The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
I don’t know about you, but I struggled with the Gospel lesson for this morning. It bothered me. It distressed me. I know that sounds weird and wrong, but it’s true. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Well…I struggle and worry when I hear these words because I know the cold, ugly truth of my life. I’m not so foolish or Pharisaical so as to believe that I actually keep (or even come close to keeping) this command of our Lord and Savior. I know the truth. I do not love others the same way my Lord loves me.
What bothers me more, however, than the mere knowledge that I often willfully disobey my Lord’s command to love is the fact that Jesus couches this command within the framework of a conditional statement. “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” But I don’t do what my Lord commands. Worse yet, I sometimes don’t keep this command on purpose. There are some people I just don’t want to love. They’re mean. They’re nasty. They’re sneaky and two-faced. They’re lazy. I could go on and on with the reasons and justifications I have for not loving certain people. In the end it comes down to the simple fact that I don’t want to love them! But…if I don’t love them; if I don’t keep this command, then Jesus is not my friend. That’s what He tells us, and that never turns out well in the end. Now maybe you can understand why I’m so bothered and distressed by these words of Christ.
But maybe—just maybe—the problem isn’t with the Gospel words of Jesus, but with me; with my understanding and perception of these words. You see, all too often we tend to treat these words as “law.” We hear the word “command,” and our Old Adam self-righteousness naturally perks right up and takes notice. “Here’s something we need to do.” And I’ll admit: It’s hard to get around this mindset in this particular text. We need to abide in Jesus. We need to love others in the same perfect and unconditional way He loves us. Basically, we need to follow and copy and emulate Jesus, and if we don’t, there are conditions. If we don’t do all these things, we won’t be Jesus’ friends.
But there’s the whole problem! The whole rationale and reasoning is focused on us and what we need to do. “I must love others just like Jesus loves me…in order to be saved.” But is that why Jesus gave us this teaching; this command? Tell you what: Let’s let Jesus answer that question. “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
It’s at this point that I must point out the fact that Jesus was speaking these words to His apostles mere hours before He was betrayed, beaten, spat upon, and nailed to a wretched criminal’s cross. “My joy may be in you, and your joy may be full.” As I said, all too often we hear these words and commands of Christ and pluck them out of context, turning them into “do this or else” type of law rather than the Gospel your Lord intended them to be. When Christ is speaking these words, He’s speaking them to His apostles, knowing full-well what awaits Him. In fact, within an hour or so of speaking these words about joy and love and abiding in Him, Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane praying and sweating drops of blood as He asks His Father to take this cup of suffering from Him. He knows what’s coming.
It’s in the midst of this anguish—the midst of knowing all the pain and suffering and abandonment and denial that awaits Him—that your Lord tenderly instructs His apostles; the very men who would ultimately abandon Him and forsake Him and deny Him and lose all hope and trust in Him. That’s love! “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for His friends. You are my friends….” Jesus is telling His disciples, in no uncertain terms, how much He loves them. And in just a few hours, in the midst of all that gloom and doom and despair, He’s going to practice what He preaches, showing them (and the entire world) just how much He loves by laying down His life as an all-redeeming ransom payment in exchange for our lives. Jesus showed His amazing unconditional love for everyone by taking the Father’s righteous anger and wrath upon Himself. Everyone—every man, woman, and child conceived from Adam—has earned and deserved the full wrath and fury of God’s judgment. But out of a love that only God Himself could have, He took that full divine wrath and fury and judgement into Himself. He was judged and condemned in our place. That’s love!
“But pastor, that doesn’t make any of this any better. In fact, it only makes things worse. ONLY Jesus could have that kind of love. How can we love like Him if only He can have that kind of love?” You’re absolutely right! Only Jesus has that kind of perfect, unconditional, self-giving, self-sacrificial love. Moms come close. In fact, a good mom probably comes the closest to showing unconditional Christ-like love. I’m reminded of John Wayne Gacy’s mom. For those of you who don’t know or remember, John Wayne Gacy was a serial killer from Chicago who liked to dress up like a clown and kill young men. He buried many of them in his basement. He wasn’t a good guy. He was a monster in every sense of the word. But…his mom always went to visit him in prison. People asked her how she could do what she did after all the terrible things he had done to so many other people’s sons. How could she not just disown him? “He’s my son. I still love him. What am I supposed to do? Not love my son? I will always love him.” But even her love had limits. She developed Alzheimer’s and died a few years into his incarceration, essentially forgetting him and leaving him all alone on death row. Even that great mother’s love was limited to the conditions of human health and wellness.
