Thursday, April 21, 2011

A New Kind of Love

John 13:34-35; 15:9-17

THE NIGHT THAT JESUS WAS betrayed to death for our sins, when the supper had been eaten and Judas the betrayer was gone, Jesus began to teach His disciples one last time.  As He counseled them He says, "A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so must you love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

    This command of Jesus was not just for the eleven disciples in the upper room.  It is also for us who claim the name of Jesus today, for us who gather around this holy Table.  But there is something about this command to love that should cause us to stop and question.  First of all, how can our Lord say that a command to love is "new"?  And secondly, what kind of love does it command?

    "A new command I give you: Love one another."  But what is new about the command to love?  As far back as the days of Moses in the desert, God's people were commanded to love one another.  In Leviticus 19, verse 18, it says, "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself."  Again in verse 34, we read, "The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born.  Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt."   Jesus Himself said that after the command to love God with all our being, the greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves, and that these two commands sum up all the Old Testament Law and Prophets!  How can Jesus now say that the command to love is new?

    But there is something new about Jesus' new mandate. The old command to love said, "Love your neighbor as yourself."  Jesus' new command says, "Love one another, as I have loved you."  Obedience to the old command depends totally on our imperfect and fruitless efforts to keep God's law.  Obedience to the new command hangs wholly on the fruitful love of God given us through Christ Jesus our Lord. 

    Verse 9 says, "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you." And as He has loved us, so we are to love one another.   In his commentary on John, John Calvin warns us against getting into speculations about the mystic love between the Father and the Son in the fellowship of the Godhead.  That wouldn't have been helpful to the disciples and it isn't helpful to us.  Jesus calls us to participate in the fruitful, joyful love of God.  For that we need another human being, a true Man, to show us what the love of God is like and teach us how to love like God.  And so Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, was born of woman and took flesh, and became a real human being.  During the three years of His earthly ministry the disciples witnessed how the Father loved the Son and how the Son loved them.  It was a love they could see and hear and handle.  It was a love they could refer to and say, "Yes, this is how we are to love one another!"

    But what kind of love is this that Jesus commands in John?  What kind of love did He display in all the gospels?  There's a peculiar factor in this love, which we mustn't ignore.  Look at verse 10:  Jesus says, "If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love." 

    Let's read that again: "If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love."

    I admit:that as Reformed Christian and as a human being still struggling with sin, when I simply read that statement, I'm troubled by it.  And I suggest that we all have to wrestle with this text, or we're likely to misunderstand the kind of love Jesus is commanding us to love.

    The Reformed Christian problem first.  I want to ask Jesus, "Lord, are You saying that You'll love us only if we obey all Your commands?  Lord, I remember those commands, and You made the Law of Moses even stricter!  But didn't your servant Paul write that by keeping the Law no one could be saved, and that if we try to earn Your love by keeping the commandments, we're still under the wrath of Your Father?  Lord, how can You say, ‘If you obey My commands, you will remain in My love'?"

   And from the Gospel, the Lord makes reply.  Look at the larger context for this verse.  Jesus had just taught the disciples that He is the Vine and they are the branches.  They-- and that means we as well-- must remain in Him if they are to bear fruit and know the joy of receiving whatever they ask from the Father.  Did the disciples or we get into the Vine by our own work or our own volition?  Absolutely not! 

    In the same way, it is Jesus Christ alone who brings us into His love. As He reminds us in verse 16, "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit-- fruit that will last."  Jesus already loves us!  As we can read in Ephesians Chapter 1, we were chosen by God in Him before the creation of the world!  In love God predestined us to be adopted as His sons and daughters through Jesus Christ! 

    No, the keyword in John 15:10 is "remain."  Again, that might look like it's all up to us to keep Jesus loving us and not lose our salvation.  But see again what our Lord says in verse 16.  He has appointed us to bear fruit, fruit that will last.  Do you think God the Son can appoint anything that isn't going to happen?  Perish the thought!

    It is right for us to want to avoid any hint of salvation by human works.  But when Jesus says, "If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love," He means something more wonderful and joyful than anything our worries might suggest.

    But the sinful world also has a problem with linking love and obedience.  Sinful man too often loves "Because."  I love you because you're pretty.  I love you because you do nice things for me.  I love you because you're rich and take me to fancy places.  I love you because you listen when I go on and on about my troubles.  But let you the beloved grow old and ugly, or stop doing the nice things, or become poor, or get tired of listening to the same sob story, then I, a sinful human being, will stop loving you.  We see this in the prodigious divorce rate in Western society.  This kind of sinner might say, "See, even Jesus says I don't have to love you if you don't please me!"  This interpretation is a crime against Jesus' words.

