In the name of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Let me ask you something. Don’t you just love John’s gospel? It is a special favorite especially among those in the Anglicans tradition. It has been for centuries. There is just something about John’s gospel. It is so beautiful and it is so lofty and I think one of the reasons that we really love it is that Jesus has so much to say. Now if you’ve got one of those red letter versions of the New Testament, you know – that has Jesus’ words in red – and you look in the gospel of Matthew, Mark and Luke there is a sentence or two here and there in red but in John’s gospel page after page after page of red letters, red paragraphs. It just goes on and on and we find that very comforting to have Jesus’ voice engaging us so meaningfully. Well let me ask you something else. Have you ever found yourself reading this beautiful lofty, comforting gospel and you ask yourself, “What does it mean?” I don’t know about you but I often find myself getting lost in John’s gospel. I get lost in trying to pull the thread through the thoughts of these long sentences, the sentences that just go on and on and on. It’s worse than Hemingway. And then you’ve got these rich images and all of these things that Jesus talks about and it’s just sometimes too much and it’s tough to find your place in the way the thought is unfolding in it and I just am lost.
Well, if you have ever found yourself like that let me give you some advice. My advice is whenever you are lost the first thing you ought to do is find out where you are. And what I mean by that is that John’s gospel is very, very carefully constructed. It is like architecture and certain parts of it are put together in certain places and the way that we understand them and are to interpret them is determined by where we find it in John’s gospel. Such as the gospel you have today and last week for that matter. We are in a section called the farewell discourse. It’s chapters 14 to 17. A farewell discourse is exactly what you would think it is. It’s a valedictory, a fairly common literary device at the time and, in fact, still is. The farewell discourse is when the master is giving the final words of wisdom making sure that his disciples know what they need to know. It functions as a summary of what has gone before and a foundation upon which you are to enter the things to come. A farewell discourse then can be considered the most important things that the teacher wants to leave with his followers and so here we are in the section of John’s gospel where Jesus is telling you the things that he especially wants you to remember and these discourses will have warnings and promises and reassurances and instructions just as we have today.
And what Jesus is saying to you this morning is this, don’t get it backwards. Now I am paraphrasing, but don’t get it backwards. The central imperatives that we have from the beginning to the end of this gospel section are “abide in my love” all the way to “love one another.”
Don’t get these backwards and indeed we do tend to go about it backwards. What we want to do is we want to take these things that Jesus is handing to us, these words “abide in my love” and “love one another” and we want to go about that first in our own individual lives and then try out the communal or the congregational.
You know we want to feel right first about abiding in Jesus’ love. We’ve got that. We are holding it, it is holding us and then we can go about that love one another part. We have got to get this right before we can try this communal stuff. Because it is hard to love one another. It is hard to be a community. So we think about abiding in Jesus love first as the best way to prepare ourselves for it. Well I think it is more complicated than that. I think we want to go about it that way because Jesus didn’t just say love one another. What did he say? Love one another as I have loved you.
Now the stakes are raised considerably aren’t they? It is not just to love one another, but, we have got to love one another the way Jesus loves. I don’t know about that – because that means that we aren’t just loving those that we like or people who deserve love or warrant it in some way or another, but especially we are to love those who are really understandably quite unlovable – even scandalous in some way. But this was Christ’s way with the quite undeserving disciples, wasn’t it? They didn’t deserve the love he gave them. They were very undeserving of it. So that is Christ’s way and it is God’s way. With this wayward humanity we are counting on that, aren’t we? So it is our way of emulating Christ when we love as he loves us. So that is a lot harder and we would rather stick around with Jesus saying “abide in my love” because really we would rather have God just love us and others. We are fine with that. We really do want God to love others. Love us, love others. Just don’t get us so intertwined with it. Why do we have to be so intertwined with it? Why doesn’t God just love us and leave it at that and take care of the world? Well for Jesus it is very clear that that is not how it works. Jesus rather then what we do about wanting to get it straight in our individual lives first and then go to the communal. For Jesus it is first the communal and then it is the individual. Abiding in Christ’s love is the consequence of loving one another, not the precondition for it. Abiding in Christ’s love is the consequence of loving each other. Not what you have to have in place before you can do that.
It is community first just as we have seen this morning. It is community first in the beginning of Christian life at baptism and you will be saying that. You will be affirming that you are supporting in baptism, in confirmation, reaffirmation, reception. We will support these people in their life in Christ. We have all of these things and in those things we will know what it means to abide.
Now community – this emphasis on community first does not in any way downplay the personal commitment to your faith. Not in any way. Quite the contrary, Jesus teaches us that the way to personal fulfillment is in the life of community. That is what he tells us. Your life in Christian faith is fulfilled in community. Relationships within community are, as I am sure you know, very deeply personal. I think the most deeply personal relationships we have come as a result of the community that we value the most. And it is not just church, but I remember so much how I treasure the relationships I have from my church life. The man, the wonderful man that taught me the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer and these wonderful people that are part of my father’s university set. These are the people dearest in my whole life – from community.
Your nurture in fellowship with Jesus will be directly related, directly consequential to the nurture that you give and receive in this gathered community, this congregation and beyond these walls. That is how it works. But how can that kind of love be a command? How can you command someone to love you, love her? How does that work? Well John makes it very clear to us because John’s gospel shows us that for Jesus – now hear this well – for Jesus love is not a feeling. Love is NOT a feeling. Love is a response. It is a RESPONSE. It is intentional, it is disciplined, it is obedient. Nowhere, absolutely nowhere in John’s gospel does the word love appear without it being immediately connected to the word obey or do – and every time love is used it is referencing a single concrete action. It is not a feeling, it is a response.
Even in the sense of how we hear Jesus say “laying down one’s life for his friends” we might understandably not think of ourselves as people who might be called to lay down our lives for our friends, although I do want you to consider it is not as uncommon as you might think. But still there are other ways to lay down your lives for your friends that can include the essential dynamics of parish lives. Parish community. Giving energy and time, for caring and listening and for helping someone in some way.
Christ’s command to love one another is not about being a protective sort of cozy church family but rather it is the love to be able to go out and do this. It is all out to obey, to bear the fruit that will last and how we support each other in being able to do that.
And the key to it all is how Jesus calls his friends and how Jesus refers to himself as our friend. For all of the cosmic Christ of John’s gospel here in the farewell discourse Jesus says “I am with you, I am among you.” One of us rather than remote and removed, Jesus asks us to do what God himself does. To empower community through self giving love and forgiveness so that Christ himself may be seen and known in us. Jesus himself seen and known in us!
After all, we the church are named the Body of Christ. Imagine what that is. We are the Body of Christ. And in his valedictory words to us our Lord bids us to live into that outrageous and yet magnificent and true calling. Never forget, don’t ever forget your Christian life must always be personal but it is never individual.