John 14: Naming names

I’m bad with names.

It’s funny, because I was once in a group exercise where we had to remember the name of everyone who came before us. I was second to last, but still got everyone’s name right and even remembered something about most of the people. But have I messed up the name of the barista I rely on for coffee every day? Have I confidently called someone I work with by a name that is in no way related to their actual name? Yes. Yes I have. I’ve come to appreciate former President George W. Bush’s habit of calling everyone “Buddy.” He was onto something there.

John 14 has a couple of interesting things in it. I really love that it’s bookended at the start and end by Jesus telling the disciples not to let their hearts be troubled. Some messages bear repeating. (Side note: If “have no fear” appears in the Bible 365 times, I need to see the list. I’m pretty sure that oft-quoted stat is wishful thinking.)

But what jumped out at me tonight was how John’s Gospel names names. Even though it’s supposed to have been written later than the other gospels, it has a specificity the others lack. Where they say that “the disciples” complained about the woman perfuming Jesus’ feet instead of selling the perfume to donate to the cause, John names Judas as the complainer. In Chapter 14, Thomas, Philip and the other Judas each get lines; unless you memorized the 12 apostles for some trivia contest or Bible school, I bet you didn’t know there even WAS another Judas. But John remembers.

Which makes it all the more interesting that he never puts himself by name in the story. He says “the disciple that Jesus loved,” when he means himself. I always thought that was kind of cocky, but a lot of other people say it’s a sign of humility that he doesn’t call his own name. Either way, it makes it easier to put ourselves in his place, and sliding into the role of “disciple that Jesus loved” is an experience we probably could use more practice in, so that we might even believe it.

I noticed something new tonight while reading this chapter (this is at least the third week in a row that I’ve read it; I just didn’t have anything to say about it before). Three times, Jesus says that the people who believe in him will follow his commandments or follow his words (14:15, 21, 23). They come in such close succession that it’s hard not to compare them to the three-fold repetition he has for Peter after the Resurrection: “Peter, do you love me?” 

For Peter, the test Jesus lays out for his love is to tend to his sheep. For John, and for us, it’s to obey his commandments. Which is interesting in its own way, because John’s Jesus doesn’t really give commandments in the first 14 chapters of the gospel. I went back to double check; almost all of Jesus’ teachings in John are self-referential: I am the bread, water, way, gate, good shepherd, all that stuff. 

The scholars say that we should take the “obey my commandments” to mean the Mosaic law. My mind instead goes to the times in the other gospels where Jesus cites the great commandments to love God with everything you have and love your neighbor as yourself. But what do I know?

What John’s Jesus *does* say to his followers is that they should love one another and wash each other’s feet. I’m still chewing on some things about how John and Peter are complementary, but in this regard, Peter’s “tend my sheep,” seems like just a more role-specific form of the “love one another” that John, and by extension the rest of us, gets.

There are parts of the Johannine tradition that are troubling and even problematic, but it is hard not to see that this guy, and the tradition he left, were fixated on love. That the youngest disciple, the only (male) one to stay by Jesus on the cross, one of the three witnesses to events like the Transfiguration, the first to the tomb, and the one who outlived all the others would keep hitting that same message, “love one another,” says something about how much Jesus must have drilled it into him in their short time together. 

That he remembers everyone’s names in the story but his own gives us a glimpse of what that looks like in action. That he leaves his own name out so we can slide into his place gives us an invitation to join him in the loving.  

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