Catholic piety has traditionally pictured St. John the Apostle as a young man of mild disposition. The reference to St. John as the one whom Jesus loved and the allusion to his leaning close to Jesus when inquiring about Judas’ treachery could certainly lead to this impression. The tender scene of Jesus entrusting his bereaved mother to the care of St. John during Jesus’ last moments might also affirm this pious notion that St. John was a kindly and gentle soul. Yet, the devout must also recall that St. John and his brother St. James were nicknamed “Boanerges” — “sons of thunder” — by Jesus himself, perhaps reflecting that these brothers were fiery preachers with powerful voices, or that they were quick-tempered with fiery personalities. Remember that it was these brothers who wanted to call down fire on the Samaritan town that refused entry to Jesus and his wandering band. So pious tradition and Scriptural references seem to be at odds. Was St. John tender or was he thunderous? His own writing, a passage from which will form this coming Sunday’s second, reading offers some worthy evidence.
It is St. John alone who in his Gospel account and in his later writings employs the word “commandment” when conveying the demands that Jesus makes on all his followers. In his first epistle (3:23), St. John observes, “And his commandment is this: we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us.” In his Gospel account (Jn 13:34), the evangelist writes, “I give you a new commandment: love one another.” Again in chapter 15, he states, “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love…This is my commandment: love one another as I love you…You are my friends if you do what I command you…This I command you: love one another…I give you a new commandment: love one another.” His deliberate choice of words is evident.
Then again, in his two epistles, this son of thunder writes in forceful language: “Beloved, I am writing no new commandment to you but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. And yet I do write a new commandment to you, which holds true in him and among you” (1Jn2:7&8). “This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1Jn4:21). “For this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, as you heard from the beginning, in which you should walk” (2Jn1:6). “But now, Lady, I ask you, not as though I were writing a new commandment but the one we have had from the beginning: let us love one another”(2Jn1:15).
The frequency of the word “commandment” in St. John’s writing is a deliberate effort on the part of the author to ally the giver of the new commandment with the giver of the old commandments. The New American Bible commentary insists that this employment of the word “commandment” here places Jesus on a par with God the Father, the liberator of the Jews whom Moses encountered on Sinai. All the authority that the Hebrew tradition placed in God the Father is now in the Christian dispensation to be accorded to Jesus Christ as well. Christians must take Jesus the Son just as seriously as the Jews took God the Father.
So, as this coming Sunday’s passage indicates, this new commandment is two-fold: belief in Jesus as God and love of neighbor as brother or sister in Christ. “And his commandment is this: we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us.” Faith and charity are the foundation stones on which the Christian life rests as well as the dynamism through which the Christian life grows.
Faith and charity are really twin expressions of the human obligation to reach out beyond oneself. Faith allows the believer to relate to God who is loved without being seen. Faith allows the believer to address God, pray to God, defer to God, obey God and repent to God. Faith makes God evident, allowing a relationship to develop. Charity, accordingly, allows the believer to relate to the brother and sister that can indeed be seen. Charity especially opens the human heart to those who might be ignored. The disadvantaged in any circumstances can be so easily overlooked. Charity makes the Christian particularly sensitive to the desperate.
Faith and charity are primary obligations for each believer; they are indeed commandments — no nonsense edicts — directed toward every Christian.