Scripture readings: Acts 10:44-48; Ps. 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17 Sermon by Martin Manuel (from John 15:9-17; Acts 10:44-48; 1 John 5:1-6; Ps. 98)
The Circle of Love
Today is the sixth Sunday of Easter, and Ascension Day is this Thursday. Today’s readings remind us of two truths related to Jesus’ ascension: first, that, in love, he remains present with us, and second, that as his followers, we are to live together, in love.
The Gospel reading today in John 15 is from Jesus’ Last Supper discourse with his 12 disciples. He had washed their feet as a symbol of self-sacrificing love, then explained his new command to love each other as he loved them. Their distress upon hearing of his imminent departure led him to console them by promising to send them another Comforter from the Father to be with them. In that context, he repeated his command that they love each other.
After leaving the Last Supper, Jesus continued the discussion by comparing himself to a vine with his disciples being the branches. Jesus used this metaphor to portray the intimacy of the disciples’ relationship with Jesus and their complete dependence on him. He urged them to remain in that relationship.
Jesus then described not only his ongoing presence with them, but how that presence would affect their relationships with each other. Branches attached to a vine don’t adequately portray that picture, so Jesus spoke of a circle of love—love emanating from the Father, then extending through him to his followers, who then return that love to God by loving each other. Today we’ll reflect on that circle of love, noting how it applies to us.
What is love?
Before going to our Gospel reading in John 15, we need to clarify what John means by the word love. Note this from The New Bible Dictionary:
The commonest Greek word in the New Testament for all forms of love is agape [noun], agapao [verb]. This is one of the least frequent words in classical Greek, where it expresses on the few occasions it occurs, that highest and noblest form of love which sees something infinitely precious in its object. Its use in the New Testament derives not directly from classical Greek so much as from the [Septuagint], where it occurs in 95% of all cases where [English versions] translate the Hebrew by ‘love’, and in every case of love from God to man, man to God and man to his neighbor.
The New Testament writers chose a Greek word not commonly used in Greek literature of the time—a word translated “love” in English Bibles. Although it was not used much in Greek literature, agape was used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. The word was not about male-female attraction, family-friend affection, things people strongly like such as tasty food, or various ways people express their desire or preferences such as “I love football.” It applies, as the article states, to the “highest and noblest form of love.” This sort of love “sees something infinitely precious” in the object of that love. This is not religious commandment keeping, nor is it merely a mental expression of concern for others. Every sound-minded person who has a precious loved one knows by experience what this love means. Naturally, we limit such love to a small number of people.
The circle of love
John could have chosen other words for love, but in translating what Jesus said that night concerning love into Greek, he chose the words agape and agapao. Thus, in John 15:9a we find Jesus saying, “As the Father has loved [agapao] me, so have I loved [agapao] you” (John 15:9a).
Agape/agapao appears nine times in this short passage in John 15. Crediting the Father as the source of that love, Jesus made it clear that he extended the same love to his followers. What did he expect of them? “Now remain in my love [agape]” (John 15:9b). Jesus point was that the love in them did not originate with them—it came to them through Jesus, and he insisted that they continue (remain) in it. How were they to do so?
If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. (John 15:10)
Keeping Jesus commands is not the love itself; it’s our response to his love in us. This diagram of an electrical circuit illustrates the point:
[Preacher: you can demonstrate this with a battery, wire and bulb. Or you can show the video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=rS2uto2TCSg.]
As the light bulb is connected to a terminal of the battery, the light doesn’t glow until the bulb is connected to the other side of the battery – its return terminal. An electrical circuit starts at its source, and from its current flows out to everything connected, and then returns to its source. In a similar way, love flows from God to us and must be returned. Our obedience is a response to God’s love. The bulb glows and remains in the electrical flow as long as it remains fully connected to the source.
Though not perfect, this analogy illustrates the point. Actually, it is Jesus’ perfect love, not something originating in us, that returns to the Father. Jesus gives us that love and then re-presents our imperfect response of love to complete the circuit (the circle of love). Nonetheless, we are in that circle and our response of love, by loving each other, is essential.
