge cost by a loving God on behalf of the human race. This is the sacrificial love that Jesus calls us to as his disciples, a willingness to give ourselves for our brothers and sisters. As Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jo. 15:12).
The second kind of love is also found in the same verse I mentioned before, where Jesus calls us to lay down our lives for our friends. The “friends” are those who stand in a relationship of mutual love, a second kind of love mentioned in the same breath as the first and closely linked to it. Where our translation reads “friends,” we simply have another word for “love.” If the first word is defined by sacrifice, the second is characterized by intimacy, the mutual relationship that characterizes friendship.
Here we are getting close to the idea of “abiding,” the organic relationship of close connection that goes back to the original saying about the vine and branches. “I have called you friends” (Jo. 15:15), Jesus tells the disciples. To abide in Jesus is to accept his invitation to be his friends; to be in mutual love with him and with each other. Jesus calls us to give ourselves for the sake of others, and gives himself for our sake; Jesus calls us into friendship with him and with one another.
Friendship is cultivated by the sharing of heart and mind; our friendship with Jesus is cultivated in the same way. Abiding in Christ, and doing what he commands, requires relationship with him. Relationship requires communication. Prayer is the conversation we have with God, and it (like any relationship) requires both speaking and listening.
In prayer, in particular, we share our heart and mind with Jesus, but we also listen with close attention to the word that God has for us, as we reflect on the Holy Scriptures and our celebration of the Sacraments. If Eastertide has its origins in a time of deepening relationship with Christ for the newly baptized, then we have the same opportunity to deepen our relationship by sharing our hearts and minds in intercession and petition, and careful listening for the word that Jesus speaks to us.
“You are my friends if you do what I command you” (Jo. 15:14). Jesus calls us to friendship with him. He can do this because he’s alive, right now in the present, and inviting us this Eastertide to come to know him better. God gives us the grace of this season to grow in discipleship, in relationship with each other, and in relationship with Christ.