It is hard not to repeat Pastor Ritter's sermon from last week. He did a good job describing Christian love. With clear words and images, he reminded us what love looks like. We see the Father's love as He gives Jesus to us. And then, in Christ's words and deeds, especially as He dies and rises again, we see what real love is as Christ forgives us for our failure to love. In turn, we respond as St. John directs us, "Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another."
Today's Gospel text repeats this command to love our fellow Christian. Do we need to hear it again? Jesus seems to think so. He goes over this theme so often to stress that we Christians are in danger of not loving each other. We so easily forget and go back to what comes natural to us - our love for ourselves. Jesus says, "Abide in My love." Do not wander away from it. Make your home in the love of Christ and stay there.
"Abide in My love." When I lived in Carbondale, I met Daniel, a student who was active in our church's Chinese ministry. After being a Christian for only two years, he told me his struggles. When he was new to the faith, he felt full of joy because he knew God loved him. But as time went on, the excitement faded. He had gotten to the point where he had to force himself to go to church. To such a person as this, as well as to you and me when we get discouraged, Jesus says, "Abide in My love."
Our Savior knows how you and I live so often for the moment, how we are like children with a favorite toy - excited about it until the next favorite toy comes along and the old one is forgotten. "Abide in My love," Jesus says, because we are tempted not to remain there. As good as Pastor Ritter's sermon was, how long afterward did you remain loving your fellow Christians as God first loved you in Christ? Did you make it to today without saying some unloving thing about any of God's children? Did you make it to Monday without some loveless thought crossing your mind?
Later in today's text Jesus says, "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you" (John 15:16). We did not deserve to be chosen by Christ for salvation. Not with our wickedness and guilt. Yet by His amazing grace, Christ chose us to be His own and live under Him in His kingdom.
More than simply choosing to save us, He chose us to produce the fruits of love in our lives. Is this good news or bad news? It all depends on your point of view. If you are lazy and thankless, if you want your life to stay the way it is, if you have no problem with your sin then you should listen to the Lord here command you, Thou shalt love your fellow Christian. How dare you treat your body as if it was yours to do with as you please. For you are not your own. Your body is a gift from God, bought at the price of His Son. God is restoring His image in you so that you do the works of love He has prepared for you to do.
What if you see how loveless you have been, and this weakness disturbs you? To you I say do not despair. Do not worry that you have lost the Kingdom of Heaven nor the love of Jesus by your failed life. The whole Bible brings you the message of God's salvation from lovelessness and weaknesses, as Peter says in today's first reading - "All the [Old Testament] prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in [Jesus] receives forgiveness of sins through His name" (Acts 10:43). From your first moment of faith to your last breath in this dying world, no matter how much or little you have been faithful, your entry into Heaven depends upon Christ's works, not yours, His life, suffering and death, not yours. Always has. Always will.
So what if you think your life has not amounted to much, especially when you see all sorts of other people doing all sorts of things that make a difference in this world? Listen to Jesus say, "I have chosen you to bear fruit. And what I say will happen happens." You who are afraid that you have done nothing for Christ have actually done more good than you know (cf Matthew 25:37-40). Your works of love have made a difference in the world to come.
Much of what we do in life is temporary. It has its time of use and then it becomes useless. Like fruit - wait too long and it goes rotten. We work to repair our cars - or ask someone else to do it, but one day they will become scrap metal. Dishes and clothes are washed that will need to be washed again tomorrow - unless they are tossed in the trash. Christ Our Savior Lutheran High School's classrooms are being built, but one day those walls will crumble - God willing not until after a century of faithful service in His Kingdom. We place bandages on bodies - until they are placed in their graves. Things fall apart. Most of what we make and do will be undone.
But not love. St. Paul says, "Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away" (1 Corinthians 13:8). The fruit that lasts forever is the love that flows from the Vine to the branches, from the Cross to you and through you to others. It goes from death to life. God's love in you survives the grave and makes an eternal impact. Whether you know it or not.
Prayer is one of those works of love that makes an eternal impact. When Jesus talks about, "Whatever you ask the Father in My name," He is not speaking of prayer in general, but prayer that has to do with your love for your neighbor. If you love your neighbor you will certainly pray for them, that the Lord would directly help and heal them. In the first centuries of Christianity, unbelievers were amazed that Christians prayed not only for their family and fellow Christians. Other religions did that. But Christians also prayed for people they were not related to, for foreigners, and even for their enemies. Here in church, we continue to pray this way, with Jesus and the whole Church on earth for the world of people according to their needs (John Kleinig, Grace Upon Grace, 208). This does not come natural to us. In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray, "Our Father," not "My Father." Even when you are all by yourself, you never pray, "Give ME this day MY daily bread," but always, "Give US this day OUR daily bread, forgive US OUR trespasses, lead US not into temptation, but deliver US from evil."
When Jesus says, "Whatever you ask in My name," He also means our prayers that God would include us in His work. "Lord, help me to bear more fruit." When we pray such prayers, we are living by His grace and relying upon Him to do His work through us (Kleinig, 199). Like Solomon, when he prayed not for riches or long life after he became King of Israel. He asked for a wise and understanding heart, that he would serve well as king. His request was focused not on himself, but on what would be faithful to God and loving toward His people.
No matter how much we do for others or pray for others, there is always more that could be done. Even when we take a bold step in following the Lord, leaving our lovelessness behind, we have not gone far enough. When, by the grace of God, we are finally able to love that difficult person, to forgive the one who deeply hurt us, there is always one or two or ten other difficulties that still need work. You have grown in the grace and knowledge of the Lord, but that also includes becoming more aware of your sin. When you see your weakness to love, Christ invites you to pray. "Lord, I know I need to love and forgive them. But my sin really does not want me to. I know you want me to. Thy will be done. Help me to love and forgive."
Jesus saying, "Whatever you ask in My name…" prompted Martin Luther to preach, "For since we continually encounter trials, opposition, and obstacles, both from the devil and the world and also from our own flesh; since much weakness and frailty still inheres both in us and in others; since everything is imperfect - for all these reasons it is necessary for us to plead for strength, help, and salvation in every distressing situation… And we have the comfort that our prayer will not be in vain but is acceptable to God, and that whatever we need will surely be granted and given to us if we only pray in faith and in the name of Christ. We have been ordained through Him to the priestly office. Hence we can and must step before God joyfully, as we bring both our own need and that of others before Him, assured by His promise that our prayers will be heard and that He will say yea and amen to them" (AE 24.263-4).
Love. Prayer. Salvation. All of these begin and end with God. He acts in love to save you, with the greatest love of laying down His life into the grave, that despite your sin you would live forever. He makes His Father's love known as He speaks His Word to you. And then, having received the fruits of His love, you produce fruits of love to benefit your neighbor. You forgive as God has forgiven you. As God first spoke to you, you speak to your neighbor on God's behalf in witness, and you speak to God on your neighbor's behalf in prayer. This is why the Lord has come to you and chosen you - to draw you into His divine life, so that you will abide in His love forever.
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