John 15:12-25

Perhaps in the last couple of weeks you’ve noticed that I slipped quietly over some of the more difficult phrases that Jesus spoke. Last week, for instance, we heard him say “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them” and then again “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them”. The promises that Jesus makes seem to be mixed in with, even made conditional on, our obedience to his commandments.

Which stands in contrast to the image of grace – that the gift of God is just that, an underserved, unearned gift.

There’s something similar in the first half of John 15 – it begins with the image of the vine – “I am the vine,” Jesus declares, you are the branches; abide in me and I will abide in you, and then you will bear much fruit. Jesus uses that word “abide” 8 times in the first few verses of the chapter; finishing, just before our reading today began:

“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 ears of those disciples who first heard these words, this was very reasonable: for this was a major thrust of teaching of the Old Testament scriptures: God loves those obedient to the commands of God.

Now it’s not the whole of the story, it never was; through the Old Testament scriptures different voices sing different tunes, sometimes in harmony and sometime cacophony, but this was one of big ideas, the theme of much of the teaching.

God loves the covenant people, those who are obedient to the Torah, the way of life that shows that you are part of God’s people, but is set against those who are their enemies, those who would oppose the will of God in the world. Conformance to God’s way of life was pleasing to God.

But this was the language that had been used to exclude, so to hear these words in the voice of Jesus – in the voice of the one who forgave sinners, welcomed outcasts, strangers, foreigners – the one who included those who did not obey the commands of God – what’s with that?

So often in his teaching Jesus had hard words to say to those who prioritised the strict adherence to the law over other matters; who tithed even their herb gardens but neglected justice, who choose purity over inclusion, penalty over understanding.

This was not the voice from the story that Jesus seemed to hear, not the drum that he seemed to march to. But here it is – if you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.

But do you notice one small but crucial word there?

That Jesus did not say “if you keep the commandments you will abide in my love”. He said “if you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love”

Not “the commandments”. “My commandments”.

And then – “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you”. Those few words completely reshape everything that Jesus has been saying in this passage; turn his words, perhaps not on their heads, but at least to face in a new direction.

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: words the disciples had heard all their lives, words the pharisees would happily have echoed, but then, the sting in the tail “oh – but when I say commandments, what I mean is just this: love one another as I have loved you”

You want to abide in my love? Then love one another.

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 there is something dynamic about love. Love is a transient verb. Love does not stop; when it stops, it stops being love. Love is a process, a dynamic, a relationship.

And then Jesus’ statement that “if you keep my command you will remain in my love” is no longer a condition on God’s love; it’s just a 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 flowery font or beautiful calligraphy.

Except Jesus didn’t finish there. He never does.

“Oh, and if you were wondering what love is? At its 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.

And it is a love that will make you hated. A love that would get him killed.

Near the beginning of “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” Douglas Adams captures some of this strangeness:

“…nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change…”

Subtle ridicule, for no one would be killed for saying it would be great to be nice to people for a change.

If we reduce Jesus’ command to love to “be nice to people for a change” we reduce his death to the ridiculous. A man killed for saying “play nicely with the other children”.

But the love Jesus lived wasn’t “be nice”. It was that, but so much more.

It was 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.

The love that stands beside another even when everyone else turns their back.

The love that offers help not just when it is convenient and easy, but when it is hard, when helping hurts, when helping costs.

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.

But even all of that would not have had him killed.

Brazilian Archbishop Helder Camara famously said “When I feed the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why so many people are poor they call me a communist.”

Jesus’ love was a love that challenged power and demanded justice. It overturned the tables that created a barrier between the people and God, the systems and theologies that kept power in the hands of the elite, the gatekeeping of God.

This love, he warns his friends, this love will make you enemies, just as it has done for me. If you love as I loved, you will be hated as I have been hated.

And now you know this, 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:

I am giving you these commands that you may love.

Love as I loved, even if others hate you for it.

There we begin as Jesus’ people, and there we end.