In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The unbelieving world cannot understand the revealed things of God, because they are spiritually discerned—that is, they are only discerned by the Holy Spirit. So if a person does not have the Holy Spirit, he cannot understand the revealed things of God. They will be foolishness or incomprehensible to him. But even so, the words of Jesus have been in the world for a long time, so it seems like they seep into our general consciousness, that people have some vague idea about what Jesus has said. So even unbelievers have some vague idea that there should be a connection between what we say about God’s love and the love of God’s people for one another. There is some deep connection between how we claim God loves us and how we ought to love one another. St. John says it like this: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). So occasionally the world lodges valid accusations and criticisms against the Church, when we do not love one another.
But even though the world can recognize that there must be a connection between God’s love and our love for another, they still do not understand what love actually is. And often, neither do we. We are no less in the world; we have absorbed the world’s way of thinking. We define things the way the world defines them. The world talks about love as a nice feeling, as a warm emotion toward other people; for the world, love is being nice; doing for others what they do for you. Love is reciprocal and equal, repaying good for good and evil for evil. Love is accepting and welcoming, so that the Church can talk about sin only if it agrees with the definitions of evil that the world provides. And those definitions are constantly changing, so that the church begins to chase after whatever fad is current, so that we can convince the world that we really do love them. And then we bring that into the church. If the church defines good and evil exactly as any virtuous pagan would, that could be an indication that we have left behind the Word of God for our own thoughts and opinions. The world cannot understand love. It takes its ideas about what love is and how it should look and then transfers that to its idea of God and His love. But if we actually believe in Jesus, we must listen to Him. And He says, “This is My commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you.” As I have loved you. If we want to know what the love of God is, we don’t start with our own thoughts and ideas about what we think love is; we see what God’s love looks like, and then we can understand what our love for one another ought to look like. Love one another as I have loved you.
It is quickly clear that God’s love is not a nice feeling or warm emotion toward us; it is not that He is infatuated with His creation, and so He does nice things for us. Whenever we hear in the Scriptures about God’s love, it is always concrete, historical action for salvation. God loves His people when He delivers them from slavery in Egypt. God loves His people when He brings them back from exile in Assyria or Babylon. And all of God’s action in history to save His people is summed up and fulfilled in the historical, concrete action of God in the flesh of Jesus Christ. John 3 says it: “This is how God loves the world: He sent His only Son that whoever believes in Him would never die but have eternal life.” Jesus is not just one example of God’s love; He is God’s love as concrete and historical as God’s action can get. It doesn’t get any more physical than God the Son in flesh and blood, walking around, dying, and rising again. This is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10). Greater love no one has than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. And when we realize that Jesus says these words in the upper room on the night before He dies, it quickly becomes obvious that the “someone” who lays down his life is Jesus. This is Jesus’ love not only for us but for His Father, and His Father’s love for the Son. Jesus says that the Father loves Him because He lays down His life in order to take it up again. He says that He has this commandment from His Father: authority to lay down His life and take it up again. Jesus hears and believes the commandment of His Father, and He does it. And He says, I know that His commandment is eternal life (12:50). His commandment is perfected in the flesh of Jesus, and it is eternal life for you, because it is for you that He lays down His life in order to take it up again. He lays down His life for His friends, and they are His friends who are His disciples. He calls His disciples “friends” because they are no longer slaves. Slaves must do what they are told, and the Lord does not tell them why he does what he does, only that they must obey. But Jesus’ friends know what He has doing, because He has told them. Everything the Father says to the Son, the Son says to His friends. But Jesus is not our friend in the way that we normally think of friendship. Just as with love, we have trouble understanding what Jesus means by friendship. One clue is that He says that His friends do what He commands. What friend commands another friend to do something? No; we think friends are reciprocal and equal, just like lovers. But friend here means something much more like the one who receives the help of a benefactor. It’s not equal at all. Jesus’ friends are those whom He blesses; those on whom He pours out His benefits. And those friends who hear Jesus saying that He lays down His life for them, they remain in His love.
God’s love is concrete, historical and for salvation; it is unconditional, not based on what people have done or left undone. It is not equal or reciprocated; it is saving action for those who hate Him; it is forgiveness for those who don’t think they need or don’t want forgiveness; it is welcoming of sinners, and it is welcoming of sinners only in Christ. This is the consistent witness of the New Testament: that God’s love for sinners is Jesus crucified and resurrected. If someone is talking about God’s love but it is a love that has nothing to do with Jesus and His saving action, then it is not the true God and it is not really love.
If this is what the Vine is, what sort of fruit do the branches produce? Jesus says that we do not choose Him for ourselves, but that He chooses us for Himself, and appoints us to go and bear fruit that will last. That fruit is love. And what if we love one another as Christ has loved us? What if we pray in earnest again the prayer following the Sacrament: that the holy Body and Blood that we receive would strengthen our faith in God and our fervent love for one another? That the central action of Jesus for His body: giving them His Body and Blood to eat and drink, exchanging our sin and burdens and guilt and griefs for His eternal life, would actually renew our trust in Jesus as our Lord, and also cause us to carry one another’s burdens? What if instead of focusing on the fact that the unbelieving world continues to do what unbelievers do, our families and congregations actually bore a consistent and substantial witness to what the love of God in Christ means for our love for one another? What if husbands love their wives as Christ loves the Church and gives Himself for her? What if wives submit to their husbands not because they’re less important or less significant than their husbands, but to show the world how the Church submits to and receives Christ’s eternal life and gifts? What if parents do not grieve their children, and children honor and obey their parents? What if we honor our parents and other authorities, because they are put over us by God? What if we care for the bodily needs of everyone as we have opportunity? What if we live chaste and holy lives, fleeing sexual immorality, both with our spouses and with those who belong to others? What if we do not take what belongs to others but instead help them to keep the possessions God has given? What if we do not lie and gossip and stir up dissension, but let love cover over the multitude of offenses committed against us each and every day, and help people to preserve their good reputations? What if we do not covet and long for what God has given to other people? In other words, what if we love one another, particularly in the household of faith, as Jesus has loved us? Then the world’s slanders wouldn’t have any truth to them. Then all their accusations would be shown to be false. Let’s be clear: if Christians love one another, they might know it, but that’s not going to make them like us any more. Jesus tells His disciples, to whom He gives the command to love one another, that the world will hate them, because it hated Him. The world will hate the Church regardless of how well we love each other, but at least we will not give the lie to the love of God for us. At least we will not cause the Name of Christ to be blasphemed. At least we can bear the difficult and quiet witness of the Body of Christ living in love and building each member up until we reach full maturity. And we can do that knowing that we are sustained by the Vine, which gives us life. We have the full joy of the Lord now, because we have Jesus concretely, historically, saving us by water and the Spirit. We have Jesus now, concretely, historically, salvation in His very words. We have Jesus now, concretely, historically, salvation in His own living Body and Blood. And as long as we have Jesus’ love exactly where He has promised it, we know that one day our joy and our love for one another will be made full.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 5/9/15