The lessons designated for this Lord’s Day represent a shift. Last time we focused on the love God has for us. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love. There is nothing we have done that disqualifies us from God’s love. God loves us, period. How do we know that God loves us? He sent his only Son into the world to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins. While we were yet powerless, able to do nothing for ourselves, Christ died for us. Relative to God’s love, we stand in a posture of receptivity. We open our hand to receive what God desires to give to us, what God has already given us, namely, his love.
That posture is not one in which we stand in a single moment of time. We remain in it. This is what Jesus tells his disciples. Abide in me. Abide in my love. Just as the branch receives the nourishing sap from the vine, so also are we to receive our vitality from him. If we are his disciples, we have only to live in the peace of his presence, meditating on his word, bringing to him our requests, and singing praises to him in our heart.
But today the focus is not on what we receive, but on what we give. We learn that we are not only passive recipients, but also active doers. Jesus gives to us a commandment, which entails obedience. To be sure, to abide in his love is also a commandment. But it does not appear to us to have the force of one. It is a commandment to rest, to receive. But to this commandment Jesus adds another: Love one another as I have loved you. It is a commandment to act, to give. What does it mean to obey this commandment? What exactly is it that it is commanding us to do?
At first glance, the commandment seems odd. How can you command love? Can love be conceived as a duty? When I am attracted to another, or when I am compelled by his need, it is his very presence that draws love out of me. Love arises spontaneously in me. If his presence doesn’t somehow move me, then how can I say that I love him? Either love is there or it isn’t.
But Jesus gives the commandment to love. And the idea of a commandment certainly implies duty. Perhaps we had parents or mentors in our lives who tried to teach us the value of a good work ethic. They told us that success in life is founded on working hard, giving it your best. Even if the rewards are not immediate, one can still go to bed at night knowing that you gave it all you had, that therefore there is no reason for regret. My dad used to tell us that cream eventually rises to the top. Hard work does not go unnoticed forever.
In this sense, duty can be a strong motivator. To fulfill our duty, to meet our obligation, it to be true to ourselves, to live in accord with our values. But somehow we are still not convinced. It may very well be that it is our duty to love, but we know that love does not come from a place of obligation. It comes from someplace else.
Jesus tells his disciples that he has said these things to them, so that his joy may be in them, and that their joy may be complete. To be sure, there can be a sense of satisfaction knowing that we have done our duty, but it is not the same as joy. But Jesus gives his commandments to his disciples so that his joy may be in them. How can this be? How can commandment and duty and joy be made to fit together?
The Swiss theologian Karl Barth claimed that with God’s love the commandment comes to us in the form of permission. The commandment of God articulates the law of life for us. Because it states what gives life, it is a blessing for us. It marks out a territory in which our lives will flourish. Freed by God’s love for love, we therefore hear the “you must” of the commandment as “you are free to.” “You must love” becomes then “you are free to love.” God not only gives the command, but his love gives us the freedom to fulfill it. This in line with the prayer of the great fifth century church father St. Augustine: “O Lord, command what you will and give what you command.” In other words, God enables us find our freedom in the fulfilling of the command. In this freedom we find our joy.
The unspoken question on the minds of the disciples, on our minds, is: What is love? We cannot assume that the answer to this question is obvious. Love is a generic term. It can be made to fit whatever content we want to give it. What are we really doing when we love someone? Do we even know how to love? If we are honest, we have to confess that often our love comes from a place of need. We cannot bear that this person ever leave us. We cling to him out of our need and say that we love him. Or we love in order to maintain our self-image. We cannot bear that people ever see us as anything less than loving, so we wear the mask and play the part.
More than two years ago now a man contacted the church to ask for help. We do not deny help to anyone who calls us. But in the course of our conversation the man made clear his demand for money. We listened, and still sought to be helpful. We explained to him our policies that guide our giving money. But the man became impatient and even angry. When he suspected that we were not going to meet his demand for money, he began to accuse us of hypocrisy. Don’t we claim to be Christians? And aren’t Christians supposed to love? He then said that it’s because of hypocrites like us that he wants nothing to do with the church. He sarcastically “thanked” us for driving him even farther from the church.
