Text: John 15:9-17
(“Buddy Christ” clip from the film Dogma plays.)
That clip was from one of my favorite movies, called Dogma, directed by Kevin Smith. The film begins with this scene where the Catholic Church tries to make itself more relevant, cool, and hip by initiating a new campaign called “Catholicism WOW!” And part of that campaign is to revamp the symbols of the Church – including replacing the “depressing and disturbing” image of the crucifix with the “Buddy Christ” – a Jesus that makes you feel good. Makes you feel warm and fuzzy on the inside. A Jesus that is your pal, your buddy, your compadre, your friend, your BFF.
And it’s not a far-off idea – especially if you look at our scripture for today. A scripture where Jesus calls the Disciples then – and us today – “friends.” The problem is, do we truly understand what Jesus means when he calls us “friends”? Is Jesus just calling the Disciples – and us today – his “buddies.” (Finger point. Eye wink.) Or is being a “friend” of Jesus something more than that? Is the understanding of “friends” held by a 1st century, Palestinian Jew that same as the understanding of friends held by 21st century American Christians? And more importantly, what does it mean for us to “love one another” – which is the foundation of Jesus’ definition of “friend.”
You may have noticed that the version of the scripture that I read was quite different from the one in the pew or that you may have. That’s because I was reading from the NRSV – the Noah Revised Standard Version. Whenever I’m struggling with a text, I take to translating it from the original languages to see what jumps out at me. To see what nuances of the Greek language are not apparent in the English translation. And something that especially jumped out at me was the way that most other translations seem to miss what Jesus is actually saying and doing when he says “love one another.”
In the actual NRSV, verse 12 says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” When you read this translation, the sentence is structured in such a way that Jesus is giving a commandment to the Disciples to follow. However, the word “that” in this translation is the word “hina” in Greek. “Hina” is a conjunction, and, according to School House Rock, a conjunction’s function is for “hooking up words and phrases and clauses.” It’s a word that connects things to each other both grammatically and literally. The conjunction “hina” is specifically used to link together something to its purpose. Precisely, in John’s gospel, “hina” always points towards the theological purpose of something. And “hina” is more commonly translated as “in order that.” At the same time, this conjunction is followed by words in the “subjunctive” or “conditional” mood. We don’t really have “moods” in English, but in Greek, the subjunctive mood does not describe what IS, but what MIGHT be in the future. Therefore, words in the subjunctive mood are best translated by adding “may” or “might” before them – especially when you cannot be certain that something will actually happen. Combine the common translation of “hina” with the subjective mood that follows, and verse 12 is better translated: “This is my command, in order that you may love one another just as I love you.” Now that translation has a completely different meaning. Instead of Jesus simply giving the Disciples a new commandment to love each other, Jesus is saying that by obeying all he has commanded, the Disciples will come to know the purpose of all that Jesus commands – which is to experience love for one another just as Jesus loves them. The question is, if “love one another just as I love you” is the purpose and NOT the commandment, then what IS the commandment?
For that, we must look at the larger context of this passage. Chapters 13 through 17 of John’s gospel take place within the upper room, where Jesus washes the Disciple’s feet, shares a last meal with them, prays with them, and gives his farewell speeches – including this text. So, Jesus spends the entire evening – 4 chapters – showing the Disciples how to love one another the way that he loves them. Specifically, in chapter 13:15-17, after Jesus washes the Disciples feet, he says to them, “I have set a pattern, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” By being obedient to these commandments – commandments that Jesus even demonstrates himself – the Disciples will be able to experience love for one another. NOT love as some warm and fuzzy feeling, but as the fruit and purpose of the action of carrying out Jesus’ commandments.
Jesus is teaching them that in order to make a home in his love – to reside in love – one must be obedient to Jesus. And this love, while born out of obedience, does not suppress others, does not coerce others, and makes no room for hierarchy and elitism. This obedience to Jesus is non-negotiable. You don’t get to negotiate who, what, when, and where you are obedient to Jesus. This obedience to Jesus must be lived out at all times, in all places, with all people. And sometimes, the time, the place, and the people we have the most difficult time loving are our fellow Christians – the ones in the next pew over.
