We are gathered here to study fraternal relationships in our Religious Communities and I have been asked for some insights arising from the Word of God. For these insights, I want to focus on the spirituality of St. John.
For fifteen years I taught the Gospel of St. John at the Jesuit University in Bilbao. There, I shared my knowledge in a technical manner. This will not be the case to-day. I would like to share with you a Johannine synthesis which will help us in our fraternal relationships.
St. John conveys to us a very important and solid message so that fraternal relationships may be authentic. To better understand the atmosphere in which St. John breathes, it must be put in context, and so a short introduction is necessary.
We all know that once Jesus, the Saviour, had left us to finally return to Heaven, many Christian Churches were born, with very different ways of presenting the message of Jesus. The Church of James (in Judea) is very different from the Church of Paul (in Asia Minor). The Church of Peter (Rome) is very different from these two Churches. The Church of John has a completely unique vision of the Lord Jesus.
The Gospel of John is the fruit of a long, serene and profound meditation on what Jesus said and did. Sixty years had passed between the life of Jesus and the publication of the Gospel of John. During these years, they could absorb what Jesus was and is. The Synoptics, those that we have to-day, have seen the light thirty years after the death-resurrection of Jesus.
When we enter the Gospel of St. John, the first question which comes into our head is: Why did the Church of St. John write a Gospel on Jesus when there were already three of them?
1. John insights
Part of the answer lies in the fact that for the Church of John the vision and the experience of Jesus which they had, was not in line with the Synoptics and they thought it necessary to pass it on to us. Here are some examples in order to better understand what I’m trying to say:
* The Synoptics say very little about the Father, whereas according to John the most important thing to Jesus was His Father (in John’s Gospel we find the word “Father” 118 times and 50 times the expression “The One Who sent Me”).
* The Synoptics say very little about the Holy Spirit, whereas in John the Holy Spirit is, according to Jesus, a fundamental theme of highest importance.
* In the Synoptics there is no analysis of why Jesus did what He did or why He said what He said, whereas in John it is clear, and how! In John why Jesus did what He did is highlighted.
* In the Synoptics, it’s not truly known Who Jesus is. It’s true that He’s given titles, but these are titles arising from His Mission. Whereas in St. John we know that it is Jesus Who introduces Himself with seven titles which begin with I AM (I am the Bread of Life – 6.35 – 51; I am the light of the world 8 : 12; I am the gate 10 : 7, 9; I am the Good Shepherd 10 : 11 – 14; I am the Resurrection and the Life 11 : 25, I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; I am the true Vine 15:1).
* There is nothing in the Synoptics about the importance of the Hour of Jesus, whereas in John the Hour is the High Point.
* According to the Synoptics it is not clear what is most fundamental in the school of Jesus. In John, YES. The most important thing is reciprocal love because it is the only true experience of God.
* According to the Synoptics one can talk about Jesus without being involved/engaged in Him. In John, not at all. The disciple of Jesus, should be a “witness” rather than a master, someone who has seen Jesus with the eyes of his heart and who passes on what he has seen. In St. John, it’s called “giving witness”.
2. Four conditions for being in His school:
To whoever want to enter His school, John has set four conditions:
1. If he’s ready to make a radical choice of faith in Jesus the Saviour as the sole centre of his life. The Church of John 1. does not admit half-baked people. It makes a clear distinction between being sympathetic to Christ, and being Christian.
2. He asks also whether he’s ready to make a definite choice for the only commandment of Jesus, i.e. a personal sharing of love (here we are touching the subject of this reflection) “We know that we have passed out of death and into life, and of this we can be sure, because we love our brothers” (1Jn.3:14).
3. John asks him also if he is ready to let himself be guided by the Holy Spirit and if he is sure that it is the Spirit Who teaches him the Word of Jesus.
4. John also asks anyone who wants to enter his school, whether he is ready to become “a witness” for Jesus. It’s because John does not allow people to talk about Jesus as if on a gramophone, as if the spreading of the message was only a matter of repetition. It is absolutely necessary to see Jesus and His message with the eyes of the heart, to experience His message, and afterwards, to spread what we see and experience.
