Now we have a shift from the vine of last week’s text to love. The two texts are actually of a piece.
The vine can only be understood in light of its definition as an abiding in love, and the fruitfulness of this love, as described in John 15:16 only makes sense in light of the vine.
As the last passage began with the true vine and the gardener-God and moved out from there to the branches, so here in John 15:9 the development of the theme of abiding presence begins again with the love between the Father and Son, as the call of v. 4 to abide in the vine — Jesus becomes explicitly a call to abide in Jesus’ love. In the Greek of v. 9, the Father and Son are nestled at the center, drawing Jesus’ friend-branches into that love and holding them there between the two verbs: Just as loves me the Father, so I you love. The imperative abide, which comes immediately after, has its basis in a love that is already present and in which the abiding one is already held.
The theme of commandment-keeping enters the spiraling fugue of abiding love in John 15:10, and, like the love of v. 9, the commandment-keeping of Jesus’ friends is analogous to Jesus’ own commandment-keeping relative to the Father. The commandment-keeping emerges from abiding love and is an expression of it (as in John 14:13), and in fact the only commandment given to Jesus’ own is the commandment to love; there are other imperatives (abide, ask, etc.) but only one command. We have already heard it at John 13:34-36, and it will be repeated here.
So they abide in his love by keeping the commandment to love, as the Son abides in the Father’s love by keeping his only commandment, which is that he should express the divine love for the world by coming into it and being present to it, which will inevitably lead to the hour that has been coming and is now here in the narrative (John 16:32). Jesus has restated this immediately before the start of the vine-love passage in John 14:30-31: The ruler of this world, who is coming, has no power over him. Rather he does as the Father has commanded him so that the world may know that he loves the Father. And we know from John 10:17-18 that the love and commandment-keeping between the Father and Son amount to the laying down and taking up of Jesus’ life.
A break occurs now in the development of commandment-keeping and abiding love with the introduction of a purpose statement in John 15:11. Jesus in these five chapters of farewell (John 13-17) is always simultaneously comforting his own and preparing them for the future. And he reminds them from time to time what he is about, why he is telling them all of this now: so that later they will remember it and it will help them, later in the near-term of brutality and death and then, later still, in their own future after they have seen him again and are sent into the world themselves with the abiding presence of the Father and Son and the testifying Spirit of truth. He is telling them all of this now so that they will remember (16:4), believe (13:19; 14:29), be kept from stumbling (16:1), have peace (16:33), and now have joy (15:11). He will say the same thing again in John 17:13, next week’s text, that he is allowing them to overhear his prayer about their future so that their joy may be complete.
We are given an image of joy before then in John 16:20-24, in the metaphor of the woman who forgets the pain of labor in light of the overwhelming joy of having brought a human being into the world. The word translated anguish in John 16:21 is the one used in John 16:33 for the persecution that Jesus’ own will face and which Jesus has already overcome. So the joy offered in John 15:11 and John 17:13 is a deep and enduring creative gladness that, even when it seems most unlikely, will inevitably come to Jesus’ own. And they are perhaps also joy-bearers and midwives of joy for the world into which they, like Jesus, have been born of God (John 1:1-18) and will be sent.
The passage finally reaches the restatement of the love commandment in John 15:12. It corresponds to the second of the three iterations in John 13:34-35, the command that Jesus’ own should love as Jesus has loved them. Then in John 15:13 we are reminded what that looks like for Jesus. Drawing on the language of the shepherd discourse, Jesus now identifies the laying down (and taking up in John 10:17-18) as not only an act of commandment-keeping on his part but also an act of love for his friends.
Jesus’ own are no longer slaves but friends, not on the basis of anything that they have done for him but on the basis of what he has done for them. He has made known to them everything that he has heard from the Father. In John, love (the belovedness of friendship) and mutual knowledge, like love and commandment-keeping, go hand in hand.
Jesus’ initiative is underscored in John 15:16. He does the choosing and appointing. And for those of us who wish to abide in his love, this is surely good news, that we do not carve out a position as Jesus’ branch-friend and that our abundance does not depend on us; we might not even be able to imagine precisely what it will look like since we aren’t the ones doing the pruning and can only see our part of the vine. We merely choose to abide in the love that has drawn us in, and then we blossom.
Finally there is the commandment yet again so that the gospel garland of love and joy and fruitfulness comes to a close at the heart of the matter.