While the entirety of the bible tells us over and over again how we are to love our neighbors as ourselves – including enemies, foreigners, and strangers – this is the one text where we are commanded to love those who are closest to us – not just in terms of genetic relations, but also in physical proximity. The people who are most difficult to love are those we have known the longest and who we are around the most – both in our lives and in the church. And it’s because of that history that we struggle to love them as we should. As one commentator put it, in the church, “we don’t get hysterical; we get historical.” The church’s ability to cling to the past isn’t just about having the same traditions, decorations, and committee structures. We also cling to the past sins of those around us. So, when another member of the church causes us harm – whether it’s physical, emotional, or spiritual – we quickly recite our liturgy of blame – the memorized list of all the things this fellow Christian did to hurt us in the past. We follow our liturgy of blame with our responsive liturgy of necessity – we recite to others in the church why we are necessary, including all of the past reasons why the church needs us. To which the congregation responds, “Yes! You are necessary” to every line of the liturgy. And for those new people who don’t know the liturgy yet – which are often new pastors – the closing benediction is typically, “After all the things I have done for this church!” Yet these liturgies pose important questions, “Why should history justify being unloving to another fellow Christian? Why should history justify not doing as Jesus commands? And if we do treat our fellow Christians this way, are we really a ‘friend’ of Jesus?”
In verse 14, Jesus says, “You are my friends IF you do the things which I commanded you. Now, that’s not some nuance that I found in the translation. That important “IF” is found in every translation, including the original Greek. Jesus is literally telling us that we are friends of his ONLY IF we do the things that Jesus commands us. ONLY IF we treat our fellow Christians the way that Jesus loved the Disciples – praying with them, participating in life with them, giving them clean feet and a hot meal. Hmmm…sounds a lot like Jesus loved the Disciples by worshiping, sharing, and serving together with them! Sounds like Jesus is saying that worshiping, sharing, and serving together are the commands we are to follow in order that we may experience love for one another. That’s why Jesus makes this statement in the subjunctive mood, because Jesus knows that it’s not always possible. But if we ever want the chance to experience love for one another as Jesus loves us, we have to be committed to obeying Jesus’ commands to worship, share, and serve together.
Loving each other the way that Jesus loves us is not always going to give us a warm and fuzzy feeling. Because the love that Jesus has for us looks nothing like the “Buddy Christ.” Instead, the love that Jesus has for us looks exactly like the crucifix. For Jesus tells the Disciples – and us, his Disciples today – “Nobody has greater love than this: that one would put his entire being on the line for his friends.” That’s the ultimate purpose of loving one another. To be willing to risk everything for one another.
Two Questions: 1) How many friends can you actually count on? And by that, I mean, how many friends do you have that you can truly rely on to do things like: Help you move? Pick up your kids? Show up for a Tuesday night dinner? Cry with you when you get sudden bad news? Drop what they are doing and listen to you when you desperately need to talk? And 2) How many of those friends are here in this church? Is it a majority? A few? Or none at all?
From the conversations that I’ve had with this congregation over the last four years, the answer is very few. I’ve also learned this from the Seasonal Team planning meetings, because the thing that makes people the most anxious is having to find volunteers to be ushers, greeters, etc. The most common response – from both new and established members alike – is, “But I don’t know everyone in the congregation.” And the newer you are to the congregation, the fewer friends you have in the congregation – the fewer people here you can truly rely on. And, as I learned when I first got here – being “new” in this congregation means you’ve arrived in the last 10 years. But instead of forming deeper friendships by worshiping, sharing, and serving together, we tend to outsource our responsibility to build Christian “friendships” – especially with newer member – to the pastor. Expecting the pastor to be obedient for us. After all, that’s what we pay pastors for – to practice our religion for us throughout the week, and then give it to us in a nice, neat, and tidy package during one convenient hour on Sunday.