Why was this matter of loving each other so important that Jesus kept on repeating it? Jesus answers: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). Augustine of Hippo said that “the desire for happiness is essential to humans and is the motive of all our actions.” After our bodies are nutritionally satisfied, comfortable, and secure, our minds want to be at peace and in a state of happiness— a state of joy. Jesus lived in that state of mind and wanted his followers to experience it too. He knew they could do so only if they were in the circle of love with him, for the kind of joy Jesus experienced is the outcome of love. Like a reward, it is experienced by all who are in the circle of love. It penetrates into each one on that circle then radiates out to the others. Jesus modeled this love and joy and explained to his disciples the secret of its expression, intending that they share in it with him.
Though Jesus command to “love each other as I have loved you” is simple, it is beyond human capacity to obey. Why? Because Jesus never sinned. But we are sinners who are incapable of expressing the pure, selfless love that comes only from God. Consequently, loving each other in the way Jesus commands is impossible for us. In our human weakness we tend to mistake romantic attraction, affection and even lust for love—all these are more about self-love than the truly selfless love that comes from the triune God.
To clarify what Jesus meant by that sort of love, he added this statement:
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13)
We often hear stories about battlefield heroism where a group of soldiers is spared from the shrapnel of an enemy hand-grenade by a soldier who falls upon the weapon to absorb its explosion. Heroes that live through such experiences repeatedly say that they acted in order to protect their friends. That is laying down one’s life for others. Jesus said that such selflessness is the ultimate expression of the kind of love he was talking about.
Jesus’ circle of friendship
Jesus showed selfless love in way far greater than a spontaneous act of loving sacrifice on the battlefield. He deliberately laid down his life through the Incarnation, through 30-plus years of living without sin, culminating in his self-sacrificing, willing submission to the horrible suffering of the cross. That is true agape love. And in that context, Jesus said this to his inner circle of disciples:
You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:14-15)
In the song Friend of God, Israel Houghton picked up on those words from Jesus:
Who am I that You are mindful of me
That You hear me, when I call?
Is it true that you are thinking of me?
How You love me.
I am a friend of God.
I am a friend of God.
I am a friend of God.
He calls me friend.
Yes, it truly is amazing! Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate, calls his human followers his friends! As the entire New Testament makes clear, the Father, Son and Spirit love all of humanity. That is why the Father sent his Son and why Jesus laid down his life for all humanity on the cross. Everyone is loved—everyone, through Christ, has been reconciled to the Father, and so included in God’s love and life—but not everyone is called Jesus’ friend. That designation is reserved for those who, trusting in Jesus, pick up their cross and follow him, keeping his command to share in his love for others.
Jesus’ first disciples rightfully considered themselves servants of Christ, going forth to do what their Lord bid them to do. But Jesus explained to them that there is more to the relationship with him than mere servanthood. The relationship he has with his followers is far more intimate than that of boss to employee. Jesus said that he shares with his followers what he experienced in his relationship with the Father—his followers are his friends! But lest his disciples would misunderstand the point he was making, Jesus immediately explained that this love, this friendship, is not initiated by them:
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. (John 15:16)
As electricity flows from the battery to the bulb and back, the battery is the source. So it is with the love of God. As a battery can also light other bulbs, so Jesus can extend his love wherever he chooses. This was an important point for these followers to understand because the Lord’s intent was that they share his love, extending it to others—many others. That is what he meant by fruit. These other followers would become Jesus’ friends, just like the first disciples.
The disciples who heard Jesus speak these words had no idea of how far the Lord expected that fruit to extend. As Psalm 98 joyously declares, a new thing would be done by the Lord—salvation would be extended to all people groups. The original apostles were all Jewish men, educated in the covenant relationship between God and Israel. They did not yet understand that the salvation Jesus brought would include all people groups. As we saw in our reading in Acts 10, the Lord later showed Peter this magnificent plan by granting the Spirit to Gentile believers, showing that Jesus’ command to love crossed the barrier between Jew and Gentile. Thus the circle of friendship is enlarged to include all who follow Jesus. Our reading today in 1 John 5:1-6 shows how people, by believing in Jesus, become children of God who, by sharing the love of God with each other, participate with Jesus in overcoming the world.
The circle of love today
After saying all this, Jesus repeated, “This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:17). Do we, his modern-day followers hear our Lord loud and clear? How do his words look in our world, nations, communities, congregations, families? Are they being practiced faithfully by his followers—by us?
