9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 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. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
Last week in FIRL, I had some initial difficulty with the ‘vine and branches’ imagery because my first association with vines is kudzu–and for someone else in our group, it was poison ivy. If our first association to vines is an invasive species, it is hard to imagine the biblical image presented in John of support and sustenance. This is a chronic problem when we are trying to understand scripture. We bring our own definitions to the text and assume that is what the words meant to the first century writer. In ordinary conversation we often use the same words but end up talking past one another because unbeknownst to us, we are not using shared definitions. (The conundrum is well captured in the quote from Alan Greenspan: “I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” )
This week’s passage highlights the problem. This passage hangs on how we understand what the word ‘love’ means. In today’s world, its meanings can reflect starry eyed infatuation, feelings of warmth and connection, hormonal attraction, attempts to manipulate and control, and sometimes attempts to justify jealousy and coercion. Couples can catalogue a list of complaints and diagnoses about their partner which both diminish and indict their partner—and follow them with the words: “But I love him/her.” And of course, we often idealize being “in love”. When we’re ‘in love’, love is blind—a very curious state in which to make lifelong commitments—and a source of great disappointment for many marriages when such ‘love’ is not sustainable. If we read this passage with any of these associations, we will likely miss the point.
Biblically, God’s love refers to a decision. We decide to show regard. This loving depends upon the integrity and reliability of the one making the promise. God does not ‘make’ us love him. This love is freely given and is never coercive. I remind you that nothing Jesus did was so convincing that all who saw believed. He asks us to love him but he does not require reciprocity. He promises that a life within this love is a life that leads to life. He warns that separated from this love is an isolated, disconnected dead end.. We choose.
When we seek to love one another, this is the type of love that we are called to. We are instructed to choose to regard others because they, like we, are children of God. When we make vows to our partners in life, we promise, within our abilities, to seek to enhance the life of the one we love. We express our intention to show regard for them. The same promise is made in parental love. We promise to provide for and enhance the child’s life. In both cases love is about what we offer not what we get in return. The promise is a free choice to love. I am well aware that in real life, there are upper limits to our ability to offer such love—but that is why none of us are called Jesus. It is not a goal we achieve. It is exactly in those times we are aware of our own limitations, we are called to abide in God’s love. God offers what we cannot. Grace allows us to rest from the fray as well as it allows us to reenter the call of loving. Mindfulness and regard are not ‘to do lists’ for the righteous. They are the overflow from having received such mindfulness and regard.
This kind of love can survive the changes that time brings to any relationship. Such a promise of love may come out of deep feelings but keeping our promise does not. We do not have to like or want to do a chore. That is beside the point. We serve because we choose to. I cannot tell you how many couples seem to be unaware of what they promised. They are disappointed and angry that they have not received what they expected.
They are upset with their partner’s failings without acknowledging their own limitations—except perhaps in a “yes, I know I’m not perfect, but……” kind of way. When we choose to love another— spouse, child or friend, the only thing we can control is what we are willing to offer. It is not a bargain. Loving another routinely includes disappointment, loss and outright rejection. There is nothing about our loving or our good intentions that protect us from those hardships. (Ask Jesus about that one.)
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” and later: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
Jesus’ commandment is the great commandment—”Love the Lord with all your heart, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus lived his life in the promise of God’s steadfast love. He loved others without regard to secular divisions or hierarchies. He loved others because each person he encountered was God’s child. He did so without regard for how he was received. Our understanding of the love of God is illuminated in the way the Father loved the Son and in turn how the Son has loved us. Jesus trusted God was with him no matter what happened to him. He did not always like it and at least once, he felt forsaken— but he lived and died abiding in this understanding of God’s love.
There is a figure eight relationship between God’s promises and our loving one another. We can not claim to abide in God if we are not serving others and we can not serve others unless we abide in God. Loving is too hard without being loved. The Father’s love is covenantal. When we read ”His steadfast love endures forever”, such love is not dependent upon the obedience or faithfulness of Israel (nor ours). There is plenty of room in the relationship to include anger, disappointment and even fractures but the love that Jesus abided in was, and is, steadfast throughout.
The love that Jesus calls us to and wants for us is demanding and inconvenient. It is certainly not sweet and sentimental. Yet in such love, our joy is complete. In offering such love to one another, we gain an inkling into the God of Love. And if we get a taste of the God of love, our gratitude and service will overflow. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last…..I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. Our faith claim is that such a life is the only life that is eternal.
In real life, this learning usually starts in our families. This Sunday is Mother’s Day. It is a secular remembrance but this scripture would have us appreciate what we have been given. Without mother’s, children would simply die. It is all too easy to take this simple truth for granted. It is probably better that most mothers have little idea of what they have committed themselves to. It is hard work to love. It is hard work to bear a child, hard work to raise a child and hard work to teach a child. Such loving requires sacrifices, small and large that will go largely unnoticed. I have slowly learned as an adult that I am not entitled to those efforts. I have slowly learned as an adult to be grateful for them. Maybe that is what Jesus is trying to teach.
We stand on the foundation of people who loved one another. May we give thanks. May we share what we have been given. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.