The 15th chapter of John’s gospel is filled with love. These few verses appointed for today form the first part of the three dimensions of a Christian’s life, and all three are centered in love. It’s a remarkable section in a profound and moving chapter. The word “love,” both as noun and verb, is repeated nine times in only eight verses. There is no way one can escape the theme of this chapter.
Something both beautiful and heartbreaking unfolds here. Christ lays his heart bare to his friends and disciples. “I have chosen you,” he tells them, “you didn’t choose me,” and he repeats, “I have loved you.”
But he makes it clear that this relationship is not just two-sided. The source of all this love is God the Father. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” These are powerful words, and when one truly hears them, they can force the soul to kneel before her maker.
And then Jesus uses that enduring metaphor: abide in my love. Stay, remain within it, live in my love. The verb, meno in Greek, “abide” in English, has a continuing connotation. This is not a short-lived experience; this is for life. “Abide in my love.”
Such a powerful state of being does not happen in isolation, or simply as an act of the will. It is very closely related with a requirement that Jesus makes into a condition for love. “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.”
And here’s the rub. Without keeping God’s commandments, we cannot have love and we cannot remain in this love. Keeping God’s commandments presupposes obedience, and this is something our culture rejects. Obedience is not what Americans admire. Obedience is for the weak, not the strong. Knowing how we react to obedience, Jesus keeps referring to himself. His life was one of total obedience to the Father. And no one who knows the story can ever call Jesus weak.
Jesus obeyed. He kept in constant connection with his father through prayer, through loving communion. Even when he was abandoned in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross, he remained in obedience to the will of the Father. The cup was not taken away; it was drunk to the bitter dregs. And still he obeyed, because he knew that, despite everything, the Father loved him.
What is the commandment that we must obey in order to abide in the love of Christ? Jesus now directs us from himself and through himself to others: to love one another. All the ritual and sacrifices of animals and strict adherence to the minutia of the Law are as nothing; what matters is how we treat one another. The writer of the First Epistle of John testifies to this also: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.” It is circular.
Obedience to God’s commandments bears fruit. The first fruit of abiding in love is that we have joy. The joy of knowing we are loved by God in Christ – not some easily earned emotion, but a state of being. Joy comes from the conviction that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
“And I have appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last,” Jesus tells his disciples. A few year later, Paul will list the fruits of the Spirit in his letter to the Galatians. These are the conclusions of a man who had suffered immeasurably because of his love for Christ. And yet because he knew that he was one with Christ, abiding in his love, the fruits that resulted are these: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Such attributes are not earned, they are not taught; they spring from abiding in Christ’s love – otherwise, a man who had suffered so unjustly would have been filled with bitterness. But Paul was not.
The verses we are studying today, focused as they are on love and obedience to God’s commandments are not meant only for the disciples, for those who were Jesus’ friends. They are meant for us also. We have not been left out in the cold. The great Epiphany came to Peter during his visit to the gentiles of Caesarea, in the house of Cornelius. After Peter preached a sermon on the meaning of the Good News, the Holy Spirit visited all those who were present, not just the Jews but also the gentiles. They were astounded, the writer tells us, that the Holy Spirit descended on them also.
And Peter had the good sense to realize that the love of Christ is for all. “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?” he asked himself. Peter, in the Acts of the Apostles, has matured tremendously and has learned to obey. In this instance, in the house of Cornelius, he obeyed the Holy Spirit, understood about the all-embracing love of Christ, and he, in turn, embraced the others, the gentiles. The early Christians were known for loving one another. We are called to do the same.