Pastor and former Lutheran Seminary President, Rev. Dr. David Lose writes, “Love is about obedience, obedience is about love, and God often surprises us about what this all looks like.” I wonder how God would surprise you IF you took the time to be obedient to Jesus’ commandments and started worshiping, sharing, and serving together with someone in the congregation you don’t really know? Sure, you may know their name, might say “Hi!” to them on Sunday mornings, and probably shake their hand during the Passing of the Peace, but do you REALLY know them? Have you been so obedient to Christ’s commandments that you experience enough LOVE for that person to risk your entire being for them? Or maybe think of it this way: Has that person experienced enough love, that they would be willing to risk their entire being for you, when you need it? If not, then according to Christ’s own words, you are NOT a friend of Jesus. And you will not know what it is like to reside in the love of Christ. And you will know what it is to experience joy – true joy – the joy that is found in Jesus Christ. Joy that gives you life and gives it abundantly. True joy that can only be found when you love others enough to risk everything you are for them. Maybe that’s why we expect our pastors to give us a “feel good” sermon every week. We are just trying to numb our pain instead of making ourselves vulnerable by taking the risk to develop deep Christian friendships that can carry us through our struggles. And those friendships can only happen by obeying Jesus’ commandments in order that we may love one another as Jesus loves us.
The early Christian Church grew rapidly, NOT because of their theology. Not because of their rules. NOT because of their awesome worship services. NOT because their churches were filled with people who were like them. NOT because of their youth ministry or children’s programs (because children were always included with the adults, just like we do here at Grace). The early Christian Church grew so rapidly because of the way they lived out their love for one another. When other people saw the way that the early Church members – NOT the clergy – loved one another, the way they cared for one another; the way they made sure that no one among them went hungry or thirsty or homeless; the way they continued to support one another in the face of violent oppression from the Roman Empire – other people wanted that too, even if it meant death by the Empire. People wanted to know what it would be like to be part of a community where you are truly loved – not because of your social status, economic class, ethnicity, nationality, race, gender, or what you could do for someone else – but because you simply exist. To be part of a community where we commit ourselves to each other, make room for each other’s differences, know that we are stronger together, that our love is magnified when we are worshiping, sharing, and serving together. That our love for one another isn’t for our own benefit. And yet, in loving others – including our fellow Christians – we are blessed. (Being blessed isn’t the purpose of loving one another, it’s just a fortunate side effect. Don’t try to trick Jesus. If you are being obedient to Jesus just so you can be blessed, I guarantee it’s going to backfire.) The desire for this love found in the early Christian community was more powerful than the fear of death at the hands of the Romans. And the people who joined this Christian community were not perfect – there were disagreements from the start – but they were COMMITTED to being obedient to Jesus’ commandments, and therefore, they discovered what it means to love one another the way that Jesus already loved them.
So… What about you? How committed are you? How committed are you to being obedient to Jesus’ commandments? To actually getting to know people in this church that you do not REALLY know? To worshiping, sharing, and serving together – not just in words, but also in actions? How committed are you to ensuring that this church becomes a home where love resides? To becoming a Christian community that is so loving to one another, that people can’t help but be drawn to this church? To this community of faith. To making sure that when new people come to us – desiring such a community of love – they quickly feel like they belong to us? Not that they believe or behave like us, but that they belong to us. What commitment, what investment in belonging, are you willing to make to this church? What changes and/or sacrifices are you willing to make in your own life? What areas of your life are you willing to stretch, so that we all experience the fruit of loving one another the way that Christ already loves us? What talents will you offer? What time will you give? What treasure will you sacrifice? I want you to take a moment, close your eyes, and, in the silence, meditate on what commitment you are willing to make to this congregation. (Pause for silence.) And now, on the Post-It note in your bulletin, write a statement about your commitment to this Christian community. (Pause to allow for writing.) And when you come forward for communion, place your Post-It note on the Grace Presbyterian poster – creating a symbol of our community’s commitment to be obedient to Christ’s commandments, so that we are all residing in love together. AMEN.