Commanded to Love
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” This is how the text from John begins. After the extended metaphor of the vine and the branches, Jesus sums it up and boils it down to this: Abide in my love. This is a simple and beautiful image of rest and permanence and safety. To me this phrase conjures up the easy chair that I used to curl up in as a girl – warm, soft and protected – a place where I was completely comfortable and at home. In fact, the way Eugene Peterson interprets this phrase is “make yourself at home in my love.”
The word agape – a Greek word for love that has made its way into English usage – is used nine time in nine verses – three in that first verse alone. It is clear from the repetition of the sentiment that Jesus’ intention is for his disciples to know that love is at the center of the human relationship to God. John’s account of Jesus’ teaching stresses the unconditional and lasting love of God as related through Jesus Christ.
God’s love is unconditional, but it there is another word that is repeated throughout these verses, one that seems to me to add an edge to the safe and comfortable easy chair of God’s love for me. And that word is command or commandment. “If you keep my commandment, you will abide in my love.” “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” “I am giving you these commands that you may love one another.” God’s love is unconditional , but it comes with expectations .
It seems impossible in a number of ways. To begin with the ideas, of ‘command’ and ‘love’ seems completely incompatible, at least at first glance. Think for a second or two about the kinds of emotions and images that are elicited by the word command…There is a rigidity and coldness about it. To me a ‘command’ is something that a master gives a servant or an owner a pet. There is a punishment implied. Commanders are people of violence and enforcement. To be ‘in command’ is controlling and powerful. ‘Commandments’ are full of thunder and smoke – distant and impersonal like God on the mountain in Exodus.
How does that fit with Love? The hard edges and violent implications seem antithetical to the feelings and images that we think about associated with love. Love is warm. It’s soft and tender. It feels good. Love is reserved for the people who we are close to – our families, our spouses, our close friends.
Jesus does not shy away from concepts that seem paradoxical. This is my commandment… not thou shalt not…whatever – lie/cheat/steal/kill. The greatest commandment is…what? Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might and love you neighbour as yourself. And who is my neighbour – and we hear about the good Samaritan, who went out of his way to help an ‘enemy,’ not a family member, spouse or close friend.
In the passage from John, the commandment is boiled down even further: This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. God’s unconditional love has the expectation that we love each other. A commandment to love – again the softness, but with an edge…we’re not only commanded to love our children and spouses and friends.
In Jesus Christ we are all called his friends. This goes beyond neighbourliness. Jesus too recognizes that the word commandment has a difficult and rigid sound to it. But he doesn’t take it away, he re-works it. He reframes the idea of commandment into a task among friends. In this text, too, commandment has the ring of an order between a master and a servant. Yet Jesus says, ‘I no longer call you servants, I call you friends – intimate friends to whom I tell everything.’ ‘I choose you,’ he says.
In the individualized west, I think we have the impression that we choose our own friends. We customize our relationships and socialize according to shared interests, hobbies, musical taste, political affiliation etc. I’ve heard people talking recently about how positive it is that we create our own ‘families’ within our networks of friends. So not even family fit into the automatic system of those in whom we invest our love.
We think we should get to choose, but in fact, Christian friendship is what Jesus chooses for us. In a way it’s the great equalizer. We are all the chosen friends of Christ – and how honoured we should be that Jesus chose us for friendship. And we are all given the same responsibility. John uses two negative/positive parallels here to make this point. I do not call you servant, but I do call you my friends. You did not choose me, but I did choose you – and I appointed you…to go bear fruit…fruit that will last.
Jesus says this about choosing his disciples as friends immediately after he says, ‘there is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends.’ Friends of Christ are willing to die for each other. The Message puts it this way, “This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends.” That is the kind of fruit that Jesus is talking about when we engage in Christian friendship.
Friendship in Jesus is sacrificial. Friends are willing die for each other. I recently went to see Mission Impossible 3. It was a typical blockbuster action adventure movie in many ways, and I found it very entertaining and completely devoid of reality – the title is apt since nothing that happens in it would actually be possible. But it was reflected of common values. Early in the film, we see an agent beaten and bound, who we find out is the student and friend of Ethan Hunt. Ethan then goes on to risk his life and those of several others (not to mention property and machinery) to save her and to exact revenge on her captor.
