Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
John 15:9-17As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 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. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
‘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. 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. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
Even though we are gathered in the Easter season, with the stories of the Resurrection fresh on our minds, we should remember that today’s reading is not one that takes place after the resurrection. Today's reading comes from the time just before Jesus was crucified. At this point in the Gospel Jesus seems to know that something bad is going to happen. And, he knows that he needs to prepare the disciples for whatever scary thing is coming. In fact, the last several lessons we have read together have been part of him preparing his disciples. First, there was the promises of the Good Shepherd who never leaves his sheep. Then there was the instruction to be branches of his vine and the assurance that they had been empowered to bear the fruits of love and justice. In today’s reading, Jesus extends his teaching on his relationship with the disciples beyond that of farmer and fruit. In today’s reading, Jesus offers friendship.
First Jesus affirms his own love of the disciples, saying that is like the love God has for him. He wants them to have the kind of complete joy that one might feel if they know that they are truly loved. Then, he goes to on to give them a larger context for this love, and it is friendship. "I do not call you slaves any longer, because the slave does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends." This passage is the only time in the whole book of John that Jesus calls the disciples his friends. It is interesting, but perhaps not surprising, that he does so in the midst of crisis. When Jesus speaks of his love, he invites his disciples to "abide" in his love. Scholar Meda Stamper reminds us of something important about this word "abide." In the book of John, this word is often used to indicate more than just the simple act of resting. To abide is to make a comfortable home.
For example, early in John, Jesus spoke of God has having many mansions for God's people. Dr. Stamper tells us that the word that gets translated as mansions is actually better translated as abiding places. God will provide for people homie-ness, a place to feel safe and comfortable and wanted. So, when we talk about Jesus asking the disciples to abide in his love, he is asking them to make a home in love... to find safety and rest in love. That must have been a comfort for them, these itinerant and homeless preachers who would be threatened for doing the Gospel work and sometimes run out of town. Regardless of their physical home, they could always abide in Jesus' love.
He says that they will abide in his love if they follow his commandments, just as he has abided in God's commandments. He tells them that following his commandment will bring them joy. And, what commandment will bring people such joy? A new commandment to love one another just as Christ has loved them. This is the commandment that Maundy Thursday is named for. In Latin, Novum Mandatum means new commandment. This commandment is so important that it has a part of Holy Week named after it. It is through the act of loving one another that the disciples become friends of Christ.
The scholar Choi Hee An, in a commentary on this passage, notes that it was no small thing to be called a friend during the era in which this Gospel was written. The common hierarchy of relationships during that time would have made it difficult for disciples of a teacher to imagine themselves to also be friends. Even the common metaphors Jesus used, liked plant and vine, slaver and enslaved person, shepherd and sheep, even parent and child, implied an unequal relationship. But, friend doesn’t. With friends, there is the possibility, of sharing, as Dr. An calls it, “mutual responsibility and interdependency.” To love one another is to depend on one another. To depend on one another is to befriend one another. This is what love is... depending on one another, including each other in plans, assuming you will be active in one another’s care. And, being willing to make sacrifices for one another.
In John, Jesus demonstrates that there can be a real cost in loving another person and being a friend as he’s outlined it. Love can provoke inside a person a willingness to put one's own life at risk for the people that one loves. Jesus said, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." In this one sentence, Jesus reminded his followers that love and joy are not shallow things. They are deep things, things that abide in the very life and love of Jesus. It reminds me of those words from the Song of Songs when one of the speakers says to their beloved, “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.” Jesus’ love of his friends was stronger than death and fiercer than the grave. But, I don’t think they understood that yet. They won’t, I don’t think, until the resurrection.
Jesus loved loudly, proclaiming healing to the broken and justice to the oppressed. He took joy in the healing work he did. But, his love and joy did not lead him to safe places. It led him into dangerous conflicts with the ruling elites and to the bedsides of the sick and dying. His love was not passive. It was active, driving him towards the places of greatest need and great danger. We have heard the stories of the crucifixion. Jesus’ friendship with the disciples and his love of humanity put him at risk. But, I guess love always puts us at risk. There is always a danger is loving one another as Christ loved us. Inside the joy of the Gospel also dwells the potential for deep pain. But, friendship with Christ, and love for one another, calls us to move towards that possible pain, knowing that Christ's ultimate joy and our beloved friends can help carry us through it. I think this is how we get a taste of Resurrection in our lives right now. Love carries us through the pain out to the other side of it.
To be a friend of Jesus is also to love, or attempt to love, as he did. Dr. Gennifer Benjamin Brooks, in her commentary on this passage, puts it another way: what part of your life are you willing to lay down out of love for another? The sacrifices being asked of us rarely are our actual lives but are regularly the things we know of as our lives, the things that help us understand our lives and make a place in this world. In that same commentary, Dr. Brooks asks “What does it take to set aside all that one believes about others, to set aside the prejudices that prevent or stifle friendship, in order to join others in being truly the Body of Christ?” Can we love Christ and our neighbors enough to set aside what seems necessary and comfortable to us so that they may have a chance to merely live? This is one of the most challenging questions of our time. Can we act in love when we are called to sacrifice something important to us? May we find the love that offers us true comfort and may that love help us lay down a life lived only for ourselves.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Choi Hee An, "Sixth Sunday of Easter, " Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B, Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011
Gennifer Benjamin Brooks: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-159-17-5
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.