Lesson 17: John’s Christian Ethics

Foot WashingYou could make a case that humanity’s greatest problem is fear. We do not follow Jesus, because we are afraid to let go of what we mistakenly think gives us security. Our authorities, even the best, work to keep us in fear, because if we are afraid, they can pretty much do anything they please.

From John’s perspective, we are afraid because we think we are unlovable. He believes the Gospel, from beginning to end, proclaims we must be lovable because God loves every one of us.

John begins his Gospel by modifying the creation story: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1: 1, 2). In the context of John’s Gospel and Letters, God’s first words, on which everything else was built, could well have been “Let there be love.”

John maintains that God remains love to the very end. There is no need to fear the Last Judgment, because God is a lover not a punisher– a redeemer not a destroyer. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them… We may have boldness on the Day of Judgment… There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.” (I John 4: 6-9)

John only offers one commandment. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.” (John 13: 34, 35) He is not speaking about specific laws or guidelines, but kindness and compassion. We are to show people they are lovable by loving them, just as God showed us we are lovable by loving us. I think the assumption is good works will follow naturally once we get over our fear.

In this Gospel, Jesus demonstrates rather than teaches what this love is all about. He washes his disciples’ feet and then declares, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (John 13: 14-15) We are to serve one another, acting as servants to provide what others need.

He lays down his life for those he calls friends. ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:12, 13)

Christian ethics is, then, to imitate Jesus whom John claims speaks and acts for God. “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (John 1: 18) Of course, basing our ethics on the Jesus Story means Christians must constantly be conversing with other believers and our traditions to discern what love means in the ever-new situations that confront us.

I think the rest of the New Testament supports this less than specific approach. Love is constantly defined as overcoming laws. Acts reports how the Holy Spirit is always breaking down prohibitions we thought were essential. Paul argues all things are lawful, even though all are not beneficial in some situations. Faith transforms our minds, so we are able to see with the eyes of Christ.

Too much Christianity in our time produces anxiety and fear. This type of Christianity is always haranguing people about what is wrong with them and society. Because it is usually done mean-spiritedly and self-righteously, it paralyzed rather than inspires. We do well to go back to New Testament basics, proclaiming God loves us all and promises to provide what we need tomorrow. (Matthew 6: 25- 34)

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