Sadly, something is missing between Christians worldwide in our relationships with each other. How did Christians in 1939 and early 1940s Germany rationalize their attacks on Christians in Poland and other countries? After WWII, during the Cold War, how did Christians in the East—mostly Orthodox—rationalize the possibility of nuclear war against Christians in the West—mostly Catholic and Protestant; and vice versa? How is it the United States today, racial division continues to haunt us, despite the fact that a large percentage of our population is Christian?
Jesus did not limit his command to love one another to small groups of his followers—the ones we happen to be close to. He commands that his agape love in us extend out to a much larger circle. But how do we do that, realizing that loving others as Jesus prescribed is humanly impossible?
Like his early followers, we must recall that Jesus is present, and that it is essential that we remain in him. We cannot extend the love of God without Christ living in us through the Spirit. Neither can we express the grace given us without our mental consent to do so. This was the challenge faced by the first-century Church that today’s readings address. Let’s consider those lessons.
The apostles were familiar with Psalm 98 and many related passages that reveal God’s salvation among all people groups. They heard Jesus’ commission to be his witnesses in all the earth and make disciples of all nations, but somehow a barrier or blindness restricted them from applying these words to any group other than Jews. They seemed to be incapable of seeing the matter of eternal salvation through the eyes of people who were not Jewish. We can call this ignorance or blindness; either word seems to apply. Regardless, it took the wisdom, grace and uncompromising truth of God to prevail against it.
Acts 10 tells the story. A vision granted to Peter by the Lord impressed upon him the need to change his Jewish perspective and see the matter through the eyes of the Lord. Speaking to Gentiles, Peter said:
You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. (Acts 10:28)
Peter’s eyes were opened to see the truth! However, his newfound understanding did not impress all those who were supposed to look to him for spiritual leadership. Acts 10:44-48 tells of the Holy Spirit’s position on the matter, helping others accept this truth. Still, the first-century Church continued to wrestle with the issue of division between Jews and Gentiles. Even Peter, after this revelation, struggled with the idea of Gentiles being included in the circle of love.
Galatians 2:11-14 tells about Peter’s reluctance to eat with Gentiles, giving in to cultural peer pressure. Paul challenged Peter’s hypocritical actions, helping him and the church progress steadily toward becoming a community of love that crossed all barriers. Within a generation, the world could see the unity through faith in Jesus Christ of races, cultures and languages.
Now let’s consider the church today in countries with multiracial and multicultural groups. Does the circle of love extend to all? In the U.S., the most diverse of major Western countries, it has been 50 years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose ministry exposed the ignorance and blindness behind racial segregation and discrimination. Our nation observes a holiday in his remembrance, but are we making progress or are we retrogressing in embracing the truth he brought? Where is today’s Paul, the high-profile church leader who steps forward to confront our hypocrisy?
Like Jesus, the apostle John spoke so much about love in his Epistle that anyone squeamish about the subject might feel uncomfortable. In 1 John 5:1-5, he was direct: Everyone who… loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. When our behavior toward one another reflects this ideal, the outcome, according to John, is victory over the world’s darkness! No individuals or groups are better positioned to help resolve national and even global divisions than are the followers of Jesus!
Do we, despite our weaknesses, trust in and rely on the love of Jesus? Are we willing to seek to obey Jesus’ command to love one another—asking him for help us do so through the Holy Spirit in us? What about embracing each other’s cultural uniqueness: music, dance and other ways of expressing ourselves? No one’s cultural preferences are superior to others. What about sharing meals? Are we willing to cross cultural lines and eat together in each other’s homes? Are we willing to make changes in our congregational meetings to encourage others outside our races and cultures to feel welcomed?
Beware of the cultural dictates that come from the world, which tends to emphasize distinctives, personal preferences and differences—whether racial, cultural, generational or gender. Instead, let us listen to the voice of our Lord Jesus Christ who calls on us to remain in the circle of love from the Father, Son and Spirit. Loving each other is essential to that circle.
Abiding in Christ, emphasized in the first part of John 15, includes participation in the circle of love from the Father, the Son and the Spirit. To include others in that circle of love, requires that we realign our thinking to align with Christ’s—doing so is even better than seeing through another person’s eyes. This realignment is necessary to remove from our thinking the overshadowing effects of ignorance and blindness that get in the way of truly loving relationships. I pray that this message opens our eyes a bit, encouraging us to hear and heed the words of our Lord Jesus Christ to remain in him, obeying his command to love as he loves and, therefore, to return the love of the Father by loving each other. Amen.