The disciples are worried. And they have every right to be.
They’ve been with Jesus as he’s faced down his opponents. They know the threats against him in Jerusalem. They didn’t even want to go back to Bethany when Lazarus was ill, because it would put them too close to the center of the storm of persecution that was already brewing. But they went anyway, figuring that they might end up being martyrs to the cause.
And now Jesus is going away. What will become of them? Will all of the animosity that was previously directed toward him now be directed toward them?
Count on it, Jesus warns:
If the world hates you, know that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. However, I have chosen you out of the world, and you don’t belong to the world. This is why the world hates you. …If the world harassed me, it will harass you too. …I have said these things to you so that you won’t fall away. They will expel you from the synagogue. The time is coming when those who kill you will think that they are doing a service to God. They will do these things because they don’t know the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their time comes, you will remember that I told you about them. (John 15:18-19, 20b; 16:1-4, CEB)
Acts 12:2 tells us that James, the son of Zebedee and brother of John, was put to the sword by Herod. Saul of Tarsus dragged Christians to their doom and thought he was doing God’s work. Tradition has it that all of the apostles save one — John — were martyred by gruesome means, some by crucifixion. History records the mass execution of Christians under the Roman Emperor Nero. And the persecution of Christians continues today in a number of places around the globe.
That is not to deny the atrocities that have been committed in the name of Christ, deeds that should grieve the heart of anyone who understands the commandment to love our neighbor. But Jesus’ dire warnings fit both history and the starkness of John’s narrative. John’s gospel is a story of Light come to a darkened world; the darkness, tragically, pushes back. As we’ve seen, Jesus commands his disciples to remain in his love and to love one another — and the consequence, apparently, is the world will hate them for this.
There is one small ray of sunshine. Not only does he tell them, “If the world harassed me, it will harass you too”; he also says, “If it kept my word, it will also keep yours” (15:20). They won’t be entirely without friends and allies.
But he wants them to understand that his ministry of compassion has forced the world to choose. People hear the words Jesus speaks, see the signs that point to his identity and origin. Then they believe. Or not. Those who ignore the meaning of the signs and reject Jesus are also rejecting the Father who sent him (15:22-24). And rejecting Jesus means rejecting and hating his disciples.
It would be nice to think that if we only acted in love toward everyone, then everyone would love us back. But it’s not that simple. Love isn’t just niceness. In a broken and contentious world, love can require taking a stand against injustice, persevering when others want to give up, speaking truth to power.
Love rocks boats.
And people don’t always take well to having their boats rocked.