One of the most prominent and profound words in John’s theological lexicon is the term for “remain in, abide, dwell in” (Greek menein). It describes the relationship with God that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have made possible for those who believe and love.
The reading from John’s Gospel for the Sixth Sunday of Easter is the continuation of and a commentary on the allegory of the vine in John 15:1-8. It is a further reflection on Christian life as abiding in Jesus, with the theme of joy as its center. The text insists repeatedly on the love commandment: “Love one another as I love you...love one another.” It roots love for one another in the perfect example of self-sacrificing love displayed by Jesus: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
The passage provides a powerful understanding of Christian discipleship. The disciples of Jesus are his friends. They have been chosen by him, contrary to the usual Jewish custom in which disciples sought out and chose their teachers. They exist in a chain of love: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love.” Their task is to bear “fruit,” and they can be confident that what they ask in prayer will be granted to them. The goal and result of their abiding in love will be perfect joy.
Today’s reading from 1 John offers a theological framework for understanding that elusive but important word “love.” It insists that the chain of love begins with God. The starting point for the Christian doctrine of love is stated eloquently in these words: “not that we have loved God, but that he has loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.” God shows his love for us by creating us, redeeming us and caring for us. The definitive proof of God’s love for us is the sending of Jesus as God’s Son and the offer of right relationship with God (justification) through the paschal mystery. Because God has loved us first, we can and should love God in return, love ourselves and love one another. When we recognize ourselves as loved by God, we can love ourselves in a way that frees us and opens us up to love others in authentic and life-giving ways. All these dimensions go into the Johannine motif of abiding in love.
Modern biblical scholars sometimes describe the Johannine community as a closed or even sectarian group. That notion is nicely balanced by today’s selection from Acts 10. The Roman centurion Cornelius is the first non-Jew to become a Christian in Acts, on the grounds that he had received the Holy Spirit. His baptism “in the name of Jesus Christ” meant that Christianity would become a movement transcending the narrow boundaries of race and land and open to all peoples. Abiding in love originates with God, is rooted in Jesus, elicits joy and expresses itself in love for God, ourselves and other persons. There are no boundaries to abiding in love.