Here is a little diagram to see this better. The three stages must be followed in order to become witnesses:
a) See (the Pharisees also see Christ, but they remain unmoved)
b) Believe c) SEE ……. a) see (the Gospels written by the Apostles)(Us)
c) SEE ………a) see (our sermons) ( the people listen)
c) SEE ………..a)see (catechesis)
To be witnesses, the first “see” is not enough. It’s then necessary to “believe”, and it’s then that the SEE takes place. It is the SEE with the eyes of the heart which makes us witnesses.
3. Some details of the Gospel of John
These peculiarities will allow us to discover the Christ of John and His message.
Of 24 Miracles in the Synoptic Gospels, John takes only two: the multiplication of the loaves and Jesus walking on water (Jn 6:1-21) but he adds five others which are not mentioned in the Synoptics:
These are the five miracles peculiar to St. John:
1. The miracle of the wedding feast at Cana (2:1-11)
2. The cure of the son of the Roman official (4:46-54)
3. The cure of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda (5:1-9).
4. The cure of the man born blind (9:1-7)
5. The raising of Lazarus (11:1-44).
The DiscoursesThe most important part of the Gospel of John is formed by the Discourses. Though no discourse of John is found in the Synoptics, bearing in mind that the Synoptics also have important discourses. Remember, for example, the five great discourses in Matthew: the sermon on the Mount Mt5:7; the Apostolic discourse Mt.10; the discourse of the parables Mt13; the ecclesiastical discourse, Mt18, and finally, the eschatological discourse Mt24-25. None of these are in St. John.
If we move on from these facts to the Doctrine, the difference is greater still. The central theme of the Synoptics is the Kingdom of God. In the Synoptics, this Kingdom of God will come in its fullness at the end of time (apocalyptical eschatology)
In John, the central theme is “Life”, but a Life lived now, in the present, and not only in the future (eschatological fulfilment). “Whoever believes in Me has eternal life” (Jn.5:24). This theme is important for our subject.
As the final point in this short, but necessary introduction, let us now say something about the moral.
According to the Synoptics, to follow Christ one must be faithful in many points: one must be poor (think of the Beatitudes), fast, give alms, deny himself, pray, abandon himself to providence, and a long list of etceteras.
In St. John, however, all, absolutely all, is condensed in one point: the commandment of reciprocal love. The texts are: Jn13:34-35; 15;12-17; 17:21-23 and in the first letter of John : 1Jn 2:7-11; 3:11-25; 4:7-21.
(“I give you a commandment …. Love one another … like I … in this way they will know you …)
With this introduction we can now bring some light on our theme of fraternal relationships in a religious community.
John proposes a practical journey to follow Jesus.
4. The fundamentals of his spirituality:
The first fundamental: The Trinity
The first step to take in the school of John is a conviction: to be convinced that what is most important is not what I do for God, but what He (the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit) wants to do in me.
God is presented thus in St. John:
* The message to be revealed in the Father
* He Who delivers the message is the Son.
* He Who makes the message understood is the Holy Spirit.
The three Persons are indispensable, but for the subject of fraternal relationships which we are examining it is the Holy Spirit Who occupies pride of place.
I make my own the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov, a monk of the 18th-19th century:
“Prayer, fasting, vigils and any other Christian practice, even if they are good in themselves, do not in any way in themselves represent the end of the Christian life: they are only the means to arrive at the end, because the true END of the Christian life is: THE GIFT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT.
About the Holy Spirit: (this subject should be well understood)
Jesus is the REVEALER OF THE FATHER. He is THE WORD, THE MESSAGE; there is no other. His mission is to reveal the Father. BUT it is not His mission to make the message understood. The only One with this mission, i.e. to make understood what Jesus has said and done, is the Holy Spirit. And we must be certain that it is He the Holy Spirit, Who acts in me, and not my imagination. I want to explain this a bit more.
We all know that the Holy Spirit is within us from our Baptism, but according to John, Jesus remains silent, He can do nothing if we do no open the door.
The first task of a Christian will therefore be to ask himself, when he is relating to other people, if he is guided by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus, in the Gospel of John will explain to me the condition sine qua non to be certain that the Spirit acts in me:
The Spirit in me (important)
Jesus tells us in John 14:15-16: If you love Me, you will keep My commandments. And I will ask the Father and He will give you another Advocate to be with you always.
