Commentary on John 15:9-17
One way the Easter season can be described is “trekking through John’s Gospel!”
The preacher’s attempts to traverse this part of the gospel mountain will need to focus on new details in order to avoid repetition of the themes from the past week. The wording of this pericope does not merely repeat earlier themes, however, but subtly weaves in other concepts, results, and outcomes.
Jesus’ assertions in this passage are neatly book-ended by the same injunction to love. An interesting question to pose in verse 9: how has Jesus loved us as God loves Jesus? What is this mirror image supposed to tell us about Jesus’ love for his people, the love in which we are to abide?
The characteristics and actions of this love are multiple and could form a sermon by themselves. God’s love towards Jesus is demanding, full of presence and promise, rich in public displays of God’s power. It prunes, cleanses, molds, forms, challenges, and supports Jesus in his ministry. This is the love of Jesus Christ in which we are invited to abide.
But what are the parameters for abiding? Where is the direction book, the how-to-manual for this abiding?
Abiding is not only a state of mind and spirit. Jesus emphatically says the road of abiding consists in keeping his commandments (John 15:10). Jesus again urges his disciples to do this since he has kept God’s commandments, and the results of such abiding were observable in all he did.
In both verses 9 and 10, one is reminded of a parent leaning over a young baby, with smiles, trying to elicit smiles, and with gestures encouraging the baby to do the same as the parent. Jesus’ use of himself as the model for love, and for commandment keeping, is anchored in daily life. One imagines his encouragement: “You can do this! You can do this because I have done it, and I am here to show you how to do it.”
Verse 11 focuses on what might be considered an odd outcome to keeping Jesus’ commandments — joy. And not just any joy, but the joy of Jesus the Christ, a complete fulfillment yielding this response.
Joy over what? What does this mean? Surely it does mean an exuberance of faith that nothing can destroy. It means a deep-seated sense of happiness that is not merely emotion alone, but also a lively pleasure in the things of God.
Given the grim stereotypes often applied to Christian faith by outsiders, these words of Jesus effectively combine human action (the fulfilling of his commandments) with a radical human emotion as their effect (joy). Abiding in Jesus the risen Lord is not a matter of grim-faced respectability or dour commandment keeping−it is a joy, a holy hilarity!
Foremost among these commandments−as the direction book now begins to unfold more clearly — is “that you love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12). Jesus speaks of “commandments” earlier, but now he speaks of only one: love one another. He extends the depths and extent of this love by saying the greatest expression of love is dying for one’s friends.
Biblical commentators have pointed out some interesting issues of which to be aware of in verses 12 and 13. Here, Jesus is speaking of love between and among friends. What about the enemies? The strangers? Would one go to one’s death for love of these as well?
While these words of the chapter are taken from Jesus’ conversations with friends and disciples, the preacher may consider widening the impact of Jesus’ commandment to avoid some of the limiting in-house views of this passage.
One significant change in relationality, stemming from the arguments in verses 12 and 13, is Jesus’ clarification of how he regards his disciples. They are not strangers, nor merely disciples, and certainly not just servants: they are friends.
Jesus notes the reason he calls them “friends” is he has shared the riches of all he has with them, in terms of his relationship with God. “I have made known to you everything…” (John 15:15). Here Jesus’ offer of the intimacy of friendship is overwhelming. To appropriate Jesus the Risen Lord is to be invited into friendship with God.
Friends of God. The reality of friendship with Jesus offers, in one of America’s favorite words these days, transparency. To know the Risen Christ is to know the heart of God.
One of the most unnerving parts of this passage is Jesus’ assertion that he has chosen the disciples to do the work of God, to bear fruit. He is clear about this: “you did not choose me but I chose you” (John 15:16a).
There is a giftedness about this verse. We received something we did not create, go searching for, or earn on our own. It resembles the glorious feeling of being asked to be someone’s spouse, best friend, beloved; the chosen-above-all-others. If we ask, “Whose name is on this gift?,” the answer is, “mine!”
But there is also responsibility attached to this election of the works of fruit bearing. Not only are we to do it, but we are to bear “fruit that will last.”
What does that mean? Obviously, some ‘fruit’ does not last. Short-sightedness, impetuosity, selfish interests masked as the work of the Church, raw ambition disguised as false humility in the service of God: the list is long and everyone can knowingly add to it through observation of the fruits that rot rather than last.
Positively, bearing fruit means making wise choices and decisions for the work of and on behalf of God. It means acting thoughtfully over a life time; discerning what thoughts, words, and actions best serve the intentions of a loving God in this world, most clearly seen in the figure of the Risen Christ.