2015 Corlett Senior Sermon
“This is My Commandment…”
by Grant Christy
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. (NRSV)
When I first began looking at this passage, one thing that struck me was the language of “command.” If you keep my commandments… I have kept my Father’s commandments… This is my commandment… if you do what I command you… I am giving you these commands…
As I initially reflected on this sermon, I realized that it had the potential either to be somewhat easy or somewhat difficult. The potential to be somewhat easy because Jesus tells us rather directly what it is that we are supposed to do, or it had the potential to be somewhat difficult because, well, Jesus tells us rather directly what it is that we are supposed to do!
Often times we have a kind of love/hate relationship with commands. Most of us have no problem giving commands, but have a harder time receiving them. We all recognize the need for certain commands in society that provide law and order, yet we don’t want too many of them. Most of the time we want to be free from commands, yet there are still those moments when we long for a command, for someone to just tell us what to do when we are faced with uncertainty.
So we come to this passage, a conversation between Jesus and his disciples in the upper room just hours before he is taken into custody and crucified, and we approach it with anticipation because Jesus is speaking directly to heart of what it means to follow him. Yet we also approach it with some hesitancy because with commands come expectations, and we sometimes wonder whether or not we are able to meet those expectations as followers of Jesus.
In this story especially, the bar is set pretty high as to what is expected of us as followers of Jesus. Jesus doesn’t command us to just love one another, no, he commands us to love one another as he has loved us. And in case there is any question as to how Jesus has loved us, he adds, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
With the crucifixion of Jesus just over the horizon, it seems clear that the love of Christ is the way of the cross. But it’s not just a cross. It is Jesus the Son of God that lays down his life on a cross. You see, it’s one thing for a human being to lay down their life for another human being, but it’s something entirely different for God himself to become human in the person of Jesus, in order to lay down his life for all of humankind.
The great Christ hymn in Philippians 2 gives us a glimpse into the magnitude of God himself becoming human, entering into fallen creation, in order to lay down his life for the sake of its redemption.
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (NRSV)
From heaven to the cross. That is what it means to love as Jesus has loved. The love of Jesus moved him from a place of honor to a place of humility. Jesus Christ, whose name would be above all names, whom all of creation would confess as Lord, first hung on a Roman cross, broken and bloody, mocked by those passing by. The love of Jesus moved him from a place of power to a place of powerlessness. Jesus Christ, God himself, entered our world at the absolute bottom rung of society as a helpless baby born into a refugee family. The love of Jesus moved him from a place of privilege to a place of poverty. The God, who according to the psalmist has cattle on a thousand hills, was born into a family whose firstborn sacrifice was two doves, a sacrifice which was a special concession to the poor. The love of Jesus moved him from a place of harmony to a place of dysfunction. Jesus Christ moved from the unity of heaven into the brokenness of fallen creation. The love of Jesus moved him from a place of honor, power, privilege, and harmony to a place of humility, powerlessness, poverty, and dysfunction so that we might be reconciled to God. That is what it means to love as Jesus has loved.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Two words…good luck! Seriously, talk about some lofty expectations. A commandment to love as Jesus has loved!
Now, there is nothing wrong with lofty expectations. We believe that God’s salvation is not only a matter of saving us from sin and death, but is also saving us into the coming kingdom of God. And we believe that we are empowered through the presence of the Holy Spirit to begin living lives, here and now, in ways that reflect the very character of God and his kingdom, a kingdom which began breaking into this world when the Son of God took on human flesh. It’s okay to expect that we, as followers of Christ, will act in ways that are consistent with the kingdom of God.
The prayer that Jesus taught us to pray says, “Your kingdom come and your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread…” That the kingdom and will of God would be done on earth as in heaven is not just some future hope. The prayer is for here and now! “Give us this day…” May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as in heaven, on this day. Here and now. It’s okay to have expectations that we, as followers of Christ, will embody the kingdom of God and live out the will of God here and now. But why then do we so often feel a sense of anxiety when it comes to following the commandments of God? It’s because we too often consider the commands of God apart from the promises of God.
We cannot divorce expectations from grace. The audacity to pray that the Father’s kingdom would come and his will be done in our lives is matched only by the audacity to ask the Father for all we need in order to do just that. Give us our daily bread, forgive us our sins, deliver us from evil, so that your kingdom can come as your will is done in and through our lives. We cannot forget grace before expectation. We cannot forget God’s promises come before God’s commands. Otherwise we will be crushed by the anxiety that comes from always wondering whether we are doing good enough, whether we are truly loving one another, as Jesus has loved us.
But there is good news for us. The good news is that when Jesus commands us to love one another as he loved us, he is not simply pointing out his love as an example to be followed. If that were case we might as well throw our hands in the air and said good luck with that! Because the reality is we can’t, on our own, love as Jesus loved. But that isn’t all Jesus is saying. “As I have loved you” is not only an allusion to Jesus as an example, but is a declaration that because he HAS loved us, it is somehow not too much to say that we now are to love each other in the same way. The new reality is that we are not on our own to love as Jesus loved. That is indeed good news!
