9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.
I want to be honest with you all, this passage is confusing. Even worse, it is also very familiar. So this is a very familiar passage that we assume we already understand, yet it is confusing, and we don’t even realize it. What I want to do today is to simply walk through this passage verse by verse, looking for an overarching theme to help us tie it all together and make sense out of what we think we already understand. So if you weren’t confused before, you probably are now.
Today’s text starts off with complete clarity. The Father has loved Jesus, and Jesus has loved the disciples. No problems there. Until you get to the second sentence. The NIV simply says, “Now remain in my love.”
Oh, my. This suggests that we might not remain in Jesus’ love.
Let’s keep reading and maybe things will start to make sense. Verse 10 tells us, “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.”
That just made things worse, now didn’t it! How many times have we heard it said or said ourselves that Jesus’ love is unconditional? What does this verse sound like to you? It sounds like a condition to me! We say things like There is nothing that we can do to make Jesus love us more and there is nothing that we can do to make Jesus love us less. But John 15:11 sounds like a warning that if we don’t keep Jesus’ commands, we will not remain in his love.
I want to further confuse us all before we start clarifying things here. Jesus says something else very strange in this passage, and he says it twice. Verse 12: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” And verse 17: “This is my command: Love each other.”
I remember when my wife and I were first dating and I really started to fall for her. I thought early on that marriage might be a real possibility, and I wanted to make sure that she fell in love with me, just as I was falling for her. So what did I do? I commanded her to love me!
Can you command someone to love someone else? No, of course not. You can command people to get along or to not fight. But you can’t command love. At least not love as we commonly understand it. Now we are getting somewhere, but I’m not ready to start making things clearer for you yet. Let’s make it just a little more confusing first.
Let’s jump again, this time to verse 14 where Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command.” You may start to think that something is up here. What kind of friendship is this? I think of my friends, and this isn’t really how I would describe our relationship. You’re my pal, my buddy, my compadre, “if” you do what I command.
Obviously Jesus is not using the words “love” and “friend” as we generally do in English. This is one of the shortcomings of language and cultural translations. The first thing that I want to remind you of is the way that Hebrew rhetoric works. If we read through the Psalms you will often find the Psalmist proclaim something about God in one verse, and then in the next verse he will make the exact same point again, but use different words. This is a way of adding emphasis to a statement. It would be like me saying, Mexican food is my favorite kind of food. I would chose tacos over lasagna any day.
Did I really need to say that I chose tacos over lasagna any day? No, you would probably assume that to be the case if you already knew that Mexican food is my favorite. I’m just repeating myself for emphasis. This is common in Hebrew culture, and we find this in the Psalms. Furthermore, we must remember that Jesus was a Hebrew man.
So when Jesus says that his disciples must keep his commandments to be in his love, and then later says that if his disciples are his friends they will keep his commandments, he is adding emphasis by repeating the same thing but with different words. But what does he mean?
When Jesus speaks about love in these verses, he isn’t talking about something that is just in our hearts or even a series of chemicals that our bodies produce that gives our brains some kind of euphoric response. I want to go even further than to say that the kind of love that Jesus commands of us requires action. I believe that the love that Jesus is speaking of here is action.
Love is action. This is why Jesus says that if you love him you will do as he commands. They are one and the same; doing the thing that Jesus commands is love. It isn’t an act of love. It isn’t a manifestation of love. Doing what Jesus commands is love.
The next thing we must consider is what Jesus commands. Verse 13 gives us the answer, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And lest we think that he is just talking about a small group of close acquaintances, elsewhere Jesus takes it a step further and says that we must also lay down our lives for our enemies.
To understand what Jesus means we must consider the context in which he says these things. The most obvious thing for us is to see that Jesus is talking to his disciples just before he is arrested by the Romans and crucified. Jesus laid down his own life in a very literal way. And he did not just do so for his friends, he did so for his enemies, for the very people who were nailing him to that cross.
But I think we would be making a huge mistake if we assumed that the only thing Jesus was talking about here was dying for someone else. Indeed, to die for someone else is an act of love, but if all of Jesus’ disciples took this literally there would be no Christians left. We don’t just look at what happened after Jesus said this to understand what he means. We need to look at what happened just before.
Our scripture this morning is a part of a larger section where Jesus is giving final teachings to his disciples before his crucifixion. You don’t realize it if you aren’t looking for it, but all of the last couple of chapters are taking place on Maundy Thursday, the day when Jesus met his disciples in the Upper Room for the Last Supper. The first thing that Jesus did when the disciples showed up that evening was to take off his outer garment, pick up a basin and a towel, and wash the feet of his disciples.
Everyone there knew that this was not the thing that a leader like Jesus was supposed to be doing. Peter was the only one brave enough to speak out. Jesus performed a task that was beneath him. He took the role of a servant, not a king, not a messiah, but a lowly peasant. And then in what is probably the most overlooked thing in the entire passage, Jesus instructs his disciples to wash the feet of others. When Jesus says that we are to love by laying down our lives for others, I don’t think he just means being willing to die for them. I think he means actively serving others even if the world around us says that it is beneath us.