He does not in fact lay down his own life, but he does lay down the lives of anyone who is not his friend. And that’s what we tend to think…absolute loyalty to those close to us, but screw those who aren’t. If Ethan Hunt were to take this passage to heart, I wonder what would be the difference. He probably wouldn’t be a spy for the US government to start with. What’s different about the commandment to love, and to be friends in Christ, is that it has nothing to do with our own choices
We are called to bear fruit – be productive not destructive. Adopted as friends and anointed (that is chosen, set aside, picked out especially) it is fruit that will last – that is, it will abide . In Christ there is a friendship that will last, and because we are chosen as friends of Christ we have the ability to create lasting and meaningful relationships with others.
I think of the friendships that I have had and have with people who are not my age, who share few of my interests, who I might not give a second glance in the supermarket or on the street, but whose friendship I have valued, and who have deepened my understanding of who God is, and what Christian love means. The opportunity for these relationships was because of our common love of Jesus, and commitment to follow Jesus. Their love has born fruit in me, and I try, however imperfectly, to bear fruit as well. The choice is not ours – it has already been made for us. Abiding in Christ has lasting effects.
Abide has two senses. The one is to dwell or to live in. Eugene Peterson translates ‘abide in my love’ “make yourselves at home in my love” a phrase that speaks deeply to the comfort level of the invitation to abide in Jesus’ love. A phrase that might make us remember a friend in whose home we feel totally at ease – can rummage through the cupboards or have a nap on the couch. Jesus is inviting us to make ourselves at home in him and with each other
And then there is the sense of permanence, abiding meaning lasting – staying. I talked about Kenda Creasy Dean a few weeks ago and her lectures on youth and religion. I’ve been making my way through her book, in which she talks about passionate love of God. Part of what is identifiable and desirable in God’s passion, even if we can’t always name our longing for it, is fidelity and communion – loyalty and steadfastness, and connectional in community.
She sees people looking for these things in all the wrong places – we hear about young people joining gangs, people joining cults in search of fidelity and communion. But she stresses that we will never find perfect fidelity outside of Christ – even our best friends, our parents, our spouses – the intimacy can go bad or break down, but never in Jesus’ passionate love – it abides – it sticks around and is unwavering. Because we are anointed – we inherit a measure of that – the fruit that we produce as friends of Christ has a measure of Christ’s passionate fidelity and faithful communion.
The commandment to love each other is frightening in its simplicity. God wants us to make friends with people we wouldn’t choose for ourselves. And there aren’t a whole lot more instructions than that. It feels risky – unsafe – maybe uncomfortable. But at the same time, it could be exciting – the barriers are broken. There are no rules for who should be friends with who and who is in and who is out – everyone is in whom Jesus has called a friend. The possibilities for friendship between men and women, across generations – have Christ the vine in common.
Recently as I was having a pedicure in the place next door I picked up a Seventeen magazine to flip through. I found an article entitle ‘opposites attract’ about how a pretty, preppy, traditional sorority girl and a sloppy, punk, radical college drop-out were making it work. Buried in the story of their gradual getting together was a line that made it all make sense to me. They had met in church. They may have had nothing else in common – not even friends, but they had their faith in Christ.
Pursuing friendships that Jesus has chosen for us is going to be challenging. For introverts like myself its scary because it takes a long time to develop friendships and doesn’t’ come naturally or easily. It’s hard to reach out and draw people in. But I also understand and value but I have lasting and deep friendships. For extrovert who are very comfortable with many different people and many different types, who have no problem engaging people socially, the difficultly may come in going deeper and making friends out of acquaintances.
There is no doubt. Are still going to gravitate toward particular people and spend more time with some people than others…but in Christ, in the church, there are no longer strangers. There is both seriousness and joy in the commandment to love. Thanks be to God.