My name is David, and I am an addict.
A book addict. I can’t stop buying them. I can’t stop reading them. The statutory thirty yards of bookshelves in my study have been complaining about my habit for years. Every now and again, I reluctantly dispose of some old titles, to make room for newer ones. But really, I don’t want to live in a manse, I want to live in a library.
One of my biggest addictions has been to Bible commentaries. Thirty years ago, I started off with a one-volume commentary on the entire Bible. But it just wasn’t enough. I needed bigger thrills. I began to collect commentaries on individual books of the Bible. Many years ago, I achieved my ambition of a commentary on every book. But now, I have to have more commentaries on each book.
And when it comes to the Gospel according to John, I have ten commentaries. You may think that’s excessive. I can’t understand why.
For when I began to explore today’s Lectionary reading, it was one of those ten commentaries on John that I hadn’t pulled down from the shelf for a long time that gave me a fresh way of seeing these famous verses.
What is that fresh way? Covenant. It’s to see this passage as being about Jesus establishing the New Covenant with his people. I think if we explore John 15 in terms of Covenant, we may see not only old and familiar things, but gain new insight into the odd difficulty some people have with these verses. Stay with me, and see whether this helps you, as it has me.
God Makes The First Move
‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you,’ says Jesus (verse 9).
Everything starts with God’s love. The Father’s love for Jesus; his love in Christ for us. Always in salvation, God makes the first move. If we track this through the Bible, we’ll see this.
God is love, and out of that love between the members of the Trinity comes an action of love, creation. Love is expressed beyond the Trinity to something else.
Then – who’s the first missionary in the Bible? God. God comes walking in the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve’s sin. Later, God takes the initiative to call Abram when he wants to start forming a people for himself. God hears the cries of the Israelites in Egypt and sends Moses. God sends the prophets.
Finally, at the right time, God sends his Son (Galatians 4:4). Or put it like this: ‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). No approach from the human race. Yet because of our sin, a loving God makes overtures to his creation. It all starts with God.
Why is this important? It affects a number of things. First of all, it means that the love of God humbles us. We can take no pride in knowing God through Jesus Christ. It is not down to us. It is entirely a matter of God’s grace and mercy. We owe everything to the grace of God. Knowing God does not make us superior. There is nothing in knowing God that means we are worthy of that honour. It is a matter of sheer love.
We glimpse a little of this in ordinary human relationships. Parents conceive children out of love. They delight in their children. Even when their offspring pain them by their behaviour and they have to impose discipline, they long that the relationship be fully restored. One parent goes up to the bedroom where the child is sulking, in the hope of bringing harmony back to the home.
For some of us, we need to be humbled by knowing that the whole spiritual life begins with God, not us. We need to be brought low from our pride.
But for others of us, the news that life in the Spirit starts with God is good news, if not a relief. We know we’re not worthy of God’s love, and so it is the most wonderful, liberating news to learn that for all our unworthiness, God has set out from the very beginning to woo us with his love.
Yes, whether we think too much of ourselves or too little of ourselves, it is essential good news to understand that God makes the first move in establishing a covenant relationship with us, with the world and with creation.
But this good news that God moves first is not only for us. If it is for us, it is for others, too. If God makes the first move, then it affects how we view sharing our faith.
We heap a lot of guilt on ourselves and other Christians when we talk about the importance of sharing our faith with others. We make it sound as if it all depends on us. Now I’m not about to argue against the importance of talking about Christ to people who don’t know him – it’s essential. But it doesn’t all depend on us. Not if God makes the first move.
In spreading the Good News, we should remember that God always moves first. God will go ahead of us. It has often been said that mission is finding out what God is doing, and joining in.
I’ve given you an outline of God doing this in the Bible already, from creation to the Fall to making a people for himself and ultimately sending Jesus. One Gospel story that brings this out for me comes in Luke 10, where Jesus sends out followers in pairs ahead of him to various villages. He gives various instructions to them, but I find one of them particularly interesting: he tells them to look for ‘anyone who shares in peace’ (Luke 10:6) [or ‘man of peace’ in older translations]. What is such a person if they are not someone in whom God has already begun to work? I think Jesus is telling his disciples to look for where God is already at work, and to concentrate their efforts there.
