06 May 2018

Commanded in Love to Love

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

This week we hear, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn. 15:12).  Last week, we heard, "Abide in me…. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). The invitation and the command are connected, but how? How can love be a command and remain love? Can love be forced? How is it possible to love as Jesus loved? Aren’t we just setting ourselves up for failure and disappointment? These are good questions to consider as we prepare our hearts for Communion, and break bread at the Lord’s Table.

So, what is this fruit that we are called to bear?  There’s no ambiguity here.  He’s very clear about this.  The fruit is love.  Our capacity to love marks us as followers of the Lord of Love.  Our capacity to offer love and receive love is the one sure sign that we belong to him.  And when we live this way, we honor and glorify God.  Jesus said, “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you: abide in my love” (Jn. 15:8). Glorified—it’s such a church word, isn’t it?  Glorify means to exalt, to worship, to honor.  It also has something to do with revelation; in other words, something about God is revealed, that is, disclosed to us when God is glorified.  Something of God shines through.  And God is glorified when we abide in and remain in and stay connected to God’s love, just as Jesus abided in and remained connected to God’s love throughout his life.  When we’re abiding in love we’re able to bear fruit and the fruit is always love.   The world knows we are followers of the Risen Christ when we love—that’s the fruit that matters.

This week, we continue reading through John 15, and discover that Jesus’ invitation to abide is linked with a command that we love one another. “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” (Jn. 15:12-13).  Remarkably, Jesus doesn’t see us as his servant or slave; we are called friend.  This is the only place where Jesus identifies his followers as his friends.  And the designation friend should not to be taken lightly.  We often use the word loosely, ranging from an acquaintance to a very special, valued relationship, a “best friend.” Having friends on Facebook has redefined what we mean by friend.  To be considered a friend in Jesus’ time was an honor, it was an expression of love.  The Greek word for “friend,” philos, comes from one of the verbs for love (phileo).  Because Jesus loves us, he calls us friend; as friends, in love, he shares with us all that he learned and discovered from God. 

“You are my friends,” he says, “if you do what I command you” (Jn. 1:14).  “You did not choose me but I chose you.  And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (Jn. 15:16).  The invitation to friendship is now linked with a command, which brings us back to our earlier questions. How can love be a command and remain love? Can love be forced? If love is forced and therefore not flowing from an authentic feeling or choice, is it still love? Should we just fake it? Should we fake it until we believe it?  And how is it even possible to love as Jesus loved? This is a tall order. Aren’t we just setting ourselves up for failure and disappointment? 

On the surface, this text can be extremely unsettling. If we go deeper, this text will yield considerable joy.

First, we have to consider how we’re hearing the command to love and the image of the one who is saying it to us.  If you carry the assumption that faith, religion, the Christian life is essentially about obeying the commands of Jesus who represents God the Lawgiver, who pronounces judgment upon everyone who doesn’t uphold God’s Law, then this command is a heavy burden indeed.  But if you consider Jesus, who said in John’s Gospel, “I am the good shepherd”—or, better—“I am the beautiful shepherd” (Jn. 10:11),  if this is your image of Jesus, and therefore, God, then the command is coming from someone who cares about us, who wants what is best for us, whose way of being yields beauty.  Jesus’ command to love comes from one who is love, which means it’s given in love, given for our own good.

The second thing we need to consider is that Jesus is not lifting up himself as a role model.  This might sound shocking, but it’s true.  Jesus is often portrayed this way, I know.  He’s often lifted up as the model of perfection, sinless, who demonstrated a way of life that we should all be striving for, as someone we should emulate, copy, imitate.  This view is represented by the medieval Catholic author Thomas À Kempis (1380-1471), who wrote the devotional classic The Imitation of Christ.  Many, both Christian and non-Christian alike, think that this sums up what is means to be Christian: be like Jesus.  Later, during the nineteenth century, many theologians, pastors, and congregations viewed Jesus as essentially a teacher of morality, a teacher of ethics.  Because so many theologians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries jettisoned from Jesus, and the Bible, anything that smacked of the supernatural (including his divinity, the possibility of miracles or resurrection), all that was left was Jesus as moral exemplar. Jesus was someone to look up to, emulate, copy.  He was a role model.  This was classic liberal theology of the nineteenth century in the United States and Europe, a view which exploded in the trenches of the First World War. 

Love, if it is love, cannot be an ethical duty; neither can it be attained through the efforts of the human spirit.  Here in John, yes, Jesus wants us to love.  But Jesus also knows that we cannot begin to bear fruit unless we are connected to him, the vine, to the Source of love. That’s why he wants us to abide in him, stay connected to him, rest in him.  This is why Jesus is more than a role model; he is this, of course, but so much more.  He is friend, true friend, who shares with us the depths of this love, who, in the sharing gives us the capacity to love, to bear fruit. It is inherently relational. What we find here is not a call to imitation, but an invitation to participation.  Jesus invites us to share in the life of God!  Jesus said, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). The human capacity to give and receive love is given by participating in a loving relationship with God who is love (1 John 4:7).  The command to love would be oppressive if it were not for the fact that God gives the human spirit, gives us, the ability to love in the intimacy of the Spirit.[1] And Jesus wants us to know all of this so that his joy may be in us, and that our joy may be complete, full, to overflowing.

When we abide in him, we’re given the capacity to love as God loves.  Then we’re given the capacity to see the world as God sees it, to see ourselves and our neighbor and the stranger, and maybe even the person we might hate and find difficult to forgive or accept or love.  Several years ago, I was introduced to the poetry of Kathleen Raine (1908-2003).  A child of the manse in Scotland, she lived most of her life in Northumbria, England. She was known for her scholarship on William Blake (1757-1827).  She said, “Unless you see a thing in the light of love, you do not see a thing at all.”[2]  Love, itself, flowing from the source of love, allows us to see, it transfigures everything.

Jesus’s commandment to us is not that we wear ourselves out, trying to conjure love from our own easily depleted resources. Rather, it’s that we abide in the holy place where human love becomes possible.  That we make our home in Jesus’s love — the most abundant and inexhaustible love in existence.”[3]  

And so, in love, he gives us this meal.  Communion.  We’re invited to the Table—this holy place—not once, but again and again and again.  To feed on him, to drink from the source. Abiding in his love. Bearing the fruit of his love in our lives. Full of his joy.

Art: John August Swanson
[1] Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter and Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011).
[2] Cited in John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (HarperCollins, 1989), 65.
[3] Debie Blue, “As I Have Loved You,” Journey with Jesus.