Many of the gospels readings read at Mass in the Easter season come from the gospel of John, and often enough from the long discourse at the Last Supper found in chapters 13-17. Today’s gospel, from John 15,9-17, is one of them. Jesus tells his disciples of his love for them and urges them to love one another.
A simple message, it seems, spoken long ago.
If we listen the group of scholars who make up The Jesus Seminar these are not just words from long ago, but Jesus never said them. They were made up by Christians later on.
The scholars and others who make up The Jesus Seminar, a group founded in 1985 by the late Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan, are interested in the historical Jesus. They want to know what he really said and did, and so they meet about twice a year and try to decide what we know for sure.
The seminar people assume that the gospels, written forty, fifty, sixty years after the death of Jesus. are not simply historical accounts, but that religious and ideological motives are also behind their composition. True enough.
They have an interesting way of deciding what Jesus really said and did and what he didn’t. They vote on it. After discussing a particular section of the gospels, its members vote with color-coded beads. Red: that’s Jesus; pink: sounds pretty much like him; gray: well, maybe; black, no, that’s not him.
As the scholars get tougher with their criterion, what Jesus really said and did becomes more and more reduced. Today’s gospel would probably get a black vote, I think. In general, the Jesus Seminar tends to dismiss John’s gospel as an historical source.
But does historical study determine everything?
Though much of what The Jesus Seminar says may be true, I think they limit our understanding of Jesus and the scriptures. They do it by discounting his resurrection and his risen life. For example, they may state that the community from which John’s gospel emerged made up many of his words or actions.
But we can also say that they experienced the Risen Jesus, who promised to remain always with his own who were in the world? The Risen Lord spoke to them and they recorded his words in a way that was congruent to what he did and said in his earthly life.
The Risen Christ abides with his church. His appearances to his disciples after his resurrection would go on in other forms.
For those who believe in his risen, abiding presence, Jesus’ voice is not silenced nor are his deeds done at his death. He remains with us and speaks now. This is especially so when we come together for the breaking of the bread and for prayers. The lengthy supper discourse from John seems to verify that.
We do not have to see Jesus solely through the lens of history, therefore, nor is his presence limited to his disciples then; the Risen Christ speaks to us now:
“No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
You are my friends if you do what I command you.
I no longer call you slaves,
because a slave does not know what his master is doing.
I have called you friends,
because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.
It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you
and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain,
so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you.
This I command you: love one another.”