It really is that simple… or is it? Is it that simple at all? For the last couple of weeks, the gospel lectionary reading has taken us into Jesus’ Farewell discourse in John, and this week is 15:9-17. The whole discourse is a mix of conversation and prayer between Jesus and the disciples, and goes from chapters 14 through 17. So we have here just a snippet, and I find preaching from these passages especially challenging. It’s not really a narrative, but a mix of instruction, symbol, and theology. If feels sort of like preaching from the epistles, but richer and denser than most epistle passages. In just the eight verses of this week there are several possible themes: abiding/remaining, obedience, joy, love, choosing/being chosen, and bearing fruit. (For more on choosing/chosen, click here.)
One verse that has been drawing my attention this week is verse 12: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” As one person pointed out in a Bible study I led, the text offers a neat formula: the Father loves the Son, the Son loves the disciples, and the disciples are to love one another. The task of the disciples is actually framed as a “commandment,” a word that can be confusing to those who are steeped in a gospel of grace. How can Jesus be laying down a law?
I resonate with those who blanch at the word commandment: “loving one another” can easily become an old-fashioned law. We all have enough to do, our own projects and tasks. When the preacher stands and thunders, “love one another,” it often sounds like another project on the to-do list, and not an easy one at that! We have to be honest that the “other” we are asked to love, like ourselves, is some mix of loveable and hard-to-love. The seemingly simple act of loving one another is often very demanding. It asks for sacrifice, forbearance, forgiveness, empathy, compassion, thoughtfulness, wisdom; it asks for time and attention, the most precious, and fleeting, and scarce thing we have.
If, after our sermons this Sunday, our congregations set out to “try and love one another,” then we’ve misled them and they’ve set off in the wrong direction. If we have “try and do it,” then we’re just adding an impossible burden. Trying to love one another is a recipe for guilt-ridden religion, in which the commandment does indeed become a commandment, in every negative sense of the word. It’s not the gospel, not what Jesus meant, and we’re bound to burnout. The key to this “commandment” is in the last phrase, “as I have loved you.”
The love of the Son for his disciples is the source of the disciples’ love for one another. Often we interpret this phrase to mean that Jesus’ love is the example or model for our love; he calls us to the kind of radical love he shows. That’s true, but not nearly enough. Jesus’ love is also the fount of our love, the ever-flowing spring of the love that flows through the disciples. Loving one another is not meant to be a task, but a way of life. Loving one another is a natural outworking of being loved.
It might help us and our congregations this week to put our emphasis first on Jesus’ love for us. How has Jesus loved you? As the text says, he laid down his life for you. But what has that meant to you? What grace has Christ offered you? What mercy have you received? What help has God provided at a point of need? What renewal? We might even dare to change John’s verb. What if we read this line in the present tense, “Love one another as I am loving you.” When we are in touch with — when we abide— in the love of the living Christ for us and for all people, then love for one another flows as naturally as water from a fountain. It’s like a tree that bears fruit. The tree doesn’t try to bear fruit; it just does, because that is what a healthy tree does!