If our love comes from a commitment to maintain our self-image at all costs, we can be manipulated. People will sense our weakness, and like a predator that lies in wait for its prey, will make an attack. This is what this man who called us for money attempted to do. “You call yourself a Christian, then prove it.” It is the same if our love comes from a place of desperate need. “You say you love me, then prove it.” The one we love will sense our weakness and can manipulate or even abuse us. And if he does, we become defensive and guarded, frustrating in the process our own efforts to live a life of love.
But the love that Jesus commands his disciples does not come from a place of weakness, but rather from a place of strength. Note that Jesus qualifies the love with which his disciples are to love each other. It is no less than the love that comes from God himself. The Father loves the Son. The Son loves us. We love each other. When we love one another in the sense that Jesus means it, we can draw a direct line from that love to the heart of the Father. Professor of preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary, Scott Hoezee, calls it a “holy pipeline of love” that connects us directly to the great God of the universe. When we realize that this is what is always flowing into the church, our sense of what we are doing when we are loving someone takes on a greater significance!
It is this love that heals us. It penetrates into those weak places and makes them strong. When we live in this love, we feel safe and secure. We are free to be ourselves, because the love that God has for us is our safe space. We are no longer driven by fear. We will no longer be another person’s doormat. If he disappears, we are hurt, but not devastated. Nor are we compelled any longer to hide what we feel. We do not need another person to reaffirm our self-image, because our identity rests elsewhere. We are God’s children. When we are rooted in this identity, the love with which Jesus commands us to love enables us to love with confidence, resilience, resourcefulness and creativity.
Jesus brings this love down to earth by using the language of friendship. “No greater love does one have than this, that one lays down one’s life for one’s friends.” He also tells them: “you are my friends if you do what I command you.” Friendships form around shared goals. And good friends help each other to achieve these goals. If we have a friend in our corner, supporting and encouraging us to reach our goals, then we are motivated and likely to stay motivated when the chips are down.
What really stands out here is that the language of “command” and “obey” does not suggest the relationship of friend and friend, but rather of master and servant. In our time, it may be easier to use the language of employer and employee or supervisor and subordinate. In this type of relationship, it is natural for the former to give orders and the latter to follow them. And it is not the role of the employee to know the employer’s business. He has only to do what is assigned to him if he wants to keep his job, or neglect it and face the consequences.
Masters and servants can be on more or less friendly terms with one another, but it would be unusual for them to become friends. But Jesus chooses not to relate to his disciple as a master does to his servants. Instead, he brings them into his confidence and makes known to them all that he has heard from the Father, as a friend does to a friend.
We should not underestimate what this implies for spirituality. Too many people see God as a merciless tyrant who demands strict obedience to his implacable will as embodied in the commandments. Understandably, they feel this to be an impossible burden to bear. And so they only want to throw off this burden in the interest of reclaiming personal autonomy. This partly explains why kids raised in the church don’t come back to church after they leave for college or university.
But God reveals himself in the Son, and the Son chooses to relate to his disciples as friends. If God can be imagined not as a merciless tyrant, but as a friend who supports and encourages us as we set meaningful goals for our lives, would we then want to break free of God? But in Jesus Christ that is what God is to us, provided that our goal is…to love one another.
There can be no greater goal. Love is a command. And command implies duty. We have seen that to fulfill one’s duty, to meet one’s obligation, affords us great satisfaction in life. But when this duty is to love as Christ has loved us, then satisfaction combines with joy to give us the abundant life that Christ promises to give to his followers. Let us then hear this command today and seek to obey it. For in this obedience lies freedom—freedom for the life of love that God intends for us. Amen.