But that right there is our reason to rejoice! The love that Christ Jesus has for us is not limited by health, wellness, mood, distance, economic conditions, or any other factor that tends to influence and affect our love for one another. Our Lord’s love for us is so great that the gates of hell could not prevail against it! The grave, the devil, and all of hell’s fury could not keep the Lord of Life from rising again. This love of God willingly went into the hellish exile of death and forsakenness for us, leading us back out into life on His victorious, resurrected shoulders. It is this love that we have been baptized into. It is this love that made us His own in the waters of Baptism, not because we did anything to deserve adoption and salvation, but because His love for us is that great and incomprehensible.
Now, in light of all this, it’s hard to not have joy, even in the midst of whatever sorrow or worry or ache or pain may be threatening to darken your day. No matter how bad life gets, you are loved by Christ; loved so much that He died and rose for you. And that’s what this command of Jesus is all about. He speaks these words, not to get us focused on what we need to do in order to be saved, but instead to direct our focus on to what He has done in order to save us and all people. And that’s just it: When your focus—your faith—is centered on and focused on the amazing, unconditional love of Christ crucified, you can’t help but recognize one another as fellow brothers and sisters whom Christ loved enough to die for. You see, this command isn’t about loving in order to be saved, but rather loving out of the joy that we are saved, in Christ alone and because of Christ alone. And it is this unconditional Christian love—this agape love that Christ speaks of throughout the Gospel of John, beginning way back in John 3:16—that is made complete in us by loving one another just as Christ loved us.
And I word this very specifically, because the original Greek makes it crystal clear: The love of Christ—the joy of Christ—is made full and complete in us. Christ intentionally speaks a theological passive here. We don’t make our joy full/complete ourselves. We can’t do that; not even a little bit, no matter how hard we try. We have no power or ability to do that anymore than we have the power or ability to make apple trees produce good apples. Our joy—the joy of Christ—is made full in us by Christ. As St. Paul says to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ (which is what Baptism is). It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Said another way, “I have been baptized/crucified into Christ. It is no longer I who love, but who Christ who lives and loves within me.”
Your love and joy that Christ speaks about is His love and joy that He brings to completion in you. Through the working of His Holy Spirit in His means of grace, He brings this joy to completion and fullness in you and through you. “I believe I cannot by my own reason or strength…. Apart from Me you can do nothing.” How true this is! Apart from Christ, there is no fullness of joy. There will always be a Jesus-shaped hole in the heart. There will always be incompleteness and void. And guess what? Nature abhors a vacuum. There can never be a void for very long, which is why man is always trying to fill that Christ-shaped hole with other things; things that we think will give us joy; i.e., more money, more vacations, more power, new cars, new clothes, new phones, etc. It never takes long, though, to figure out that a Christ-less, cross-less joy is no joy at all. At best, it will always be imperfect and lacking and discontented and dying.
It is precisely because of this reality that I point you to the love of Christ Jesus; the love that He had for you in His life, death, and resurrection; the love that He still shows you today by coming to you to feed you and nourish you with His life-giving, joy-inducing gifts of Body, Blood, grace, mercy, and peace. I guess you could call it a command. “Look here. Listen here. Trust in this. Take and eat. Take and drink.” You can call all of those statements commands. You could even go so far as to say it’s all law—the law of liberty, as James of refers to it in His epistle. But understand this: This law and command God gives you, not to threaten you or scare you or cause you despair, but to give you joy and peace in believing. He gives you this command and law of love in order to fix your focus upon Him—the sole fount and source of your forgiveness, your salvation, and your everlasting peace.
Look here. Listen here. Trust in this. May this love of God—love made flesh for you and hung on a cross to die for you—grant you the full God-intended measure of His peace and joy all your remaining days, and may Christ’s joy and peace be witnessed in you and through you as it spills over in abundance to all those whom God loves enough to bring you into contact with. May your cup of His joy and peace ever and always be overflowing.
In His name…AMEN.
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