It’s the upper room on the night that Jesus surrenders Himself to death to save the world. He is with His Twelve. He washed their feet as a Servant among servants. He celebrated the Passover in a new and unique way: giving them His own Body and Blood as a gift even before His “once for all time” sacrifice.” He teaches them. Word and Sacrament, the same as He does for us. This is His Word.
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.” (John 15:9)
Love. Now there’s a squishy word. A tricky word. Frightening to some. Don’t think puppy love here. Or the love of a mother for her baby. Don’t think erotic love, what we speak of when we helplessly fall in love. Don’t think casual, friendly love, as when someone says, “I just love everyone,” which is a likely indication that person actually loves no one in particular.
Think self-sacrificing love here. In Greek, agape. What St. Paul describes in 1 Corinthians chapter 13: Patient, kind, not jealous or boastful, not arrogant or rude, not insisting on its own way, not irritable or resentful, not rejoicing in wrong but rejoicing in right. Bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things. An action more than a feeling. An intentional laying down of one’s life for another. What faithful husbands are supposed to do for their wives as pictures of what Christ does for the Church.
This is love that lays down its life for those who couldn’t care less. God so loved the world that He sent His only-begotten Son. Did the world care? Not really. Did the world ask for this love? No. God could have sent flowers or a box of chocolates. Does the world care today? Not particularly. Now the world idly speculates as to whether Jesus and Mary Magdalene had kids and a dog and toured France in an SUV. That’s how the world treats divine love. It yawns and mocks it. But God loves anyway. He can’t help Himself. God is love. It’s His essence to love. He can’t stop Himself. He loves the loveless, the unlovable, the unloving. You, me, the world.
He loves us to death. Do you want to see this love in action? There is only one picture I can point you to. Jesus on the cross, bleeding, dying, pardoning, loving. Yes, it’s odd. But it’s odd precisely because it is so “unworldly.” And that’s why it’s so difficult for us, so offensive and scandalous to be loved this way. “I can’t love like that,” you say. And that’s right. We can’t. We won’t. Our pride, our ego, our old Adam, that inner brat that says “I want things my way” – we won’t love like this.
If you keep my commands you will remain in my love. There’s the promise. Don’t get thrown by the word “commands” and the mistranslation “obey.” It’s keep, as in hold fast to. Jesus has only one command to obey, to love one another as He has loved us, but that comes a later. His commands are not things for us to do so that God will love us, but things by which God’s love in Jesus comes to us. Commands such as be baptized, hear His Word, trust Him, eat and drink His Body and Blood, “do this in my remembrance.” Those are Jesus’ “commands” by which we remain in His love. To remain in His love is to receive all that He has to give to us. That is the dynamic of love: His to give, ours to receive. To receive Jesus’ love is to stay in His love.
Jesus is not laying down a burden on us. We’re the ones who makes things burdensome. We’re the ones who make receiving gifts a burden. We’re the ones who think coming to hear God’s Word or coming to receive the Supper is some great sacrifice on our parts, as though God should be pleased with us because we decided to get out of bed and show up on a Sunday morning. Wrong perspective. Upside down. “This is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
Only in that sacrifice, in the cross and its fruits, can the love of God be seen and known. You can’t know it from nature – nature is as harsh and cruel as much as it is loving. You can’t know it from your inner feelings or thoughts. Those are your thoughts, not God’s, and that “inner voice” will always be busy accusing you or making excuses. You can’t know it by looking at the world or at other people. We’re sinners. We naturally unloving. We naturally kill and destroy. We’re naturally turned inward, not outward. That’s why capitalism works and communism doesn’t, by the way. Capitalism assumes we’re greedy from get go.
You know the dying and rising love of God by being joined to Jesus, by being baptized with Him into His death, by hearing His Word of forgiveness addressed to you, by taking your place at His table and receiving His gifts. That’s what it means to keep His commands and so stay in His love.
The singular command flows from this: Love one another, as I have loved you. Not simply “love one another.” That wouldn’t do, we wouldn’t do it. But love one another as I have loved you. Jesus’ love comes first. He first goes the way to the cross and the tomb. He first dies for our sin and forgives us. Notice that it works this way with forgiveness too – forgive as you have been forgiven, love as you have been loved. It’s only when we have been forgiven can we forgive. It’s only when we are loved by God in Jesus that we can love. And then the love is not our own. It doesn’t come from within but from above. It’s God’s love, not our own, by which we love one another.
No friend of Jesus can say, “I don’t have this love to give.” You have it. You may or may not use it, but it’s there. You have it as friends of Jesus. Friends of Jesus. I hope you caught that. “No longer do I call you servants, instead I call you friends.” Do you remember how everyone wanted to be called a “friend of Bill” when Bill Clinton was the President. To be a “friend of Bill” meant Oval Office access; you got to stay in the Lincoln bedroom. You don’t hear much about friends of George. I’m sure our president has friends; he could probably use a few more these days.
In middle eastern culture, to a friend is to be in the know, to have insider information, to have the mysteries revealed. “A servant does not know his master’s business.” But Jesus has revealed the Father’s business, that in the Son the world should be saved through faith in Him. You are in on the big mystery; you’re an insider. Your Baptism is your backstage pass. You’re a friend of Jesus. And that may not carry much power in this world, but being a “friend of Jesus” is the only thing that will carry you on the Last Day.
A person I know got an invitation from a friend of his, who happened to be the director of the San Francisco Bach Society, to come to a rehearsal of the San Francisco Orchestra. He got to tour backstage and see the side of the concert hall that usually only the musicians saw. One of the security guards saw him wandering around backstage and questioned him. “What are you doing here,” he asked. “I’m with him,” the man said, pointing to his friend. I imagine that’s what Judgment Day will be like, when the Law says, “What are you doing here?” and the only response will be to point to Jesus and say, “I’m with Him.”
Jesus calls you His friend, dear baptized believer. Chosen. And again, it’s all His doing, not yours, so there’s no boasting, no bragging. “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” Before you believed, you were chosen. Before you even were, you were chosen in the Chosen One, beloved in the Beloved Son, to go and bear fruit. You heard about fruit last week. Branches joined to the vine bear fruit. Believers joined to Jesus are fruitful. And here the fruit is named: Love.
When I think of fruit, I think in terms of its entire life. I have little green apricots on the tree in my backyard. Not yet ready for picking. In a month or so, they will be ripe. Wait too long, they’ll go rotten and be useless. That’s how it is with much that we do. It has it’s moment, it’s time of ripeness, and then it’s gone and forgotten. But not love. Not the love that flows from the Vine to the branches, from the cross to you and through you to others. That’s God’s love, a fruit that never fails, never rots, never goes bad. It remains forever.
Much of what we do in this life is temporal. We build buildings, but they will one day fall down. We design things that are useful for a while, but something will replace them. We work on our houses, which one day won’t be standing anymore. We bandage wounds on bodies that one day will die. Sermons are forgotten. Paint peels. Wood rots. Weeds take over fine landscapes. Most of what we do will be forgotten, undone. But not love. St. Paul said, “Love never ends. Prophesies pass away, tongues cease, knowledge disappears.” But love is fruit that lasts forever. It goes from death to life. It survives the grave. It’s never forgotten.
You are chosen, you are loved in Jesus. Jesus calls you His friend. And in the freedom of His laying down His life for you, His dying to save you, His rising to give you life, love one another. There’s nothing else you can do, not when you are a friend of Jesus.
In the name of Jesus,