This is the kind of love that Jesus is speaking of in John 15. This is self-sacrificial love. It is the kind of love where a person gives of their self for the good of others and for the good of God’s kingdom.
It seems appropriate to speak of self-sacrificial love on Mother’s Day, as I think that few people offer better images of what Jesus was talking about than our mothers. If your mother raised you, think about all of the things that she had to give up for you. I’m sure that you all were perfect children and never caused any problems for your mother. But I know that from day one of life that my mother made sacrifices. The first thing that I think of is sleep. Those long, sleepless nights up caring for an infant, and those long, sleepless nights waiting on a teenager to get home from a party. My mother gave up sleep. How about money and careers? Probably most of our mothers didn’t have the opportunities that women today do, but my mother worked outside of the home before she had children. Many of your mothers were teachers or nurses and they put their careers and earnings on hold for a period of time to help raise you. And when I think of all of the dirty diapers my mother had to change, and I think about how my brothers and I were babies back before disposable diapers and even before the cool reusable cloth diapers that we have today, I’m amazed. You had to wash that out by hand?
My mother did not have to die to show her love for me and my brothers, but she did lay down her life. She made sacrifices that cost her in a number of ways. And here is the beautiful thing about it. If you were to see a woman 35 years ago looking like she hadn’t received a lot of sleep the night before, pushing a grocery cart up and down the aisle while sorting through some coupons just to try to save a few cents, you might ask why she would do that to herself. Or if you saw the same woman up to her elbows in dirty diapers with the feces of another human being on her hands, you would probably question what she was thinking. But one answer, just one little answer would make it all clear. She’s a mother; the sacrifices that she makes, well that’s just love.
This is the kind of love that we are all called to show, the kind of love that costs us something. As followers of the Messiah who stooped to wash the feet of others, and as disciples of the crucified king, we are called to participate in acts of sacrificial love. And when people see us serving others, washing their feet, ladling their soup, giving of our time, they will ask why we do what we do. And one simple answer will make it all clear: We are Christians.
I want to offer a word of warning, though. I believe very strongly that we are called to love others, even our enemies, with self-sacrificial love. But I also realize that I say this as a straight, white male. This matters, and I need to give you some theological history to understand why.
Many of you will have at least heard of Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr was a theologian and political activist who was very popular in the middle of last century. Niebuhr wrote a large, two-volume book called The Nature and Destiny of Man. The first part of this book, the “nature” part, gives Niebuhr’s approach to understanding the human condition, which is a fancy way of saying our sinfulness. Niebuhr considers the sins of humanity, things like greed, lying, cheating, and so on, and he says that the source of all human sin is pride. We are greedy because we want everyone else to have less than we do. We lie because we want to look better than we are. We could question some of Niebuhr’s conclusions, but he is able to skillfully articulate why he believes pride to be the source of human sin.
But he doesn’t stop there. He says that the biblical solution to pride is self-sacrificial love. Niebuhr believes that if we just give of ourselves like Jesus did rather than try to accumulate more money, power, and wealth, we can disarm the power of pride. Again, I think he is on to something here. But not everyone does.
Unfortunately this idea of self-sacrificial love has been abused by many people in power. It has been used by abusive husbands that demand their wives sacrifice everything for them and submit even when they are being beaten. Slave owners demanded their slaves to remain in submission because Jesus taught self-sacrificial love. So modern theologians have critiqued Niebuhr by saying that the sin of these abused women and slaves is not pride. Their sin is not respecting their selves as people created in the image of God.
Yes, women and marginalized people need to be offering self-sacrificial love, but I think that they have already done this a lot better than we men. My fellow men, we need to step it up. We need to be loving with the self-sacrificial love of Jesus. And we can learn from those who are already doing this.
I read a story this week about a young boy who attended an Elementary School in a rough neighborhood. His family was not rich by any means, but they were doing better than most of the families in their part of town.
One day a woman whose house was right behind the bus stop where this boy got on and off the bus noticed something. Each Friday when the boy got off the bus, he would walk over to another boy and hand him a brown paper bag before they would walk together to their homes. This went on for a few months so this woman called up the mother of the boy to see what was going on. Of course she expected the worst, thinking that they were distributing drugs in Elementary School.
The mother had no idea what her son was doing, so she sat him down and asked him what was in the bag that he was giving to the other boy. Her son explained that his friend did not really get fed on the weekends, and the only real food that he got to eat was the free breakfasts and lunches that he got at the school. So every Friday, the boy would save his lunch and give it to his friend. He would go hungry so his friend wouldn’t have to.
When his mother heard this story she was moved to do something. So now every Thursday she gets together with several other mothers at their church and they pack meals for children at the school to take home the next day so that they can at least have one decent meal over the weekend. They give of their own time, they give of their own money. That is the self-sacrificial love of Jesus. An entire ministry has begun all because a little boy decided to skip lunch so his friend can have one meal on the weekend.
Do you think that everyone who receives this free meal appreciates it? I guarantee you that they don’t. But that’s not the point. Jesus has commanded that we love like he loves, and he loves sacrificially. We are called to give of ourselves, of our time, and of our money. And when we do so, we remain in Jesus’ love. Not because he would stop loving us if we didn’t. But because self-sacrificial giving is what Jesus’ love is.