Prepared for First Presbyterian Church of Apopka. Primary text – John 15: 9-17
In the first eight verses of this chapter, which we covered last week, Jesus calls on those would would follow to abide in him, to remain in him, to be steadfast. It is by abiding and remaining connected to Jesus, the true vine, that we might bear fruit – all to the glory of God. As we move into this next portion of the chapter,
Jesus moves away from the vine metaphor for bit, and as he does, he makes a subtle shift. Listen again to verse 9: As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.
He’s gone from saying abide in me to abide in my love. Now, because we say and believe that God is love, that may not seem to be much of a distinction. But it feels like maybe there is some difference. Maybe we can begin to define some boundaries or markers for what it means to be in the love of Jesus, as opposed to being in Jesus himself.
In verse 10, Jesus says,If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.
In other words, Jesus was obedient; he kept the commandments of the Father. Therefore, he remained in God’s love. Thus, if we keep the commandments Jesus taught, we will abide in his love.
Now, I want to tread very carefully here. And you’ve heard me talk a bit about this before…I get a little nervous when we start qualifying ourselves or others for the love of God, in the person of Christ or otherwise. Especially when those qualifications are based on how closely we do or do not follow a prescribed set of rules. We run the risk of becoming overly legalistic, policing one another’s behavior, and acting as though we are the ones God is calling upon to judge the quick and the dead.
This is precisely the interpretation of the law that Jesus and Paul preached against. Generations later, men like Martin Luther and John Calvin found themselves reforming a church that had fallen back into those same patterns.
The good news of the gospel is this: We neither earn nor lose the love of God based on our ability to pursue or attain perfection through obedience. Especially not obedience under our own power. And it’s a good thing… Perfect obedience is just not possible in our fully human form.
So what does Jesus expect when he says to obey as he obeyed? What does the Lord command?
Throughout scripture, we are called to live a life that overflows with justice, mercy and love, to draw near to the heart of God, to humbly seek the guidance of God in our every circumstance. Sometimes this will mean doing things that are counter-cultural, even (and maybe especially) counter to our American Christian culture.
I often listen to audiobooks during the drive out here. I was listening to a Terry Prachett book recently. Toward the end, a character who has proved to be very logical and particular about rules and protocol finds herself facing a situation where doing the right thing means breaking the rules. She pauses. Then she calmly proceeds to do just that – break the rules.
The person who watched her make this exception to rule-following questions her about it, and I loved her response: “Look, that’s why there’s rules, understand? So that you can think before you break them.”
I immediately thought – yes… that’s what rules are about. Yes – in fact – that’s what Jesus was trying to get his apostles to understand. They are stumped pretty regularly by the choices Jesus makes. And let’s not pretend that we aren’t stumped right along with them…
Jesus clearly knows the scriptures front to back. Knows every jot and tittle, as they say. Sometimes he follows the law to the letter. But other times… he bends it. And sometimes, he seems to take great delight in throwing the rules right into the faces of the scribes and other teachers.
Why? Jesus is not looking to be a rebel, per se. And Jesus was not being capricious. Randomly choosing to flaunt some God-given power to do as he pleases. Precisely the opposite.
Jesus was consistently obedient to the commands of the Father because he was constantly and intimately attuned to the will of the Father… abiding, remaining, living, and walking right smack in the middle of God’s love.
Jesus was able to think clearly about each situation presented before him and determine the proper course of action – not because he had memorized the complex system of rules built up by the priests and teachers in the generations between him and Moses. Not even because he knew the 10 commandments by heart.
No… Jesus knew God’s will because he understood the heart behind all those commandments. Because he felt them at the very core of his being -heart, soul and mind. You see, remaining in the Father, in God’s love, allows Jesus to love, serve, and obey AND to teach us to do likewise.
In verses 12-13 he takes this command a step further. 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.
Just imagine what it must have been like to hear these words from a teacher you respect and trust with your very life. Someone so charismatic that you’d drop your previous life and career to literally follow him across the countryside and soak up what he had to say. He looks you square in the eye and says: Here’s the bottom line… Love each other. Love each other as fiercely and as deeply as you can. Love each other so much there isn’t anything you would hold back – not even your own life
We can- from this side of Good Friday and Easter – understand that Jesus meant this literally. We know that he is asking no more from his followers than he was willing to give or do himself.
The elements on our communion table are reminders of the very real physical pain he endured as he gave up his life on our behalf. The words we say as we gather at the table remind us that this meal happened on the very night that he was betrayed, adding to the grief and emotional pain that he endured as the end approached.
