Every week the sermon proclaims the Gospel. Yes, there is always a small-t preaching text (Psalm 23, John 15) on which the sermon is based. That’s the text projected onto the screen or printed in the church bulletin. But that text is always also in service of getting at the big-T Text that just is the Good News about Christ Jesus. The Gospel is why preachers are in the pulpit in the first place. And so especially today preachers need to be reminded that preaching is not about dispensing Good Advice but proclaiming Good News. Preachers are not supposed to come across like Dr. Phil giving tips and ideas for more successful living. Preachers proclaim how God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and that Jesus has done it all for us.
That’s what we teach (or try to teach) our students at the seminary where I work. There is far too much moralistic preaching afoot in the land as it is, we tell students, so resist the trend of preaching what my friend Meg Jenista called “shouldy” sermons that always end with long “To Do” lists that tend to prop up the latent legalism that altogether too many people harbor in their hearts already as it is. Too often people tend to believe that what gets them in good with God—or at least what keeps them in good with God—is the sum total of all their morally good deeds. The difference between me and my unbelieving neighbor is not grace alone but the fact that I lead a superior life of good works, and God notices.
Don’t aid and abed such preaching, we tell students. Point to Christ alone. Point to the Gospel.
Well and good.
And then along comes a passage like John 15.
“If you do what I say . . . then I will love you.”
“You are my friends . . . if you do what I say.”
It’s the “if” part that nettles. Is salvation conditional after all? Is it up to us? If we don’t behave well, will Jesus diss us? Will he stop being our friend? Stop loving us?
Obviously a good deal of what makes the gospel GOOD news would cease to be so good if, as a matter of fact, we are constantly being evaluated and graded by God. In fact, if the soundness and consistency of my love is the key to being in good with God and with Jesus, then I have good reason to be afraid of my eternal destiny.
Thankfully that is not the case. Jesus’ words—indeed, Jesus’ command—that we be loving makes no sense unless he is addressing that to people who have already been graciously grafted onto the True Vine by a sheer gift of faith through the Holy Spirit. These injunctions to love are for insiders, for those already in the love of God.
That returns the good part of the “good news” that just is the gospel but it doesn’t wash out what Jesus has to say here. The need to heed what Jesus says here is every bit as important as the need to take care to do certain things within the context of what is a really good and loving marriage. Being married—and being genuinely in love within that marriage—does not absolve one of the need to stay faithful, to do loving acts, to tend and nurture the marriage relationship in very active ways. The solid marriage and the carrying out of vital marriage tasks are not at odds with each other. Only a fool would say, “Because my marriage is sound, I don’t have to do a blessed thing to nourish and nurture the relationship.”
Apparently we human branches in Christ, unlike real grape vine branches, need to do some self-cultivation through the Holy Spirit. We need to hone skills like forgiveness (without which we sooner or later will find reasons not to love most everybody). We need to nurture kindness and gentleness, without which the hard knocks of life will eventually make us hard-edged and bitter like a sour grape. We need to grow compassion in our hearts so that we can reach out to those in need even as we see people we don’t particularly like in ways that remind us that they, too, are flawed folks like ourselves and that they struggle and hurt the same as do we all.
Above all we need to be students of God’s Word so that the words of Jesus can abide in us. We need to rehearse and enact the great stories of Jesus, recognizing how the parable of the prodigal son repeats itself a thousand times a day all over the place, including some days in our own lives when we are alternately the waiting father who is hoping for the best or the prodigal loping back home and expecting the worst. We need to rehearse the drama of the shepherd looking for that one lost sheep and so see again our own need to stick with even wandering folks over the long haul. We need to hear the beatitudes echoing in our minds and pray the prayer our Lord taught us. The words of Jesus must abide in us but that cannot happen if we neither know those words nor rehearse them often.
Because if we do, the result, as Jesus says in verse 11, is nothing short of pure joy. Capturing the spirit of that joy, and wanting it to hyper-abound to all people, is the goal of being a branch in Jesus’ vineyard. Throughout the Bible the principal thing you did with grapes was make wine, which is described throughout the Old Testament as one of God’s great gifts to humanity to gladden the heart and bring joy. Christ is indeed our true vine but a vine without branches produces no grapes. It is our holy calling to produce fruit for God–fruit which can be turned into the sweet ambrosia of a love distilled, decanted, and delighted over to the complete joy of all God’s people.
That’s the kind of thing that can be commanded of us. It’s also the kind of thing that those who truly love Jesus already are only too glad to do.
