Commentary on John 15:9-17
If last Sunday’s lesson ended on the note of disciples glorifying God the Father through the bearing of “much fruit,” then in this Sunday’s continuation that fruit fairly bursts open as a veritable flood in the exercise of love.
Though reference to love has been completely absent in verses 1 through 8, the repeated reference to it now (5 times as verb or noun in verse 9 alone; 11 times in the lesson as a whole) clearly gives love the center stage. The effect is now to interpret the whole of the passage on vine and branches in terms of love.
As background it will be helpful at the outset to review the remarks from last Sunday on Jesus’ words in John 14-17 as part of the address of the resurrected Lord to a post-resurrection disciple community. The lesson for today might be divided into two major sections, the first (9-12) focusing on the abiding relationship of love that binds Father, Son and disciples into one, the second (13-17) focusing on the empowering love of the Son by which he laid down his life for his “friends.”
“Just as” Love
Love is to be seen above all in the love of the Father as shown forth in the love of the Son. Our thoughts are intentionally directed back to the announcement of the depth of God’s love for the world as evidenced in the giving of the Son. “God so loved…” (3:16). In the interconnected and unfolding message of John’s gospel, it is as if every word and every passage mutually interpret one another. Using a modern analogy, one might imagine that every word in the gospel were hyperlinked to every other word in the gospel, so that “clicking” on one word necessarily explodes and expands into every other word as its commentary and frame of meaning and understanding.
One of those important words in the first section (9-12) is a simple word variously translated as “so,” “as,” or “just as” (Greek kathos). In the original this word essentially frames the whole section. “Just as the Father has loved me…;” “…just as I have loved you” (9, 12). “Just as” is a key motif (31 times in the gospel) in John’s “theology” for what it reveals about the mutual relationship of Father, Son, and disciple community. As the Father has loved, so the Son loves. The Son’s love imitates and mirrors the Father’s love. The Son’s deep love in the giving of his life for his friends is no accident, but stems “just so” from the way the Father has loved the Son. To “abide in the Son’s love is to know oneself as abiding in that same love which originates in the relationship of Father and Son.
Abiding in Love
The abiding relationship of vine and branches of last Sunday’s lesson, which culminates in the bearing of much fruit, is now given further delineation in terms of love. If abiding is not for its own sake but has an end or a purpose, now that purpose takes shape in love. Love is the fruit of the abiding relationship of Father and the Son, just as it is of the Son and those who follow his words.
Those “words” of Jesus are characterized in this lesson as Jesus “commands” (5 times as verb or noun). Consistent with John’s “just as” theology, even these commands which Jesus calls upon his disciples to keep are simply an extension of the commands of the Father which Jesus has already kept. Jesus asks nothing of his disciple community that he has not already modeled in the abiding love which he has with the Father. In this way abiding, loving, and keeping commandments are all bound up together in a mutual relationship.
Lest we miss it, the first section concludes with a direct and clear statement of the outcome or fruit of this abiding love. The commandments of Jesus are not general or scattered but focused and specific: “This is my commandment, that you love one another” (12). The repetition of these words again at the conclusion of the second section (17) underscores their importance as a key to understanding the end goal of all this talk of abiding love (Incidentally, this repeated literary structure in 12 and 17 also makes clear that the NRSV’s translation of verse 17 cannot be correct. The text should read “I am giving you this command, that you love one another.”)
No Greater Love
If love for one another is the goal of our abiding in Jesus’ love, then the model for that self-giving love is stated clearly in the memorable beginning words of the second section (10-17). There is no greater love than that shown in the giving of one’s life for one’s friends. Though stated in general terms, the “laying down of one’s life” is a pointed reference to God’s giving of the Son, and in the narrative an only slightly veiled reference to and anticipation of the passion and death of Jesus on the cross. The power of God’s great love in Jesus, confirmed in Easter’s promise of the resurrection, always has its frame of reference and its power in Jesus’ giving of his life on the cross.
Jesus now speaks of the power of that giving of life to transform the disciples’ relationship and calling into a new status. These disciples are no longer to be counted as “servants” but as “friends.” In the cross and resurrection they have come to know what this “greater love” has power to accomplish in them through their unity in the abiding relationship with Jesus and the Father. Jesus’ words now make it further clear that the power to respond to his command to love one another comes from Jesus’ own prior love and calling: “I have called you…; I have chosen you…; I have appointed you… (15, 16)
Whatever You Ask
The key guarantor of this abiding relationship that will usher in the fruit of love is the power of prayer. Prayer, too, is grounded in the mutual abiding relationship of Father, Son, and disciple community. “The Father will give you whatever you ask in my name (16). When this promise is linked immediately with the repeated reference to Jesus’ command to “love one another,” it is clear that “whatever we ask” defines and directs Christian prayer toward the fulfilling of the command to love for the other. The promise that such love can be fulfilled resides in the giving that has already preceded in Jesus’ love on the cross.
This confidence in the power of prayer (16-17) mirrors a similar promise in last Sunday’s lesson (see 15:7-8). If there prayer is grounded in “abiding in me” and “my words,” here it is grounded in Jesus’ announcement “you did not choose me, but I chose you.” If there we hear that the Father is glorified in the bearing of much fruit, here we now know that such bearing of fruit is to be found in the fulfillment of Jesus’ command to “love one another.”
To be called and appointed for such an exercise of love is for the Christian neither mere sentimentality nor drudgery. There can be no simple sentimentality in a love whose depth is to be seen in a life laid down for one’s friends. At the center of this text and at the heart of love stands the cross of Jesus. Nor can there be any painful drudgery in Jesus’ promise that all of this abiding love, this life given for us and for the other, has as its goal “so that your joy may be complete” (11). The abiding relationship in love of the Son with the Father is mirrored and modeled in the Son’s laying down of his life for the world.
Jesus came so that we might experience an overflowing life (John 10:10). Jesus expresses here the longing and the promise that his joy might be in us and that only in such abiding love and joy is the wholeness of life that the Father’s love has in its purview and promise. Just as the power of this love for our lives comes when we draw power from the vine, so our joy comes from knowing that we have been chosen, called, and sent. The abiding power of that love in and through us has power to renew and transform us and the whole of creation.