The lectionary never gives us the resistance and hate of John 15:18-16:4a. It takes the testimony of John 15:26-27 and moves down to the more palatable John 16:4b-15 for Pentecost. But the missing verses matter for us because it is only against the backdrop of the world’s hate that the radical nature of God’s love is revealed in its fullest glory. And it is into such a world that Jesus’ own are sent to testify and bear fruit, to love as Jesus loves.
Psalm 98 is the fifth psalm in a group of six psalms in Book Four of the Psalter known as the Enthronement Psalms (Psalms 93, 95-99).
The Enthronement Psalms celebrate the reign of God as sovereign or king over all humanity and, indeed, over all creation. In their opening words, they cry out to all who will hear, “O come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!” (95:1); “O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth” (96:1); “The LORD is king! Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad!” (97:1).
Psalm 98 continues many of the themes that occur in the Enthronement Psalms surrounding it. The singer once again cries out, “O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things” (verse 1). The people and all of creation are then instructed to “make a joyful noise” in verses 4 and 6 (see Psalm 95:1, 2 — all from the Hebrew root rua’); “break forth into joyous song” and “sing together for joy” in verses 4 and 8 (see 95:1 and 96:12 — all from the Hebrew root ranan) and “sing praises” and “melody” in verses 4 and 5 (see 95:2 — all from the Hebrew root zamar). The words of praise in Psalm 98, though, move beyond the praise the reader encounters in previous Enthronement Psalms, incorporating musical instruments in the praise of God as sovereign — the lyre, trumpets, and the sound of a horn (Hebrew shofar) in verses 5 and 6. In verse 7, the psalm singer invites all of creation to add its own “instrumental mix.” The sea and all that fills it, the world and all that live in it are invited to “roar” — literally “make the sound of thunder.” And in verse 8, the floods are invited to “clap their hands,” and the hills to “sing together for joy.”
But why should all humanity and all creation join in celebratory song of God’s reign? Verses 1-3 and verse 9 frame the psalm and provide the rationale for such an extravagant display of praise. In the NRSV translation of Psalm 98, the word “victory” is repeated three times in verses 1-3. The verbal root of the word is yasha’ and means “deliver” or “free.” The “right hand” and the “holy arm” of God are able to deliver humanity, and, indeed, all of creation from the many oppressions with which we and it are faced.
Verse 9 states that God not only delivers, but comes to judge the earth and the world. This verse is rich in imagery and promise. “The earth” and “the world” are used in parallel structure to describe what God is coming to judge. The word translated “earth” is ‘erets, and identifies the whole of the earthly realm (Genesis 1:1, etc.); tebel is translated “world” and has a more narrow reference of meaning as earth’s habitable space. The word occurs fifteen times in the Psalter, with six occurrences in the six Enthronement Psalms in Book Four.
The one additional appearance of tebel in Book Four occurs in Psalm 90. There, we read in verse 2 that God “formed” the earth — ‘erets, and the world — tebel. The word translated in the NRSV as “formed” is the verb hiyl, a verbal root that occurs most often in the Hebrew Bible in connection with the birthing process (see, for example, See Deuteronomy 32:18; Isaiah 13:8; 26:17, 18; 51:2; 66:7,8; Jeremiah 4:31; Job 15:7; 39:1; Psalm 51:5 (7); Proverbs 8:24, 25; 25:23). Thus, in Psalm 90, we have a depiction of the creator God, writhing in childbirth, bringing forth the earth and earth’s habitable space. Thus, we are permitted to see the creator God giving birth to the world that all creation calls home.
Verse 9 continues by stating that God will judge the world, that habitable space, with “righteous and equity.” The words “righteous” and “equity” are rich with both ethical meaning and sheer simplicity. “Righteous” is tsedek, a word to which we Christians often attach overtly religious overtones. The basic meaning of the word in Hebrew is “to do the right thing.” In any situation, what would a worshiper of the creator God do? What would be right for ALL concerned — not for some and not others, not for some right now and others later, but for all right now in the this time and space? “Equity” is the English translation of the Hebrew word yashar, which means, literally, “upright, straight, to the point.” Judging with “equity” means judging with a clear view of equality for all and a firm sense of right and wrong — not equality and right for those of privilege, but equality and right for all of the earth and the habitable spaces of the world.
In summary, then, Psalm 98 celebrates God as sovereign over the earth and the habitable world; invites all of creation to celebrate God’s sovereignty not only with song but with the loud clamoring of “musical instruments”; and assures it celebrants that God will deliver from oppression and judge all of creation with righteous and equity. What a reason to celebrate!