Jesus speaks to this new reality in verse 9, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” Those four short words, “abide in my love,” don’t speak to a promise made, but speak to a promise kept. Because to “abide” means to remain, to continue to live in. The implication of abiding, of remaining, is that we are already there to begin with. “Abide in my love.”
Because Jesus HAS loved us, we are in his life giving presence through the power of the Spirit, right here and now. As the apostle Paul puts it throughout his letters, we are now found “in Christ.” And it is from this place of being in Christ, abiding in his love, that now we are commanded to love one another as Jesus has loved us. Jesus is not somewhere on the other side of the world sending us text messages about how we are to love one another. He is right here and as we abide in Christ, remain in his love, he is guiding and teaching and enabling us to love as he did. A grace-filled and grace-enabled expectation to love one another as Jesus loves us.
Yet, even when we understand that God’s grace precedes expectations, when we understand that God’s promises precede God’s commands, when we understand that it is only because we are in Christ that we are able to love like Christ, even when we understand that, we still have this tendency to think that our ability to love as Jesus loves is somehow dependent upon the quality of our response. As if God’s grace and our response were equal partners in this endeavor. The problem is that we too often fail to appreciate the sheer magnitude of God’s gracious activity that goes before us. We too often fail to appreciate the significance of God’s grace at work as compared to our own response to such grace.
Last year, our family traveled internationally for the first time since my wife and I had children. Our children were required to have their own passports, verifying their identity as citizens of the United States. The process for obtaining their passports was quite extensive, requiring hours of preparation, completing forms, collecting supporting documents, securing passport photos, making appointments at the processing center, paying significant fees, and on and on…
Finally, after several weeks of waiting, we had their passports in hand. Upon returning to the U.S., as the head of the household, I was responsible for completing all of the customs and immigration forms as the representative of our entire family. As we made our way through the noisy and crowded airport, I directed my children to the appropriate line reserved for U.S. citizens. They stayed close by following me as we weaved our way through the maze of lines toward the immigration officer.
When it was our turn to re-enter the U.S., I directed my children up to the podium where the officer was seated. I handed all of the documents to the officer, sorted and ordered as to make it as easy as possible. The officer reviewed the documents for my wife and me, giving us a look as he verified our appearance with the photo in our passports. As the officer reviewed the documents of our five-year-old daughter, he asked, “Which one is Stella?” As I scooter her in front of me, so that she was in sight of the officer, I indicated that this was Stella. After glancing at her passport, the officer looked directly at her and asked, “Are you Stella?” With a slight nod of her head, she responded quietly with a single word, “Yes.”
But that simple “yes” carried with it the full weight of everything that had been done for her. Up until that point, I had done absolutely everything for my daughter so that she would be able to re-enter the U.S. As a five-year-old, she was utterly incapable of doing anything leading up to that point; obtaining her passport, filling out customs forms, navigating immigration. Even the fact that she was a U.S. citizen to begin with, was completely out of her control as it was based solely on her relationship to me, as my child and not the child of someone from another country.
When we stepped up to the immigration officer, she couldn’t necessarily explain how she got there or everything that had transpired in order to reach that point, other than she simply had been following her dad, remaining close to me in my presence, trusting that I had done whatever needed to be done. Yet, despite all my effort, all that I had done for my daughter, it was necessary for her, on her own, to acknowledge who she was and her relationship to me. It was a simple and quite acknowledgement, seemingly insignificant compared to everything else that had been done for her, but the response given by her was still crucial nonetheless.
Sometimes we fail to appreciate the sheer magnitude of God’s gracious activity that goes before us. We can’t possibly begin to image the depth of love that would compel Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to humble himself to the point of death on a cross so that we might be reconciled to God through him, so that we might enter the Kingdom of God as his children. Just like my five-year-old daughter, we can’t possibly fathom all that Jesus Christ has done for us, so that the simple response given by us, our simple “yes,” would result in new creation and eternity with God.
And so its not too much to say that because Jesus has loved us, because we are recipients of God’s boundless grace, because we are in Christ, abiding in his love through the power of the Spirit, we are indeed able to love one another as Jesus has loved us. Because when we respond in love to our sisters and brothers in Christ, when we respond in love to those we encounter on a daily basis at work, at school, and at home, no matter how insignificant our act may seem, it carries with it the full weight of Christ’s very love for us.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” A commandment given and a promise kept. Thanks be to God.
Grant Christy serves as Associate Pastor for Children and Families, Overland Park Church of the Nazarene, (Overland Park, Kansas) and Partnership Coordinator, Nazarene Global Mission. Selected as the winner of the Corlett Sermon Award, this sermon was preached at Kansas City First Church of the Nazarene on May 10, 2015 as part of the Nazarene Theological Seminary graduation weekend celebration.