So when we set out to share our faith, let us start cultivating an attitude that looks for signs of where God has already made the first move. Let us ask him to open our eyes to where he has already been preparing people to receive his love.
I have to cop out to some extent here and say that how God shows us he is making the first move ahead of us in people’s lives requires a whole sermon to itself, so at this point I have to confine myself to saying that we simply pray and seek God’s guidance. Let’s be open to the leading of the Spirit – the leading, I say, of the Spirit, because – God moves first.
We Respond To God
Back to verse 9: ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.’ Abiding in God’s love is what we are called to do in response to God making his overtures of love towards us.
‘Abiding’ (or ‘remaining’ in some translations) is a word that communicates a sense of permanence. The covenant between God and ourselves is rather like the covenant of marriage. It comes as a lifetime commitment. God has made a ‘lifetime commitment’ to us; he calls us to respond in the same way. In fact, in the light of the Resurrection it’s more than lifetime: this cannot be limited to ‘till death do us part’. This is a commitment for ever. Because God has shown such remarkable love to us, we make a radical commitment to him. Ours will be an abiding love.
And if it is an abiding love we offer to God through Jesus Christ, it is one that will not depend on our feelings. Sometimes our faith gives us great feelings, but our level of commitment to Christ cannot depend on them, any more than a marriage can depend on the times of ecstasy. Sometimes it’s not so much that love keeps a marriage alive, more that marriage keeps love alive. The commitment is primary, and it’s great when the feelings follow, but they don’t always.
And I think it’s in that light we can understand the difficult language of this passage where Jesus makes love into a commandment. Keeping his commandments is a sign of love (verse 10). He commands us to love one another (verse 12). And we are his friends if we do what he commands us (verse 14). How can love and commandment go together?
But isn’t this a peculiarly modern problem? We think that love is about how I feel. But it isn’t. People say, ‘Our marriage didn’t work’, or ‘Marriage doesn’t work’, as if ‘marriage’ is some separate entity to blame when things go wrong. But before love is a feeling, love is a commitment. Even when love is not a feeling, it is still a commitment. Why? Because it is a covenant. It’s why I tell wedding couples they won’t say ‘I do’, they’ll say ‘I will’. It’s about promise and commitment to that promise.
God has poured out his blessings to us, supremely in Christ and his Cross, and we respond to his commitment to us with a commitment of our own to him.
So in that sense, Jesus can command us to love him and love others. He’s telling us what the nature of the covenant commitment is. Turning love into a command isn’t bullying, because the One who commands us to love is the One who laid down his own life for his friends as the greatest love of all (verse 13) – words that are sandwiched right into the context.
And so love isn’t ‘I do’: it’s ‘I will’, even when I don’t feel like it. And maybe the times when we don’t feel like it are when we prove that our response to Christ is real. Because we’ll respond out of love, even if we feel nothing and even if there’s nothing in it for us.
Actually, the bride and groom say, ‘With God’s help I will’, because they cannot do so alone. And again, it’s similar when it comes to God’s covenant with us. Obeying by showing love to Christ and others is a tough call. It challenges the self-centredness that is at the heart of sin. Remember that old saying that sin is a little word with ‘I’ in the middle?
So as we respond to God’s love for us in Christ with our own covenant commitment to love others and obey Jesus, we find it’s remarkably difficult to do. But for us, too, like the couple getting married, it’s ‘With God’s help I do’. For Jesus does not leave us helpless when he shows us that the right response to God’s first move of love is a radical commitment. He promises the Holy Spirit. And though the Holy Spirit is not specifically mentioned in these verses, Jesus name-checks the Spirit over and over again in this section of John’s Gospel.
So when we rejoice in God making the first move of love towards us (and his whole broken creation); when we consider the appropriate response of love to him; and when we realise that response is likely to be a major and at times demanding commitment; let us rejoice, not only in God’s love, but in the gift of his Spirit, through whom God enables us to make that response and live a life of commanded love.