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Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 5, 2024

John 15:9-17

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

As we come close to the end of the Easter season, we hit the rewind button. With our gospel reading for today we rewind things back to the time Jesus shared with his disciples before his death and resurrection. We rewind things back to the Upper Room, to the night in which Jesus disclosed to his disciples all that was to come. This was the night in which he stooped down and washed their feet, the night in which he instituted the Lord’s Supper, the night in which he was betrayed. This morning we are rewinding back to take another look at what many of you recognize as what we commemorate on Maundy Thursday during Holy Week.

On that fateful night, Jesus said some remarkable things! Jesus told his disciples he loved them: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” He told them he loved them with the highest form of love there is, a love in which one lays down their life for the sake of the beloved. Jesus also promised them joy: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Jesus told his disciples that they were his friends. “I no longer call you servants…but I have called you friends.” Jesus assured them that he had chosen them. In spite of their bickering, in spite of their power struggles with one another, in spite of their sin, their foolishness and failures, in spite of their upcoming denials and doubts, Jesus had chosen them. “You did not choose me,” Jesus told them, “but I chose you.”

On that holy night with his disciples there was one pledge of love after another! There was one love-soaked promised after another! And then Jesus told his beloved disciples, his dear friends, to abide in this love. They were to remain in it. They were to hang on to it. They were to center their lives in it.

And it is through abiding in this love that wonderful things would start to happen. They would willingly begin to keep his commandments. Their hearts would be changed by his love such that they would want to live in obedience to him. There would be no begrudging on their side or coercion on his. The love of Jesus would compel their willing obedience to his commandments.

As John says in our epistle reading, when someone loves God, his commandments are not burdensome. It is like the vows a husband and wife make to each other. When their love is strong, those vows are not a burden. They are not done begrudgingly or enforced coercively. A healthy relationship steeped in love sees the vows as a delight. They are willingly kept. This is what God’s love will make possible, Jesus says. “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” Obedience and abiding in love are inextricably connected to one another.

For you language geeks out there, the verbs in this passage are all in the indicative mood. They are describing something inevitable.  Jesus is not saying, “I’ll love you if you do this,” or “I’ll be your friend if you do this.”  He is telling his disciples that when they abide in his love, this is what will happen. They will begin to keep his commandments.

And these commandments have their highest fulfillment in the way the disciples will love one another. “This is my commandment,” Jesus says, “that you love one another.” And then later, he says again: “I am giving you these commandments so that you may love one another.”

Jesus tells them that abiding in his love will result in fruit, fruit that will last! This is to say, good things will grow out of it. Jesus will grow in them the fruits of faith, and love, and peace, and joy, and these fruits will last. They will last into eternity.

Well, now let’s fast forward. Let’s fast forward all the way past the resurrection, past the book of Acts, where we see all this playing out. Let’s fast forward all the way to today. Today we hear these words of Jesus from so long ago in the Upper Room – and in the hearing, Jesus now speaks them to us! We believe the scriptures are more than just a record of something Jesus said a long time ago. It is God’s living word to us today. In the hearing of his Word, God speaks them anew to us!

And the first thing for us to hear this morning is the love that our Lord Jesus has for us! “As the Father has loved me,” Jesus says to us, “so I have loved you.” Having given his life for us on the cross, Jesus loves us with the highest form of love there is!

Jesus promises us joy: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Joy is not to be confused with happiness, which is circumstantial. Joy is so much deeper. True joy is what happens when the love of God enters into our lives in such a way that everything else, both good and bad, pales in comparison. True joy is the sense of being centered and secure in God’s eternal love, no matter what our current circumstances might be.

Jesus tells us that we are his friends. “I no longer call you servants,” Jesus says, “but I have called you friends.”

Jesus tells us he has chosen us. “You did not choose me, but I chose you,” Jesus says to us. We like to believe that we call the shots in our lives, that we are the ones making the decisions, but when it comes to Jesus, it is utterly clear: “You did not choose me. I chose you.” And he really means you, you know. The Lord Jesus, in the speaking of his Word here and now, has chosen you.  In spite of every mistake you have ever made, in spite of every act of foolishness, in spite of every failure, he has chosen you. And he has chosen you not merely to be his servant, but to be his friend.

As we hear all these pledges of love from Jesus, all these love-soaked promises, we too are invited to abide in this love. We are called to remain in it, to cling to it, to center our lives on it. And it is through abiding in the love of Jesus that wonderful things start to happen.  We see these wonderful things happening in our congregation. We see them happening in each other.

We see them as lives are gradually changed from resenting God’s commandments to embracing them, from only ever being accused by them to seeing them as no longer burdensome, as John says. As we abide in Christ’s love, the commandments become something we freely strive to keep out of gratitude and love.

And the commandments have their highest fulfillment in the way we love one another. As we abide in the love of Jesus, we start to love each other in the same way he loves us. We become a fellowship of self-giving love. We become friends in Christ who serve one another – not because it is our duty as servants, but because we come to delight in it as friends in Christ.

This love for each other goes a long way in bringing us joy, even in the midst of hardship, even in the midst of sorrow. I see it in the way the members of this congregation take care of each other, especially when there is an urgent need. I see it in the way you weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. I see it in the way you find and accompany and support one another in difficult times. I see it in your generosity towards one another. I see God’s love embodied in the things you do for each other and the joy it brings, in spite of difficult circumstances.

The year my mother died a woman in our congregation came back from a trip to Norway with a gift for me. It was a Norwegian sweater. I’m Norwegian on my mom’s side – and she knows that – and so the gift really touched me. Another part of the backstory is that this woman lost her own son several years ago. So here was a mother who lost her son giving this gift to a son who lost his mother. She handed me the bag, I peeked inside, we smiled at each other, sharing an unspoken moment. It took me a couple of tries to say thank you, because I was all choked up.

For me, it wasn’t just the generosity, it wasn’t just the thoughtfulness, though I was deeply moved by both. It felt more like God filling an absence in our hearts through the love of Christian friends. It felt more like a joy born of fellowship that somehow transcended our sorrows.

The point of this little story is not that you should buy presents for your pastor whenever you travel. The point is that God does wondrous things in and among those who abide in his love.  The point is that Jesus gives us his love through each other so that his joy may be in us, and so that our joy may be complete. I know you have stories of your own about how you have received God’s love through friends in Christ. I know you have stories of joy reaching you in the midst of sorrow. That’s what happens! This is what Christian community is all about. When we abide in the love of Jesus, that love bears fruit, fruit that lasts!

Is there bickering in the church? Oh yes. Are there power struggles? Um, yeah! How much time do you have? Do we fail to love Christ and one another at times? Yes we do, and I am as guilty as anyone else. But just as Jesus chose the bickering, betraying, denying, doubting, and stumbling disciples, so too has he chosen us – not because we are worthy, but because we are loved. “Just as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you,” Jesus says.

Abide in his love. Rest in it. Cling to it. Center your life in it.  And then watch for the wonderful things that are sure to come.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church