We Love One Another
John 15:9-17

by | May 5, 2024

PRAYER:  Jesus, our savior, we give you thanks that you have demonstrated for us how we are to love one another.  Guide us in our lives and in our ministry that we can work to create an environment in which your love is able to flourish.   May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer.

Last week in the first week of our “How Shall We Love” series, we talked about bearing fruit.  You may remember that we bear fruit when Imago Dei – the theological notion that all of humanity is created in the image of God – is at the forefront of our ministry, seeing others through a lens of grace instead of fear and suspicion.  We bear fruit when we stretch ourselves out of our comfort zones and seek to love the stranger with all that we have, even if that leaves us lacking.

I asked you to devote your prayer lives to bearing fruit, in our ministry, in our community, in buying groceries, in filling up your tank, in our work, in deciding what we’re going to read or listen to… To bear fruit by way of Imago Dei, in viewing all of humankind in the image of God.  In love.

Today’s gospel reading is a continuation of the reading from last week.  Last week, we ended in verse 8 and today we pick up in verse 9.  And all of this is from the 15th chapter of John which is part of John’s multiple-chapter telling of the Last Supper.  It is, in effect, Jesus’ farewell soliloquy to his disciples… a reminder of everything they should have been paying attention to over the last few years.

Love one another as I have loved you.  That’s it.  Three years or so worth of following him around and listening to his stories, of watching his amazing deeds… all summed up in 8 words: Love one another as I have loved you.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel as though those words are said so often that they tend to lose their full impact.  This is one of those scripture passages that get repeated in so many different contexts, that we’ve frankly drained the life out of the word “love”.

Think about the number of things, places, people, and other assorted aspects of life to which we have attached the word “love”.  We love our morning coffee.  We love our favorite TV shows or movies.  Many of us love our particular sports team, whatever that may be.  This past Tuesday when I was passing through the church while cooking club was hard at work, I had a taste of the ham that they were preparing for the pantry.  I gotta tell you that I LOVED that ham.  It was so delicious!  We love our independence, and we love our gardens or our homes.  We love our cars or we love the river that faithfully flows past our community.  You may love bowling or playing pinochle.  And who among us doesn’t love chocolate?

So when we read Jesus’ commandment to love one another as he has loved us, I think we can appreciate how the word has gotten watered down by our own overuse of the word.  And I think that, as a matter of faith, we need to consciously and intentionally push past those cliché uses of the word and reconnect to Jesus’ deeper and more impactful meaning.

There is one use of the word ‘love’ however, that I think may be helpful in our understanding of what Jesus was telling his disciples that evening, and that comes from the world of gardening.  Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I have a black thumb, but I was reading this week about some of the ways we use the word ‘love’ and this one stood out.

For gardeners, love is the verb properly paired with a plant when describing the conditions in which that plant will thrive or flourish.  Ferns love the shade.  Rosebushes love the direct sunlight.   The perennial hibiscus loves moist soil.  Now that obviously doesn’t mean that the hibiscus has an emotional attachment to moist soil.  The hibiscus is not sitting in the moist soil trying to sing a Nat King Cole love song to it.  The Very Thought of you, and I forget to do… the little ordinary things that everyone ought to do….   No.  What it DOES mean is that moist soil is what makes a hibiscus thrive.  Shade is what makes a fern thrive.  Direct sunlight helps a rosebush thrive.

In other words, love, within the context of gardening, is the tendency to thrive in particular circumstances.  “You will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”  Jesus is talking about a tendency to thrive.  He is telling his disciples to thrive, even in his absence.  When love is the condition in which we live, we thrive.  He is telling them that their joy is complete when they thrive in the love that God offers us, and when we are going about the business of helping others to thrive in these same circumstances, surrounded by and engaged in the love of Jesus.

