John 15:9-17, Acts 10:44-48, May 10, 2015
Perhaps it is appropriate on a day when we celebrate receiving new members and giving Bibles to some of our Sunday school students, that our Gospel lesson is part of a long, long speech of instruction from Jesus to his disciples. On Maundy Thursday I pointed out that a lot of John’s gospel is taken up with last minute instructions Jesus gave his disciples. Starting in chapter 13, when Jesus shared the seder meal with his disciples, and Judas left the table to betray Jesus, and running through the 17th chapter, Jesus basically talks non-stop. That’s five of 21 chapters, nearly one quarter of John’s gospel is this speech that Jesus gives at the Last Supper.
Now this is not the best educational method, as some of you well know. The disciples have just eaten a big, traditional meal, at which they have probably consumed the requisite number of glasses of wine, it is late in the evening, and Jesus has talked for a long time. But he also, wisely, and in good educational form, has given them something concrete, even tactile, to help them remember the lesson he taught. Before launching into his lecture, he rose from the table and washed the disciples’ feet. This showed them how they are to live as his followers. He commanded them to love one another, as he had loved them. Then he showed them what love feels like.
That’s a strange thing that I just said, he commanded them to love one another. Can one command love? Love is a feeling, right? And feelings are beyond our control, right? So Jesus is asking his disciples to do the impossible. Commanding someone to love is like commanding them to feel joy, or to like the taste of broccoli. We simply don’t, and can’t, feel anything because we’re ordered to.
Here’s the key to understanding what Jesus meant—and it says a lot to us as a congregation today. When Jesus talked about love, he didn’t just talk. He acted. He showed. “You want to see what love is?” Show love to each other.” Live love. To love we can’t only feel something, or merely feel love and express it by saying, “I love you.” To love, as Jesus commands, we have to live it. The command isn’t the written word of the law written in the Bible. The command is to follow the model that Jesus gave us as he knelt before his disciples. It’s not that our emotions are absent when we respond to Jesus, but our emotions are not the central, most important aspect of responding to Christ.
Or, perhaps I should say, “Responding to God.” Because it’s clear that in this initiative, the first step in loving comes from God. As the first letter of John makes clear, this was the epistle lesson from last week, “we love because God first loved us.” God started it. And Christ modeled it and instructed us in loving, and gave that instruction to his disciples, and the church. God chose us to be the recipients of God’s love. And Christ told his disciples during that long, long speech on the night he was arrested, that accepting the love God sent into him would make Christ’s joy complete.
“Abide in my love” is how he put it. “Abide” is a good, strong word. It can mean “live” as in “my family abides in Oshkosh.” It can mean “Accept” as in “I can’t abide being lied to!” It can mean “keep” or “maintain,” as in abiding in a promise. In every sense of abide, there is trust and continuity. Abide, trust in, live in, be surrounded by, the love of God and complete the joy that God offers us through Christ.
And as I think about that, I realize that trust, also, cannot be commanded. The more a salesman tells me I can trust him, the less I trust him! Every now and then I see a bumpersticker on a car in town that says, “Trust Jesus.” These words used to be painted on the sides of overpasses on the interstates too. And I wonder if anyone has been persuaded by seeing those two words on the car in the parking lot at Pick ‘n’ Save or whizzing by at 70 miles per hour, “Oh, right, I should just trust Jesus! Why didn’t I think of that? Problem solved.”
How can we abide in Christ’s love? How can we trust to the point that we lay down our life for our friends? How can we love like that? Here’s a surprise, we start loving by doing. Many of us think that we think first and act later, or perhaps I should say we believe first and then, based on those beliefs, we act. But many of us act first, and only after doing something, do we put into words the beliefs we have acted on. Of course, thoughts reinforce actions, and actions reinforce beliefs. So loving beliefs and actions will lead to more loving beliefs and actions. It’s an upward spiral, so how do we start?
We start with experiences, with doing. And the lesson from Acts gives us an example of the kind of experience that can get us started in following Christ. Peter was speaking to a group of Gentiles. At this point all the followers of Christ, all the Christians, were Jews. And during Peter’s sermon, it says, “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” And this group of Gentiles was filled with the miraculous gift of speaking in tongues and they began to praise God. The people who traveled with Peter were “astounded” that the gift of the holy Spirit had been given to foreigners!
Abide with that word, “astounded” for a moment. Remember a time when you were astounded. For me, I think of times when someone did something so kind to me that I couldn’t even say “thank you.” That is a moment when God grabbed my attention and was able to crack open my heart and make me see, feel and experience love and grace.
In that case, Peter and those who were with him were astounded that God had given the gift of the Holy Spirit to people of a different ethnic group. They were confronted with the awesome power of God whose love exceeds the boundaries that humans put around ourselves. And all they could do was respond to this awesome power. “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Of course not! These people abide in the same love—and have been made brand new by the same grace we know in Jesus Christ—on what basis could we exclude them? None at all.