In John’s Gospel, falling in love with God is personal
To walk into the lobby of the Palmer House Hotel in downtown Chicago is to recapture the romantic era of the 1920’s. A bronze sculpture of Romeo and Juliet by an unknown artist greets all who enter. A plaque describes the placement of this work of art: “Bertha Palmer wanted all guests in the original Palmer House to pass a significant symbol of romance upon arriving. Whether or not they knew they were passing it was not important.” Bertha Palmer wanted any who entered to reflect, even if only subtly, on love.
On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you. (Jn 14:20)
How can a personal relationship with God become a normal part of your life?
How might an individual’s love for God contribute to the communal experience of faith?
What happens to communities of faith that lack personal experiences of love between believers and God?
Although understated, this design feature was the focal point of the architect’s overall vision for the chamber. The images of the room draw the mind of the visitor toward memories and thoughts of love. In this, the Palmer House lobby and the fourth Gospel have something in common. When the evangelist writes Jesus’ “Farewell Discourses” (Jn 14:1 - 17:26), he draws the reader through images of trinitarian love. “If you love me,” says Jesus, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate” (Jn 14:15-16). These passages do not offer a coherent trinitarian theology. Instead, they invite a believer to enter into the mystery of trinitarian love and experience its results.
In Johannine thought, this encounter has the characteristics of a dance: “You will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you” (Jn 14:20). There is a circular movement of love between Father and Son, and this has the power to draw the disciples in as well. As they participate in the dance, they discover that the life of Christ is already at work in them.
Participation in the divine life is accessible to anyone who lives with love.
In this Sunday’s Gospel, a secondary layer of the motif speaks of love at the personal level. The fourth Gospel explores the notion that the transcendent God can become quite personal and dwell within the individual believer. John seems to emphasize the idea of a personal relationship with the Divine One, a radical notion in first-century religious traditions, which tended to emphasize communal context.
The description of love in the fourth Gospel is different from the romantic and fatal love between Romeo and Juliet. When Jesus speaks of love, he uses the term agape, a word often used in Greek literature for “affection” but hardly ever for erotic attraction. Today’s psalm in its original Hebrew provides an insight into the Israelite notion of that same love: “Blessed be God who refused me not my prayer or his kindness” (Ps 66:20). God does not refuse “kindness,” hesed in Hebrew, from the one who prays. Although not exactly the same as the Greek agape, the love called hesed is the affectionate and deep kind of love. The word hesed describes the feelings between a son and his dying father, or a couple married for over forty years or the loyalty between God and God’s people. Hesed is all this and more; it is affection from the depths of one’s being.
This kind of affection does not need a moral obligation to keep the commandments. If the disciples of Christ are to follow in the example of Jesus’ own life and ministry, they will keep the commandments out of the hesed that flows from within. “Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me” (Jn 14:21). This is the novel idea expressed in the Gospel of John. The fourth Gospel leans into the personal affection between God and the individual. Participation in the divine life is accessible to anyone who lives with love. As readers journey through Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse,” they pass through a symbol of transcendent, trinitarian love that draws forth a deep personal affection for the God who gives life.