But in many small ways, he had already given up his life for us – even before that last week of torture and shame. When he began his ministry, he gave up what might have been a fairly normal life…
Jesus had no home – once his ministry began, Jesus and his followers were itinerant, dependent upon friends, families, strangers and the occasional inn for shelter. He left behind his parents for the most part, and as far as we know never had children or a wife. In a region where the food was not abundant, he could not say one day to the next if he or those who traveled along with him would have bread to eat.
There really were no guarantees in his life, except perhaps that those who preferred the status quo and the existing power structures would try to discredit him, challenge his new way of interpreting the law, and distract him from the work of compassion. And yet, Jesus loved his followers, loved the people, loved us, enough to put it all on the line, and challenges his disciples to do the same.
Starting In verse 14, he comes at it from one more angle: You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
Those who keep his commandments are his friends, the ones for whom he lays down his life. Again, it is tempting to read Jesus as narrowing his friends list to those who are rule followers. But I want to back up a moment and look again at the Good Shepherd analogy…
There is a lot less in that passage about the sheep than about the shepherd and his qualities. Yes, the sheep know his voice… because the shepherd has been speaking to them, caring for them, and protecting them from the beginning. The shepherd is willing to lay down his life for us sheep. Nowhere in that passage do we read and the sheep follow him perfectly. In fact, we know that sheep wander off, otherwise we’d not have the parable of the lost sheep that draws the shepherd away from the other 99.
We’re a mess, we sheep-vine people. We’re in need of shearing and pruning. We’re in need of rods and staffs, fertilizer and grafting… all manner of care. And in spite of it all- when we hear and respond in love and gratitude to all the grace and love we are offered – no strings attached – Jesus calls us friends.
OK – so maybe there is one string attached. We are expected to respond by learning how to love God from the very core of our own hearts, souls and minds. The more deeply we become embedded in Christ’s love, experiencing his care for us, the more deeply we dive into the commands to offer justice, mercy and love to others, the more selflessly and sacrificially we love.
Sometimes that looks like taking time away from work to care for and encourage someone…
Parking a little farther away so that the family with small children can get easily into the store…
Welcoming the stranger who makes you really uncomfortable…
Listening for the 200th time to the story that stopped being funny 180 tellings ago, and still smiling and laughing in the right places. Again.
Sometimes sacrificial love means covering the cost of a meal, a tank of gas, or a night in a hotel, with no expectations of a payback…
Giving up a healthy kidney – like my friend Nicky did when her father needed a transplant and she was the best match….
Letting go of a dream because pursuing it would cost the one you love their own dream…
or Forgiving the one who hurts you the deepest every time the hurt comes back.
The truth is that love can compel us to do things we never imagine, and things we really don’t want to do because they are hard. Sacrificial love can and does allow us to experience Christ in ways that we never imagined.
But the most amazing thing in all of this is that he chooses us, just as he chose his twelve closest disciples.
Many of us came to understand our faith in traditions that talk about salvation as a choice, as a decision. You may remember taking part in a baptism that came after a declaration of faith, affirming that you have – as the hymn says – decided to follow Jesus. No turning back
Here, Jesus tells us that our choice in the relationship – if it exists at all – is secondary to his choosing us to be his friends. Jesus chose to love us, he claimed us as his own, and then he appointed us to go and bear fruit.
The fruit we bear within the body is unity – which is not the same as unanimity. Expecting people to set aside their personalities and differences and questions (or pretend to) may seem like a pathway, but it does not lead to unity. No – our fruit is borne out of coming together in the sort of sacrificial love that requires a commitment to forgiveness, patience, trust, and hospitality.
It is only when we bear that fruit consistently, the fruit of hard won unity, that can we hope bear fruit in the world- fruit that lasts. After all, if we cannot love those whom we call brothers and sisters, those who can claim us and Jesus as mutual friends, how can a stranger looking in hope to see themselves experiencing love and joy in connection to the vine? Why would they even want to try?
We have been given a glimpse of the power of God, in the resurrection of Christ and in the coming of the Holy Spirit. We have been given access to that same power so that we might love one another and our neighbors – supernaturally.
This commandment is not meant to be a burden. After all, Jesus said to his followers: I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
Perhaps that is the best test… Are you – are we together – experiencing the joy of being in Christ’s love? …of being loved deeply and fully by God? …of offering up your love to others?
May that be our prayer as we continue in this Eastertide, looking ahead to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. That we would know the joy of abiding in God’s love.
Let us pray…
Heavenly One, Holy Three, Shepherd and Gardener,
Vine and Gate, Comforter and Catalyst, we are yours.
Lead us to love in that threefold love of God, of others, and of ourselves.
Unite us in worship and in mission, bathe us in joy, send us in love.
In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.