    So, thinking people, including unbelievers, say, no, true love is unconditional.  It doesn't matter how cruelly the beloved behaves or how filthy and repulsive he or she is to the lover, the true lover must keep on loving and expect nothing, nothing in return.  And really (I once heard a sermon that preached this idea), if the beloved does return the love, even the littlest bit, the lover is no longer showing true, unconditional love.

    But here we have Jesus saying, "If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love."

    "Wow, Lord," we say, "that sounds awfully conditional to us!   Not only do You seem to be saying that our remaining in Your love is conditioned on us obeying Your commands, but also that You have to obey God the Father's commands in order to remain in His love!"

    But remember what we learned.  It is God through His Son who elects us into His love and appoints that we shall remain and bear fruit.  Again, God does not love us if we do this or that, He loves us in His Son.  And the Father does not love the incarnate Son if, He loves Him because Christ is His Son.  But because Christ is His Son and God is His Father, Jesus joyfully obeys His Father's commands and the Father takes joy and pleasure in the Son's obedience.  Whoever said that love expects nothing in return?  Not our Triune God!  Whoever said that love that's reciprocated is not love at all?  Not the holy Scriptures that testify to Him!

    No, the love with which Jesus Christ has loved us, the new kind of love He charges us to bear towards one another, is a love where joy is obedience and obedience is joy.  It is a mutual love where we strive to outdo one another in taking care of one another, in listening to one another, and in anticipating one another's needs.  It is the love shown by Jesus our Master when He knelt down and washed the feet of His disciples at the table that night, even though that was the job of the lowest of slaves.  It is the love He showed when He willingly laid down His life for us on the cursed cross, despising the shame of it (as Hebrews says) for the joy set before Him, the joy of becoming the Author and Perfecter of our faith. 

    God takes pleasure in receiving this obedient love.  At Jesus' baptism, God's voice from heaven said, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased."  At His transfiguration, Christ's disciples heard the Voice from the cloud say, "This is my Son, whom I love.  Listen to Him!"  True divine love is never reciprocated?  The love of God has no expectations?  What Christian can believe that?  The love of God is all about eager expectation!  In our verses from John, Jesus commands us to joyful obedience and He calls us His friends.  Beloved, there is no contradiction here.  What are friends for but to know one another's hearts?  And our Friend Jesus shares with us everything He has learned from His Father, and in prayer we may share everything with Him.  What are friends for, but to be willing to do any good thing for one another in love, as Christ has shown the full extent of His love for us in His death?  A servant obeys because he has to.  A friend fulfills his friend's commands because he wants to, and he receives his friend's joy and pleasure in return.

    This kind of willing, obedient love is the same love we in the church are now to show one another:  Loving each other mutually, eagerly, joyfully-- drawing always on the love of Christ continually being poured into our hearts by His Holy Spirit.

    The old command, "Love your neighbor as yourself," only served to show us how badly we failed at keeping God's law.  We not only didn't love our neighbor as ourselves, we couldn't love ourselves according to the image of God in us.  But Jesus' new command says, "Love each other as I have loved you."  By the blood of His cross He has already brought us into His love, just as He is always and eternally in the love of the Father.  The love of Christ is already here for us and in us, in all its fulness.  Now let us discover the secret of enjoying and blissfully living in His love: Let us love one another, as He has loved us.  The more we obey His new command, the more we will know the pleasure of God.  The more we know the pleasure of God, the more we will discover of His love and the more we will want to obey.

    Brothers and sisters, let us love one another.  Not some idealized imagining of what the ideal friend would be like, but one another, just as we are, in all our faults and annoyances and failings.  Let us love one another not only in thought and sympathy, but in service and action.  People, love your preachers, and we preachers, let us love the people.  Officers, love the laity, and laity, love your officers.  Love the member who has to do everything or she complains, and love the member who never seems to pitch in at all.  Love, yes, love even those in the church who are cranky and obstructive and never seem to love you back, because it was while we were still God's enemies that He commended His love towards us and sent Christ to die for our sins.  Loving church member, maybe God will use your obedience to soften the heart of that other person and bring him or her into the joy of our Saviour's love!

    "No greater love has any one than this, that He lay down his life for his friends."  This is love of God in Christ shown to us in this holy Supper.  Here we know the solemn joy of divine blood shed for us and divine flesh broken for us.  Here we experience the fullness of love, the love of Christ that dwells within us, the love of Christ that daily teaches us how to love one another, as He has loved us.

    May His joy be in us, and may our joy in Him and each other be complete.  Let us strive to outdo each other in eager, obedient, mutual love.  This is our Lord's new command: Love one another.

    In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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