Of course, we could wonder about the question “Can love be summoned by decree?”
We pastors know better. Across the desk sits the husband and the wife. They are sitting within 15 inches of each other but each person’s body is turned about 30 degrees away from the other. They may as well be in separate countries. There’s too much blood, sweat, and tears that have been spilled in this marriage gone awry. Whatever love once flickered in their eyes for one another has long since departed. As pastors, we can counsel with such people, pray for and with and over such people, we can listen to such people.
But the one thing we cannot do is stand up from our chair behind our desk, raise ourselves up to our full stature, and declare, “Listen, you two: This is my command: LOVE EACH OTHER for goodness sake!! Just do it! Feel love! Feel it NOW!”
No, no, that won’t do the trick. You cannot order up love. As the old song says, “You can’t hurry love, you just have to wait.” You can’t hurry it and you can’t order it, either.
So what in the whole wide world is Jesus doing in John 15 ordering us to love? Well, first we can state the merely obvious: Jesus is not talking about a particular set of feelings or emotions. He is not telling his disciples to concoct some particular combination of dreaminess and quickened pulses at the sight of a beloved. It is clear here that “love” means service, means action, means a life of self-sacrifice for the benefit of others.
But, of course, you have to be pretty favorably inclined toward others to do that. You maybe don’t need to feel love a la romantic love or the kinds of fierce feelings of affection a parent has for a child but you have to BE and FEEL something very positive to extend yourself into the lives of others (even all the way to the extreme point of giving up your very life for those others).
Probably, however, you can’t order that, either. Not really. You can’t come up to some surly, self-centered narcissist of a human being and COMMAND that he start living like Mother Teresa or something. No, Jesus’ words in John 15 make sense only if, as a matter of fact, you are already a branch living off the true vine that just is Jesus. You’re going to have to have the “sap” of Jesus flowing into you already because only this bends your life into the kind of shape—and makes you into the kind of person—who already has such a fundamentally Christ-like attitude that hearing a “command” to love will make sense. Jesus has to assume our being grafted onto him or else the command to love is one of the emptiest, silliest things anyone has ever said.
We preachers do our congregations a disservice in case we proclaim John 15 as though it were a generic “To Do” list that most any reasonably well functioning human being could accomplish if only he or she tried hard enough. Jesus’ words don’t exist in a vacuum. They come to those already on the vine.
Theologically literate people know something about the age-old controversy surrounding what is known as the “filioque clause” in the Nicene Creed. It’s been a sticking point between the West and the East in the Church for over a millennium now (though some years ago then Pope Benedict XVI had some fruitful dialogue with the Orthodox church on this very point). Is the Holy Spirit sent to believers ONLY by the Father or is the Spirit—as the Western version of the Nicene Creed claims—sent by the Father “and the Son” (filioque in Latin)? Whatever one makes of that particular question/controversy, one thing one should not miss in John 15 is that when it comes to love, this is definitely something that comes to us from the Father AND the Son. Jesus sketches here a kind of wonderful sequence: the Father loves the Son. The Son loves us. We love each other. In other words, when we are loving to one another in deeds of humble service and sacrifice, we can draw a straight and direct line from that love all the way back to the great God of the universe. There is a holy pipeline of love that connects us right to the Holy Trinity of God. When we realize that this is what is flowing into the Church all the time, our estimation of what goes on in our Christian living gets mightily magnified!
I’ve not known nor worked with any vinedressers or vineyard owners in my life. But at various times I—like perhaps some of you—have watched on TV or in movies what all goes into growing grapes and tending to vines. It’s a lot of work and a lot of tender work at that. I’ve seen vinedressers using strips of cloth gently to tie up parts of the vine even as the grape clusters themselves are handled with care and monitored with care. Some of you may remember the scene from the movie (often profane but still an interesting movie) Sideways in which the main character, Miles, waxes eloquent on how hard it is to grow the pinot noir grape, how that particular varietal needs constant care, exactly correct weather conditions, and delicate handling given its thin skin.
It’s a good, well-written scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCS1Gnwbtp0
I mention all this because often when we think of farming and growing things, the images that come to mind are of big John Deere tractors tearing up fields or giant combines sucking up the wheat from a field. But the images more associated with vines and branches and the production of good fruit are more tender, more personal, more involving. Somehow I like that—it just fits John 15 and Jesus’ own image so very, very well.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 6, 2018
John 15:9-17 Commentary