For the past few weeks we have been traveling through the verses of the Gospel of John. We have heard about Jesus as Shepherd, about being connected as a vine and its branches, and today we hear about friendship. In all of these, we are told to abide in God and to love. By this point, it is almost like each analogy or comparison is written in BOLD CAPS LOCK: “LOVE ONE ANOTHER!” Jesus is trying in every way possible to get this message across to the disciples.
So, why another comparison? Perhaps another angle is needed to round out the point.
The overall message of this passage is an assumption most of us make: let’s be friends and love one another. Duh!
Read through John 15:12-17 again, though, and you might hear some sentences that take this assumption in a direction we’re not expecting.
1- “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Are we expected to die for our friends or for God?
2 - “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” That doesn’t sound to me like the friendships I have. To be frank, it sounds like something my 4 year-old niece would say on the playground, but it’s not what I envision to be the standard for good, loving friendships.
3 - “You did not choose me but I chose you.” Is it predetermined by a divine force who is a Christ-follower? Are we without free will in deciding to worship God?
Let’s take these one at a time...
First, are we expected to lay down our lives, to DIE, for God or for friends? No, not necessarily. Robin Maas, in Crucified Love, states “few, if any of us, will be called to martyrdom; but all of us are called to a series of little deaths in the form of invitations to restrain or deny self.”
These “little deaths” are ways that we put our selfish desires to the side in order to be a better friend. Sometimes it is in seemingly insignificant things, such as letting the other person pick the movie you will watch. Sometimes it is in much more significant moments, such as losing sleep so you can comfort the other in times of loss.
Sometimes it is in realizing that your differences in opinion or beliefs are not worth fighting over, and you keep quiet. Sometimes it is in denying your desire to keep quiet and not face conflict, in order to address a brokenness, heal the relationship, or “to stand with those who suffer wrong,” as our first hymn states.
So, yes, we are expected to lay down our individual, selfish lives for our friends.
Second, this seemingly playground-style assertion of “we’re only friends if you do what I tell you” sounds conditional to me at first. I was taught, and I still believe, that God’s love for me or you or anybody is not conditional on our behavior.
Right before this sentence, Jesus talks about a servant/master relationship; in that relationship, we understand doing what we are commanded. We understand that is conditional. Immediately, though, Jesus says “I have called you friends.”
Jesus makes the distinction that friends are “in the loop,” as opposed to a servant who is likely only told information on a “need to know” basis. As Jesus has shared with us all that he knows from God, then we’re “in the loop.” He’s shared with us instructions on how to faithfully and truly love each other. By following those instructions, we acknowledge that we’ve heard them and agree to them.
It’s hard to hear this seemingly conditional statement of love, because we know so many examples of obedience which has attached to it abuse or misuse of power. But that is not where Jesus is going here.
The difference between abusive call to obedience and a willingness to obey, or follow a command, lies in the motivation of the command. Divine motivation is always rooted in a pure love for the people involved.
Jesus’ motivation in these passages is not to create a dedicated following of people so he can boast about his numbers and get his way.
Jesus’ motivation in these passages is for the people to learn how to unconditionally love one another - how to serve one another - how to help people who need help - how to further peace. Those are good, loving motivations. Those are motivations and commandments I know I can follow and obey.
Henri Nouwen points out that, ironically, we, not-so-perfect humans, are the gateway for people to see God’s unconditional, perfect love. (In the Name of Jesus) We can set that example through following Jesus’ commands.
Third, did we choose God or did God choose us?
Very likely this statement of Jesus stems from the tradition at that time where “...students wishing to learn the Torah sought out a rabbi whose teachings they wanted to emulate. The choice was theirs. but Jesus reverses the order. The decision is his. He chooses his followers” (Charles Cousar, Texts for Preaching, Year B, p. 325).
This piece of scripture does not mean that we get to say “I was chosen and you weren’t” or “I’m in and you’re out.” If this John scripture is ever interpreted that way, read our Acts verses alongside it. In the Acts passage, Peter is preaching to all who were listening, and some of the “in crowd” (aka, the circumcised) were “astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”
It is a classic case of spiritual elitism, thinking that “we are the only people who truly can experience God’s Holy Spirit.” Peter, though, immediately states that it is not for anyone, particularly the “in crowd,” to determine how the Holy Spirit moves.
These Acts verses can serve as a warning to us to not fall into the same spiritually elitist mindset, claiming that only we experience the true Divine presence in this world. Others worship differently than we do, but that is not to say that they do not also experience God.
In so many things, Jesus reversed the order or understanding of cultural traditions in that time and this is yet another example. By Jesus saying that the disciples did not choose him, but he chose them, shows how God continually seeks after us, to bring us to a fuller understanding of God’s love and inclusion and connectivity. It shows God’s initiation of this loving covenant between humanity and Creator.
By Jesus stating that he chose the disciples, it keeps the disciples from patting themselves on the back and thinking that they did something special to be in that position. Their friendship relies solely on what God has done, not the humans. Incorporating the vine imagery we heard last week, Meda Stamper writes, “Jesus’ initiative is underscored in John 15:16. He does the choosing and appointing. And for those of us who wish to abide in his love, this is surely good news, that we do not carve out a position as Jesus’ branch-friend and that our abundance does not depend on us .... We merely choose to abide in the love that has drawn us in, and then we blossom.” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2435)
It’s important that as we study how Jesus taught us to befriend one another and what God teaches us about love that we do not impose our definitions of those things onto God’s definition. When we think of the majority of our friends, we may picture a lot of what we could call “acquaintances.” Relationships that don’t rock the boat too much - don’t ever face challenges.
However, those deep friendships - the ones where they’ve picked you up off the floor on your worst day, the ones where they’ve told you when you’re being rude or ridiculous, the ones where they’ve encouraged you to stretch outside your comfort zone, or maybe even the fleeting ones with a stranger if you’ve stood with them as they faced a difficult moment - those friendships are what we need to cultivate more. Those friendships are life-changing.
These commandments are given in order that we love one another. The original Greek conjunction, which is here translated simply as “that,” has behind it a meaning of purpose and intent. Verse 12 could be translated as “This is my commandment to you, in order that you love one another…” Through following Jesus’ example and instructions, we love one another. The purpose of following his example and commands is so that we love one another as he showed us.
The purpose is love. Love that includes obedience and self-denial. Love that includes “even the Gentiles.” Let us be friends to all those we encounter.
Scripture: Acts 10:44-48; John 15:12-17