From the beginning of chapter 13 of John’s Gospel, the evangelist has been turning to one of the biggest issues facing his community sixty years after Jesus’ death — the apparent absence of Jesus. Apparently, there is deep concern within the community that Jesus does not seem to be amongst them when they are being persecuted and killed by people from the local synagogues (cf. 16:1–4). Indeed, some members of the Johannine community may have been asking, in the face of the death of some of their brothers: If Jesus was divine, how is it that he was killed? If he supposedly loved us, why didn’t he stay (and protect his followers)?
In v.1, Jesus turns to “his own,” and teaches them by example that they must be servants, just as he has been a servant. From v.31, he begins to move to another teaching by example — the example he gives through the laying down of his own life.
In v.33, Jesus tells them for the first time that he is going away. That the community is looking more to their heavenly home than their earthly mission is evident from his next words: “you will look for me and … where I am going you cannot come.”
In v.34, Jesus gives them “a new commandment.” It is new not because love of neighbour was not taught in the Old Testament Scriptures — indeed, a good rabbi may well have summarised the Law as Jesus had in the Synoptic Gospels under the two laws of love of God and love of neighbour — but it is new because of the type and depth of the love that Jesus shows. Jesus gives everything for the sake of his friends (cf. 15:12–13). The idea of laying down one’s life is not found in Scripture; it is more a Greek idea, as a noble thing to do.
The mutual love and unity of the embattled Johannine community is of paramount concern in this Farewell Discourse of Jesus (13:31–17:26), and the focus is not on the Eucharistic giving of Jesus as much as on the need for the mutual giving in love of the disciples. Indeed, the sign of their identification as disciples of Jesus is their love for one another (v.34: “it is by your love for one another that all will know you are disciples of me”). Their love is the ongoing sign of Jesus in the world.
In all four Gospels, Peter usually acts in the text as a representative of the disciple who misunderstands. This is no exception. In v.36, Peter speaks, and shows that the community for which this text is written is more interested in going where Jesus is (heaven) than staying here and getting on with the mission: “Lord, where are you going?” (In 14:4, Thomas will show they want to follow him where he is going, even though they have been told they cannot at this time.)
Peter has completely missed verses 34–35. His question flows straight on from v.33. He has missed entirely the new commandment! He is not interested in the type of loving which requires loving others by facing the difficulties in carrying on the work here, the type of loving that requires being prepared to be killed for the sake of one’s friends if necessary. He is only interested in going with Jesus now.
Of course, Peter will indeed follow Jesus in martyrdom later (cf. 21:18–19), but for now he wants the glory without the suffering. Jesus has opened the discourse in v.31 by saying that his moment of suffering is his moment of glory: “in him God has been glorified.” Peter is not interested, but Clement of Rome, ca. 95, will write that Peter, in going to his martydom, “proceeded to his due place of glory” (1 Corinthians 5.4).
Jesus responds by pointing out how little Peter has been listening to his teaching, and how unwilling he is to really follow Jesus’ example: “Lay down your life for me? Truly I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have disowned me three times.”
The Johannine community is ‘mourning’ the absence of Jesus. In the Lazarus story in chapter 11, and throughout chapter 16, there is a lot of mourning, weeping, and pain; they are told that they will have to suffer the pain as of childbirth. Here Jesus will tell them that they are meant to stay behind. There is very important work for them to do here — they are to continue the work of Jesus. In 14:12, Jesus will tell them that they can only do these works of God if Jesus goes to the Father. They will not do them if he stays with them. With him gone, they will do even greater works. His going away is to their advantage (cf. 14:28: they should be glad that he is going back to his Father). They will know his presence, even after he has gone, because he will answer their prayers (“anything”).
We can wish that we did not have to face the troubles of this life at times. We can become discouraged and feel that the mission of God is too hard. It would be so much easier to just leave and go to be with Jesus. This text teaches us that the mission of Jesus on earth depends on us, and that our glorification, and the glorification of God, depends on us carrying on the love of Jesus in the world.
Let us not be like Peter in this discourse. He doesn’t want to hear the difficult teaching. Let’s listen to all Jesus teaches us. Otherwise, we might miss the best part! After all, this is the only commandment Jesus gives his disciples in this Gospel.