1 John 5:1-6 | John 15:9-17
Last week our gospel reading gave us the image of the vine and the branches; and with it, Jesus’ command that we were to abide in him; and with that, his promise that if we did, he would abide in us, and we would bear much fruit for him and for the Kingdom of God.
I mostly neglected that part of the story though, to focus instead on some of the harder words in the passage – the talk of God’s way of pruning even (in fact, especially) the fruitful branches; in order that they might become more fruitful.
And part of the reason for that decision was that I don’t think that that phrase “abide in me”, as used in the start of John 15, can be understood until we’ve read through to today’s passage. Jesus keeps using the phrase “abide in me, abide in my love” until finally, as if in answer to the unspoken question, he tells us what he means.
If you keep my commands, you will abide in my love
It’s perhaps not quite what we would have been expecting to hear.
It’s not “sit back and enjoy the fact that I love you”
It’s not “stop your struggles and enter into my unconditional love”
It’s not “don’t worry so much about doing, instead, just be”
If you keep my commands, you will abide in my love
Is God’s love, then, conditional upon keeping God’s commands? And if so, which ones? And how perfectly? And does that mean that when we fail – for surely we do – we are no longer loved by God?
After all we’ve heard, in the end, is God’s love conditional?
Now to the Hebrew mind, to the ears of those disciples who first heard these words, it was probably very simple, very reasonable: for this was, in the main thrust of teaching of the Old Testament scriptures, exactly right: God loves those who are obedient to the commands of God. Loves the covenant people, but is set against those who are their enemies, those who would oppose the will of God in the world.
But to hear these words in the voice of Jesus – in the voice of the one who taught us that we should love our enemies, and pray for those who curse us, precisely because by doing so we are children of our father in heaven, who sends the rain on the just and the unjust – in the voice of the one who forgave sinners, welcomed outcasts, strangers, foreigners, sinner – the one who included all those who did not (at least by the measures of the day) obey the commands of God – what’s with that?
Fortunately, Jesus did not stop there.
He didn’t finish up by saying “obey God’s commandments and you will abide in God’s love”
He went on to explain.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you
Those few words completely change the meaning of everything that Jesus has been saying in this passage; turn them, perhaps not on their heads, but at least to face in a new direction. It’s a piece of rhetorical brilliance, one the Old Testament Prophets would have recognised, or, for that matter, a stage magician would have been proud of.
Everything is set up for a demand for obedience to the law: if you want to be loved by Christ, by God, obey the commandments: and then “oh – but when I say commandments, what I mean is this: love one another”
You want to abide in love? Then love.
You want to abide in me? Then love as I have loved.
You want my joy to be in you? Let my love be in you.
Or rather – let my love flow through you.
Because the truth is, there is something dynamic about love. It is, in grammatical terms, a transient verb. Love does not stop; when it stops, it stops being love. Love is not a possession or a resource to be accumulated. It is a process, a dynamic, a relationship. It’s like water – if it stands still, it gets stale, stagnant. Only when it is allowed to flow out, can more flow in, and only then can it remain fresh, refreshing, life giving.
And once the commandment that Jesus is giving is understood, his statement that “if you keep my command you will remain in my love” is no longer a condition on God’s love; it’s a simple statement of fact: if you love others as Christ has loved you, you will be in God’s love. You will be, as it were, in the flow.
To paraphrase words St. Francis of Assisi probably didn’t actually pray: make me a channel of your love
And it’s all lovely and beautiful, and the sort of thing you make inspirational posters out of, with pictures of babbling streams flowing through green woods, with “love one another” printed in some flowing font.
And then Jesus has to go and throw another spanner into the works.
“Oh, and if you were wondering what love is? At it’s best, it is this: lay down your life for another”
The love that Jesus is speaking of; the love that he asks his friends to abide, to be channels of, is the love that he is about to show for them, the love that will not even be dissuaded by death.
It isn’t the love of the far-weather friend: it is the love that stands beside another even when everyone else turns their back.
It is the love that offers help not just when it is convenient and easy, but when it is hard, when it helping hurts, when helping costs.
The love that is willing to be seen with, to be associated with, those who don’t fit in, those who society rejects, those who reject society.
It is the love that welcomes the stranger into our midst not just when they are the sort of stranger who we understand, and who knows our ways and tries to fit in; but who welcomes the difficult, the annoying, the rude, the boring.
It is the love that Jesus has lived, and that he is soon to die.
And now, Jesus says, now I’ve told you this, now I’ve explained, now I’ve shown you what I am doing: now I can call you my friends. Now you know the secret, the very heart and soul of what I have been about, now you are no longer servants, obeying without understanding; now you are friends, obeying not out of fear or out of duty, but because you get it.
To be the people of Jesus Christ, to be the friends of Jesus, is really all about this: to know Jesus’ command, and to live it:
I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another
That is where we began, that it where we end.