But, what does it actually mean to celebrate God as king, as sovereign? After all, we are here, in the habitable world, the tebel; God is there, in the heavenly realm. How does/can the judgment and righteous and equity of God play itself out in the tebel? At the end of all things, whenever and wherever that might be, God WILL set all things right. In the meantime, I maintain that those who embrace the message of our creator God and, indeed, all of creation — roaring, clapping, singing together — are the hands, the feet, the voices of judgment, righteousness, and equity in this world, the tebel. May we embrace our task, and may we enable, to the best of our individual abilities, all of creation to undertake the task.
The community to whom 1 John was written was facing a crisis.
Former members of the community were denying that Jesus was truly the Messiah, God’s flesh and blood, fully human, son. Like many churches facing doctrinal conflict, 1 John’s community seems to have been confused, afraid, and unsure what to do. Whom should they believe? How could they know what was true, and what was not? How should they react?
1 John’s simple, confident response is as relevant today as it was when the letter was first written: You know who you are, you know whose you are, and you know what you have been told from the beginning. God’s own Spirit shows us what is true. There’s no need to panic or argue. Focus on living your faith instead. God has the whole situation under control.
1 John reminds the community that everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah — the anointed Son of God — has been born of God. They have no reason to be afraid, for they belong to God. As God’s children, they can rest assured that they are loved and protected by their divine parent.
If they love God, then naturally they will love anyone born of God too, because how can one love a parent without loving the child whom the parent brought into being? The child of God referred to in 1 John 5:1 is first and foremost Jesus, but the author also means to say any child of God, as verse two makes clear. Jesus is born of God, but everyone who believes in him becomes his brother or sister. Whoever loves the parent loves not just one of the parent’s children but all of them. The consequences of this conclusion are enormous: every child of God is linked to Jesus. Every injustice done to a child of God echoes the injustice done to him. Every act of violence committed against a child of God recalls the violence committed against Jesus.
Loving God, loving God’s children, and keeping God’s commandments form inseparable links in a circular chain. In its depiction of this interwoven reality, 1 John echoes Jesus’ conversation with his disciples on the night before his death: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15); “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them” (John 14:21); “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:14).
1 John reminds its readers that God’s commands are not burdensome. Here again we hear an echo of Jesus, who denounces the religious leaders for loading people down with “heavy burdens hard to bear” (Matthew 23:4). The Greek word that NRSV translates as “heavy” is barus, the same adjective translated as “burdensome” in 1 John 5:2. By contrast, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30). Like Jesus, 1 John insists that God’s commands are not difficult. In essence, they consist in the call to love, “not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18). Genuine faith, therefore, is firmly connected with active love.
Those with true faith also confess that Jesus is the Son of God. For 1 John, confessing that Jesus is the Son of God means believing that Jesus is the one who came through (dia) water and blood (1 John 5:6). The verse goes on to specify, “not in (en) water only, but in (en) water and in (en) blood” (my translations). Scholars argue about the precise meaning of this phrase. Some suggest that it refers to the blood and water that came out of Jesus’ pierced side after his crucifixion (John 19:34). Others see it as referring to the water in which Jesus was baptized and the blood that flowed from him during his crucifixion, or as encompassing his whole life from the breaking of his mother’s bag of waters to his bloody death. Whatever the precise meaning of the phrase, its basic point is clear: Jesus did not simply appear to be human. He was truly flesh and blood. Nor was he God’s Son only during his baptism and ministry. The fact that he was God’s Son did not mean that Jesus somehow escaped the full consequences of being human. He shared the whole human experience of living and dying. He remained God’s Son even in his agonizing death by torture on the cross. Jesus was born, baptized, and crucified to empower all of us to become God’s children, cleansed by his blood (1 John 1:7). This is not some inessential doctrinal point. 1 John insists that this is the heart of our faith.
Truly Christian faith conquers the world not by military might or doctrinal arguments or coercion, but by love. Christians believe in the Son of God who, rather than shedding the blood of others to prove that he was the Messiah, allowed his own blood to be shed. God’s children triumph not by inflicting suffering on others or by avoiding pain at all costs but by allowing God to work within and through them even in their suffering. What applies to individual Christians applies also to the Christian community. The Church triumphs over false teaching not by force or argument, but because of and through the suffering love of the crucified Messiah. This is the truth to which the Holy Spirit testifies: God’s son was tortured and broken for us. This is the faith that overcomes the world: God’s love brings life even out of brokenness and death. This is the victory to which we are called: loving God’s children, and thus living our faith in the crucified, risen Son of God.