May 9, 2021 Sixth Sunday of Easter The text is John 15: 9-17.
9 “I have loved you the same way the Father has loved me. So live in my love. 10 If you obey my commandments, you will live in my love. I have obeyed my Father’s commandments, and in that way I live in [God’s] love. 11 I have told you this so that you will be as joyful as I am, and your joy will be complete. 12 Love each other as I have loved you. This is what I’m commanding you to do. 13 The greatest love you can show is to give your life for your friends. 14 You are my friends if you obey my commandments. 15 I don’t call you servants anymore, because a servant doesn’t know what [the] master is doing. But I’ve called you friends because I’ve made known to you everything that I’ve heard from my Father. 16 You didn’t choose me, but I chose you. I have appointed you to go, to produce fruit that will last, and to ask the Father in my name to give you whatever you ask for. 17 Love each other. This is what I’m commanding you to do.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
In the God’s Word Translation of the bible that the gospel lesson is read from this morning, Jesus speaks to “life” and “living” in his love. This translation differs from earlier, more traditional versions in that in most others the term translated as “live” becomes, “abide”. While a more archaic term, this word seems to portray a somewhat deeper meaning than “live”. One of the words found most often in John’s gospel is, “abide”. The Greek word for abide is, “meno”, and it translates to several different English words; to live in, to dwell in, remain with, to last, or to endure. This word for “abide”, or “live” appears 116 total times in the Bible; 60 of those are in the Gospel of John. In last Sunday’s lesson from John’s gospel, Jesus spoke to the relationship he has with his disciples, and us in the metaphor of the vine and the branches. He states rather simply that he abides in us and we abide in him. (We live in Christ and Christ lives in us).
Yet we know that this relationship runs much deeper. This morning’s reading is a continuation of Jesus’ “Final Discourse”, the address he gives to his disciples as he prepares to depart from them, as he makes his way to Jerusalem and the cross. This is part of the longer passage wherein Jesus endeavors to leave the disciples with the knowledge they will need to carry on after his departure from them. While this concept of “living” in or “abiding” in Jesus continues to be expressed, there is a shift toward how this life in Christ should be fulfilled. What began as an admonition to “live” in Jesus now becomes the commandment to “love” like him. And, make no mistake, this is not an idle suggestion on the part of Jesus; there is nothing subtle in the approach he takes with the disciples; and as is always true, this command applies to us, as well. To paraphrase Jesus; “If I obey the commands given to me by God the Father, I absolutely expect no less from you!” And just in case they, and we don’t fully grasp the magnitude of this exhortation to love like Christ, Jesus reminds that it is a commandment four times in just eight short verses.
Next, Jesus assures us that the final result of all this will a joyful life. The steps are laid out in very specific fashion. Jesus tells us; “obey my commands, live in me, love like I do, and you will find complete joy”. And the writer of the first lesson this morning, in 1 John, proclaims that obeying the commandments, and I quote, “isn’t difficult”. The writer declares that this is because we children of God have faith. Now, I would never presume to suggest that John, or any of the Scripture writers would ever engage in exaggeration, hyperbole, or over-simplification; but I will unashamedly admit that I have never found that following God’s commandments “isn’t difficult”. On the contrary, it’s been my experience that the opposite is true; it’s extremely hard to follow the mandates that God has set before us. And I blame this difficulty on the thing that I struggle with most in my life; my humanness. The reality that we are all broken sinners and are unable to obey the Commandments is the reason the Christ walked among us to begin with. Our very nature precludes us from agreeing with 1 John that following God’s commands “isn’t difficult”. The fact that we are not divine is what makes it so incredibly hard for us to be obedient to God, as Jesus was; and is.
So, where does this leave us when it comes to the mandate from Jesus that we are to obey him, “live” in him, love our brothers and sisters like him, and to ultimately experience the complete joy he has in God’s love? In Scripture there are several Greek words that describe different types of love. First is “eros” and this is used to describe romantic love; it’s the root of “erotic”. “Phileo” describes the emotion of love as affection or friendship. Hence, Philadelphia as the City of Brotherly Love. But the term Jesus has chosen to describe the love that the Father has for him, and he for God is “agape”. This is understood to be a purely selfless love that is passionately committed to the well-being of the other, and putting the needs of others before our own; and it is the word used to describe the love that God has for creation. And this is the type of love that Jesus assures his disciples he has for them, and us. Now here comes the part that may prove 1 John wrong, when he states that obedience to divine commands “isn’t difficult”. We are commanded to love like Jesus, who tells his disciples that he will willingly die for them. This is followed by the command that we are to be willing to have so much agape love for our friends that we would freely give up our lives for them. So much for “isn’t difficult”.
Thankfully, Jesus’ “Discourse”, his final “pep talk” to the disciples doesn’t end with this command to lay down their lives. In the next verses he promises that the Holy Spirit will be available to them to be their Advocate, their helper in this life. He then prays to the Father, asking that he bless them with the very same “complete joy” he delights in by living within God’s love. Jesus’ earthly life has allowed him to recognize that it is indeed quite difficult for we mere mortals to live into the commands set forth for us. The blessing of God, the work of the Spirit, and the faith that has been granted to Jesus’ followers; these are the means by which we are supported in our attempts to “obey, live, love, and find complete joy” as followers of the Way of Christ. In spite of our broken sinful nature, we must continually strive to attain this joy that results from our struggle to “obey, live, and love” as Christ commands. For we never go it alone; and perhaps this acknowledgement of faith, blessing, and Spirit is what prompts 1 John’s declaration of obedience not being difficult after all.
And when we do find ourselves failing in spite of the command to love, even with all the support we have, one ultimate truth remains; God’s unmerited grace. The agape love that God has for the world is poured out on us whether we act in love toward others or not. The commands to “obey Christ, live in him, and love as he does”, in order to find “complete joy” in God are often overlooked or downright ignored by we sinful humans. When we do not obey Christ’s command, by the grace of God we are forgiven. When we do not live in Christ, we are forgiven by our gracious God. And even when we do not express agape love for others, forgiveness by God’s grace is bestowed on us.
We have so much help as we strive to live as we are commanded. Yet, all the faith we can muster, the work of the Spirit, God’s blessing on our efforts; all this may still not be enough if our desire to obey, live, and love is outweighed by our humanness. It’s then that the grace of God appears to rescue us from our sinful selves. It’s the striving, the trying, the attempting to get to the place we are called to be that identifies us as followers of the Way of Christ. We know we will disobey; we will fail; we will not love as we are commanded to; but we must persist in our efforts. Who knows, in spite of all that holds us back, with all that we have going for us, one day we might just succeed; and realize that it wasn’t all that difficult after all.
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and holy God, we are commanded to do those things that show we are followers of the Way of Christ. Make us willing to always try; help us when we need support; forgive us when we fail. Remind us that we do not strive on our own.
And in the name of our Friend, the risen Christ Jesus, the One who calls us to complete joy in you, together we say…
Preached by Minister Tom Houston at Grace Ministries when he presided at service there on Sunday, May 9, 2021.