Rev. Dr. David D. M. King, OSL
This is the last of a three-part series of readings we’ve been following in the Gospel of John. In the first, we heard about Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Last week we explored the idea of Jesus as the True Vine, the one who connects us to God and allows us to bear good fruit. This week we continue in that vein as Jesus connects the idea of the vine with the concept of love.
Love has been on the periphery of everything we’ve been talking about for the last two weeks. It’s one of the most important themes in John, and we’ve heard plenty about love both in the Gospel of John and in the First Epistle of John. “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
And today, Jesus draws on the metaphor of himself as the vine to talk about the disciples abiding in love. “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.” If we abide in Jesus, and Jesus abides in us, then we also remain in Jesus’s love, and therefore remain in the love of God.
But we don’t always want to abide in God’s love, do we? Oh, it’s sounds like a nice and a pretty thing, staying in God’s love, living in God’s love. It would make for a good pop song. But we don’t always actually want it. Or, to say that another way, there are other things we would rather do. There are other places that sound more exciting than just lying around, staying in God’s love. But more to the point, in order to stay in God’s love, we have to stay with God. And we don’t always want to stay with God. Or is it that we don’t want God to stay with us? There are places we’d like to go where we don’t want God lurking around. It’s too much pressure, having God around all the time. We wouldn’t be able to get away with anything. Wouldn’t have any rest or any privacy or any fun.
Because there are those parts of our lives that we would rather hide from God. There are those things that we know would disappoint God, but we’d rather keep on doing them. So wouldn’t it be best to keep God out of them? That’s most easily done by keeping God at a distance. After all, if we let God in completely, then God might see every part of us, see each of our actions and intentions and thoughts and motives. And if we let God too far into our lives, God might even try to change us.
Saint Augustine of Hippo is one of the giants of the church. In Western Christianity, there is no theologian more influential than Augustine. He’s the one responsible for the Doctrine of Original Sin, which, for good or for ill, has shaped the way we interact with God for the last fifteen centuries or so.
Like all of us, Augustine struggled with sin. Augustine’s particular sin was lust. In his most famous work, Confessions, he records a prayer that he had addressed to God regarding his feelings of lust: “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.”
That simple statement so clearly encapsulates a particular part of our human experience. On the one hand, we want for God to accept us fully, to make us a new creation, to perfect us in love. But on the other hand, there are certain things in our lives that we aren’t ready to let go of, even if we know they get in the way of what God wants for us. It’s a kind of double-mindedness. We want to be good. Just maybe not that good. Let me remain in your love, God… but not yet. There’s plenty of time. Just let me keep doing what I’m doing for right now, and we can work the rest of it out later.
Jesus invites us to something more. He invites us into a relationship that brings joy. “So that your joy may be complete,” he says. The catch is that we can only enter into that complete joy if we also allow God complete access to our lives. We can only have that complete joy when we abide completely in God’s love and allow God to live completely in us.
Jesus says we do that by keeping his commandments. And, “This is my commandment,” he says, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” Love one another as Jesus loved us. And how is it that has Jesus loved us? Not the way we’re usually taught that love works. Jesus didn’t send us flowers on our special day. He didn’t write us a love letter. He didn’t fix us breakfast in bed. Jesus didn’t do any of the typical things that our culture associates with love. Jesus would make a poor substitute for Zach Efron, Kumail Janjiani, or Colin Firth. Jesus practices a different kind of love than the kind we celebrate in the movies.
I once heard a story about a cultural anthropologist who went to study Hopi people in the American Southwest. He was out with a Hopi man in the desert, and the Hopi was singing him the songs of his people. After the first song, the anthropologist asked, What was that song about?” The Hopi man answered, “This song is about water.” After he had sung second song, the anthropologist asked him, “And what was that song about?” He answered, “This song is also about water.” He sang a third song, and the anthropologist asked him the same question. “This is also a song about water.” The scientist was beginning to be a get agitated, and he asked, “Don’t you ever sing about anything except water? Don’t you pray for anything except water?” And the man answered that for the Hopi, water is very scarce, and so it is very precious. “We don’t have much of it, and so, yes, most of our songs are about water.” And then the Hopi said to the anthropologist, “I have noticed that on your radio almost every song is about love. Is this because you don’t have very much of it?”
Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for the ones they love.” To lay down one’s life. And when you think about it, it is absolutely extraordinary. God came into our world as a human being. The creator, the high and exalted one above the heavens, the divine word, the wisdom sought be philosophers, became a human being, ordinary flesh and blood. If it weren’t a story we had heard so many times, it would be unimaginable. And what’s more, that same God who became human in order to reach us, loved us enough to die for us, to lay down his life for us.
In our songs and movies, love is often about possessing someone else. It’s about being able to say, “This person is mine.” But Jesus loved us enough to die for us. And it wasn’t in order to possess us, to own us. It was in order to set us free.
“I do not call you servants any longer,” Jesus says, “but I have called you friends.” Not servants, who are owned, who have no choice but to serve the master, but friends who have the choice to stay or to leave. Friends who have the freedom to love in return or not to love.
“You did not choose me,” says Jesus, “I chose you.” We did not make the invitation. We did not decide on our own to initiate a relationship with God. Jesus came to us first. Jesus loved us with a love that we can hardly conceive. Jesus invited us into a relationship with God that can make our joy complete. If we will only accept the invitation. If we will only allow God in. If we will only abide in God’s love, and let God abide in us, fully and completely, without reservation.
It is our choice. How fully do we want to embrace the gifts that God has offered us in Jesus Christ? How far are we willing to let God into our lives? How much do we trust that what God has to offer us is indeed better, more lasting, more satisfying, than the things we can get apart from God? How much do we believe Jesus when he tells us, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete”? And are we willing to take the next step, to accept Christ’s invitation and take one step closer to the God who loves us into being?