During his final evening with the disciples, in those last, precious moments before his arrest, Jesus says to them:
As 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.” (Jn. 15:9-12).
Whenever we come to Scripture—particularly to a passage like this where we are confronted with the very mystery of God’s love—it is important that we do so with the hope and the expectation that God’s Word is a word that unsettles our own. God’s Word is a word that unsettles our own. You see, often when we speak of the love of God, we do so in such a way that, without even realizing it, we limit God—we restrict Him to the level of our everyday experiences. We come to Scripture with a certain understanding of “the way that love works,” and then we map that understanding onto the way that God must love us. There is a certain sense in which this is unavoidable, of course, for we always bring our prior experiences and understanding with us when we come before God’s Word or when we offer ourselves to Him in prayer. But we must be careful not to let our experiences determine the meaning of God’s Word, for it is God’s Word that ultimately determines the meaning of our experiences. God’s Word is a word that unsettles our own. Thus, we do not come to an understanding of God by taking what we think we already know of love and then somehow magnifying that into infinity. Rather, we only truly know what love is by looking first to the God who reveals Himself in Jesus Christ. For as we read in the first letter of John, “whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8).
Our passage begins with a rather remarkable analogy. Jesus tells his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” Now, the Father’s love for Jesus is a thread woven throughout the entirety of John’s Gospel. We read in chapter three, for instance, that “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand” (3:35). What’s more, we discover in chapter seventeen that the Father loved the Son even before the foundation of the world (17:24). It is no small thing, then, for Jesus to draw a likeness between the love of the Father for him and his love for each of us. Such a love is not only completely beyond our comprehension—for we know that the Son is of one being with the Father—but it is beyond anything that we could ever hope to merit. For even considered in his humanity, as a man among other men and women, Jesus lived a perfect and holy life, without sin, without selfishness, without blemish of any kind. Of course he was loved by the Father—there was nothing in him opposed to the love of God. But how many of us can say the same? Who among us comes close to the obedience of Jesus Christ—that obedience that permeates his life and ministry and eventually leads to his death on a cross? Who are we then, that Christ has chosen us to be the objects of his love?
We are the recipients of God’s grace, the vessels of His mercy (Rom. 9:23).
For “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). There is a sense then in which Jesus Christ is the mediator of the Father’s love to us—a love whose only proper analogy is the love of the Father for the Son. For in Christ, we too are sons and daughters of the Most High God (Eph. 1:5). And because we are sons and daughters, “God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba!—an Aramaic word best translated as “daddy”—and Father!’” (Gal. 4:6). By this, therefore, “we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us His Spirit” (1 Jn. 4:13). This is the God whom we worship. This is the One whom we adore. And in this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us first (1 Jn. 4:10)
What, then, are we to make of the following verse? Here, Jesus tells the disciples, “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.” Does not such a verse cut against the grain of God’s gracious love for us? How are we to reconcile such a statement with the gratuity of the Gospel? I believe that St. Augustine offers us a helpful interpretation here. According to Augustine, “it is not… for the purpose of awakening His love to us that we first keep His commandments; but this, that unless He loves us, we cannot keep His commandments” (Tractate 82). Keeping the commandments, therefore, is an effect of the divine love, not its cause. “For from the fact that God loves us, he influences us, and helps us to fulfill his commandments, which we cannot do without grace” (Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, 15.2.2002). The correct order here is pivotal for our understanding of the Gospel. We cannot earn God’s love, as we so often seek to do, both in the realm of religion and that of human relationships. All that we can hope to do is to respond to God’s love by the power of God’s Spirit that dwells within us. And just as the Father’s love for Jesus is the model of Christ’s love for us, so Christ wants his obedience to be the model of our obedience. In seeking to respond in faith and with thanksgiving to the love of God, we look to Jesus for a life lived in perfect obedience.
Now, so that we do not become overwhelmed at the thought of such a task, Jesus proceeds: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Despite the terrible connotations that the world so often attaches to obedience, especially obedience to God, “Jesus insists that his own obedience to the Father is the ground of his joy; and he promises that those who obey him will share the same joy” (Carson, The Gospel According to John, 521). Whereas we are often made to think that obedience to God is a burden, a cruel and oppressive limit to our freedom, Christ reminds us that it is precisely in such obedience that we experience true, lasting liberation. Haven’t we experienced this in our own lives? Haven’t we tasted the joy of living in accordance with God’s will? And haven’t we also felt the pain, the guilt, and the isolation of our own sin and the sin of others? There is no joy in sin; there is only despair. There is no life outside of God’s love; there is only death. The man or woman who has experienced the love of God, who knows what it means to be freed from the captivity of sin, does not consider the Lord’s commandments a burden, but declares with the Psalmist, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul” (Ps. 19:7).
All of this, of course, begs the important question: what is the Lord’s commandment? What does it actually look like to live in accordance with God’s perfect will? Christ tells his disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” It is with this simple commandment, therefore, that our passage comes full circle. As the Father loves Jesus, so Jesus loves us, and graciously mediates the Father’s love to us. And because we are loved by God, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to obey his commandments—that is, we are freed to love others as Christ has loved us. Such a love is not merely an affectionate feeling, but an active commitment to the ultimate good of another. Such a love is costly, for “by this we know love, that Jesus laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (I Jn. 3:16). To love is to sacrifice everything for the sake of the other, to place the needs of another above our own. And yet, to love in this way is to abide in the love of Christ and to share in his joy. To love in this way is to be caught up in the rhythm of God’s love, to participate in His glorious ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18).
Let us love then, not in word or speech, but in truth and action (1 Jn. 3:18), ever mindful that “we love because He loved us first” (1 Jn. 4:19). In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
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The above was originally delivered as a sermon to the congregation of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Aberdeen.