* If you love me
* You will keep my commandment
* I will ask the Father
* And He will give you another Advocate
“If …” Jesus does not use force, He does not coerce, He asks and He waits for a response. The door to the Christian life opens inwards, not outwards. He is at the door and He calls, like at the Church of Laodicea in Apocalypse (Apoc 3:20).
If I open the door to Him (and the only way to open the door in St. John is to live the new commandment in truth) then, and only then, will He ask the Father to give me His Spirit.
The Spirit acts in me
Listening to another important passage of Jesus : Jn.14:25-26.: I have told you these things while I am with you. But the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, Which the Father will send in My name, will teach you all and remind you of all I have said.
“Teach and remind” signify here in this text, understanding to-day and for to-day what Jesus said two thousand years ago. It’s not a mechanical repetition like on a gramophone.
This theme of the Spirit acting and reminding to-day what Jesus said yesterday is fundamental for the Church of John, and in the present time could be revolutionary for some in our personal relationships.
The Word of Jesus interiorised through the Holy Spirit is called in the Johannine writings the “Chrism”, i.e. “anointing”. Let us listen to what the author of the first letter of St. John tells us:
But you have not lost the anointing which He gave you and you do not need anyone to teach you. The anointing He gave teaches you everything: you are anointed with truth, not with a lie, and as He has taught you , so you must remain in Him (1Jn.2:27).
5. The two lungs.
What really stands out from this beautiful text is the great and extraordinary respect for the people to feed on the Word of God and live in truth the new Commandment. Here are two points which must be insisted upon in all Christian and Religious formation: Love for the Word of God and to live in truth according to the new Commandment. The rest will be done by the Holy Spirit.
(On the board I have drawn a pyramid and a circle to better explain the Ecclesiology of the Council of Trent and of Vatican ll).
Here is the lung of St. John with which one must also breathe (the circle with a cross at the centre, to symbolise Christ. All the others are equidistant).
The day when one will breathe with this lung of St. John, and not only with the lung of St. Paul, then will he understand that the Church is the People of God as Vatican ll tells us, that the image of the Church is a circle, and not a pyramid, where the centre is Christ and where all the members of the Church are equidistant, the same distance, having as princely title the title of Son or Daughter of God, with different ministries and charisms. In this spirituality the opinions of each person is very important for the entire Church.
It’s a pity, and I must say it with sadness, that we find ourselves still in the situation of a pyramid Church, situation of the Council of Trent, according to which some ar eat the head of the pyramid and the lower down obedient ones consider the Church like a perfect society. In this spirituality the manner of thinking of some suffices for guiding the Church. This plan comes from Paul, more than from John. In a little book which I have just written, I say that the day when our Church will breathe with both lings, then there will be a new dawn for our Church.Some important consequences
Going away back, we have always heard messages on the importance of the commandment of love. Remember the sermons on Holy Thursday. However, and it is my personal opinion, we must humbly, like Nicodemus, restart our Christian vision in the light of the lived experience of this commandment. This would bring us fresh air, a special presence of God, a little like the “gentle breeze” where Elijah found Yahweh (1Kgs.19;12).
With formation in mind, this theme of the great commandment of love requires, in the first place, detailed study. Fr. Spicq OP, is in my opinion the one who has worked the most in this area. He considers that special attention to the first Letter of St. John (and also St. Paul) is very important.
The study should be like a departure point, but it does not suffice in itself. It is necessary to become witnesses and for this formation is a special place to focus. From now on, psychology, character study, sociology, will help us in a basic way, but without living the new Commandment, the psychology, character study and sociology cannot attain our goal.
I finish with Number 1 of our Rule of Life.
Our Rule of Life has a superb beginning. If one were faithful to the first two lines, one would be living in the truth.
Here are the first two lines:
United in the name of the Lord, we are called to live in the Church as brothers.
This little sentence, interiorised with a silent prayer and lived radically will be the guarantee of the real presence of the Holy Spirit among us, Who will help us to live our personal relationships in our Religious Communities in the way Jesus wants.
Paris , 24.1.2008, SSS Avenue Friedland.
(Note: Original was in French. Translations to English were made by Mary Keane and Fr. Maurice Rouleau, SSS.)