That is the condition that is most necessary for thriving: Jesus’ love for us.  That is how we best grow and thrive.  “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”

Even with all of that in mind about love, about thriving in an environment that is best suited for us to thrive, there is this curious statement that Jesus makes in verse 14: You are my friends if you do what I command you.  I don’t know about you, but when I think about love, the word ‘obey’ is not something that immediately springs to mind.  IF you do what I command you.

When we talk about love within the framework of being self-sacrificing, there is sometimes this mistaken belief that Christian love is this sense of perpetual self sacrifice – of there being a  complete loss of agency for self in favor of the other.  This type of belief can lead to great toxicity in a relationship – one that leads to dominance and power over one instead of one that is mutually fulfilling.

A true Christian relationship is one that achieves its fullness in its sense of caring.  The Christian community is known by how much they love each other, not by how much they deny themselves.  That is the gift that God gives us – like Jesus’ gift of giving himself up, it is done in the fullness of grace, in the sense of lifting one another up mutually, and not just in self-denial.

Obedience to Jesus’ call to love one another is just not built around self-denial.  That’s not how friendship works; that’s not how relationships work.  We must always remember that obedience to Jesus’ call to love one another is, for us, an opportunity.  It is an invitation.  The love that we share with one another is centered in joy.

This past week, there was a seismic shift within the United Methodist Church that helped bring the church closer to that mutually beneficial love for one another.  The General Council voted, by a 90-percentile margin, to remove language from our Book of Discipline that has been restricting members of the LGBTQIA community for decades.  For decades, there has been a steady drumbeat of support, growing and growing to bring about this change.

At General Conference after General Conference, there have been attempts to remove this harmful language, and time after time, it failed.  Try to imagine how it would feel to be told for the entirety of your life that who you are as a person is “incompatible with God”, and knowing that that particular language is hurtful and based on a very narrow interpretation of scripture that is completely incompatible with the entirety of the Bible.  Decades of this.

This week, that language was removed from the United Methodist book of discipline, and every single member of the United Methodist delegation that had been fighting for that removal since 1972 broke down and wept tears of joy.  I watched later that night as about a hundred of them gathered in a church in North Carolina and sang hymns in celebration.

They sang, “No matter what people say, I am a child, I am a child of God”.  They sang about drawing the circle of fellowship wider and wider still.  They gave praise to God who is patient and loving.  It was – and I say this without any hyperbole whatsoever – one of the most genuine expressions of worship I have ever witnessed.

Moist soil is what makes a hibiscus thrive.  Shade is what makes a fern thrive.  Direct sunlight helps a rosebush thrive.  The United Methodist Church enabled itself to foster an environment in which all people can thrive as the poisoned ground that has been in place since 1972 has now been removed.

The soil of the United Methodist Church is now strengthened and fortified that all may thrive, all may love unconditionally, all may be true to themselves, and seek to live in peace with one another.  It was a beautiful day for the church; it was a beautiful day for humanity… for all of God’s children.

And so, the commandment that Jesus gives us is that we love one another.  And one of the best ways we can fulfill that commandment is by ensuring that we are – as a people of God – creating the best environment in which people can thrive.

Retired United Methodist Bishop William H. Willimon points out that John “Wesley took seriously Jesus’s invitation in Matthew 5:48 to ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’  Let’s remember that by ‘perfection,’ Wesley did not mean moral flawlessness or sinlessness.  He meant perfection in the sense of maturity, in the sense of how we treat one another, in how we love one another.  Wesley believed we could become perfect in love in this life.  If Jesus invites us to seek perfection, perfect love is possible.  For Wesley, growing as a Christian is all about being filled with love, which happens by the grace of God.

I want to encourage you to remember Jesus’ commandment this week, that as we move closer to perfection in our faith journeys, we do so by loving one another.  Take time this week to prayerfully consider how we foster an environment of love in what we do… as individuals and as a church.  How do we foster an environment of love in our community and in our world?  Let us find the empowering love of Jesus, the freeing grace of God, and the gentle movement of the Spirit as the driving forces behind us as we strive to love one another.

To God be the glory.