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Sixth Sunday of Easter
Light of Christ Anglican Church
The Rev. Mike Moffitt, May 9, 2021

The Most Powerful and Misunderstood Word

Text: John 15:9–17

Last Sunday after church Teresa and I drove to Roanoke on a short overnight trip. We had dinner with some dear friends and caught up on what has been going on in our lives since we last met, which was several months before the pandemic.

The primary reason that we went to Roanoke was to see one of our oldest and dearest friends who has stage 4 lung cancer and cancer of the esophagus. With our children and grandchildren we are planning a Moffitt family reunion in Roanoke in July and had already planned on getting together with Brian and his wife Karen at that time. However, as we have been communicating back and forth with them it became apparent that Brian may not have that much time left unless God intervenes with a miraculous healing.

That is certainly what we are praying for multiple times every day, but of course, we don’t know what God is planning. We have had a close relationship with Brian and Karen for over 50 years, and at one point before children started arriving, we shared a house together. I’ve had all these memories of our lives together running through my mind as I contemplate Brian going home to our heavenly Father. I knew we couldn’t wait until July, so we went to Roanoke to spend a little time with our friends, although keeping in mind that he wasn’t strong enough for a long visit. I wanted to see him and have the opportunity to tell my dear brother that I love him. I know he will be returning to the Lord, and I’ll see him again someday, but I’m going to miss him in the meantime.

We hugged as Teresa and I prepared to leave, and I told him I loved him, even though he knew that, as I know his love for me. It seemed important to convey the obvious because I knew that I really only had two things to offer, my fervent prayers and my deep love for him.

In the English language we only have one word for love whereas Sanskrit has 96 words for love; ancient Persian has 80, Greek has four. In the English language, using the word for love usually depends on the context of its usage and the nuance inferred by the situation itself. This is especially bothersome nowadays when texting or emailing because nuance is lost.

As we all know this can lead to grave misunderstandings between people, but it also cheapens the use of the word in our culture. In other languages the various words are used to convey a specific feeling or emotion, but in English, it is open to the interpretation of the listener. The Beatles sang, “All we need is love” and there are a great many renditions of Perry Como’s 1958 hit song, “Love Makes the World Go Round.” What kind of love do we need and what kind of love makes the world go round?

This past week I remembered the scene in “Love Story” with Ryan O’Neil and Allie McGraw and the famous line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” The line was delivered with such emotion and feeling and sounded really touching and wise, until I took the time to reflect on it. Then I was thinking, “What does that even mean? That’s not true at all.”

We tend to throw around the word “love” with abandon with phrases like, “I love your hair” or I would love a milkshake”. Is it any wonder that people often misunderstand what it means to say that God loves us or that we should love God? It is vitally important that we understand what the Bible is teaching us when it uses the word love.

Today, we are beginning week six of the Easter season and in two weeks we will celebrate Pentecost. On Easter we saw the greatest example of sacrificial love ever demonstrated as Jesus, in his love for the Father, submitted to the horror and suffering of the cross. This was also a demonstration of the Father's love for us in that he gave his only Son as a sacrifice for our sin. In the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, we saw the power of love overcoming sin and death and the Savior reaching out in a tangible expression of love to the disciples who had abandoned him and offering them peace and forgiveness.

Last week we saw in Deuteronomy 4 a demonstration of love as Moses, from his love of God and his people, prepares the Israelites to cross over the Jordon River into the Promised Land. He would not be allowed to go himself but as he prepares them to follow Joshua, he reminds them of all that God had done for them in their wilderness wanderings. He asks them the question in Deuteronomy 4:32–34,

Indeed, ask now concerning the former days which were before you, since the day that God created man on the earth, and inquire from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything been done like this great thing, or has anything been heard like it? Have any people heard the voice of God speaking from the midst of the fire, as you have heard it, and survived?

He then reminds them that God had commanded that their response to his favor was that they obey his law because he was their God and had loved them so much. Then we saw in John 14:15–17 that Jesus told his disciples the same thing as Moses had said to Israel,

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”

Today we will continue with this theme of love but will further define its meaning and how it is to be lived out by those who profess to love God.

We will be considering our gospel reading from John 15:9–17 but first I want us to consider what God was telling Israel about his love for them in our passage from Isaiah 45:11–13. God speaking through the prophet revealed that he was raising up the pagan King Cyrus of Persia to free God’s people from exile in Babylon. Not only was Cyrus freeing God’s people to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple but he would pay for the rebuilding and provide them protection. This would have been awfully hard for Israel to believe and so God speaks to them in Isaiah 45:11–13,

Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, and the one who formed him: “Ask me of things to come; will you command me concerning my children and the work of my hands? I made the earth and created man on it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host. I have stirred him up in righteousness, and I will make all his ways level; he shall build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward,” says the Lord of hosts.

And then verse 18,

For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (he is God), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it empty, he formed it to be inhabited): “I am the Lord, there is no other.”

Even though Israel continually rejected God and turned to worship the gods of pagan nations and was sent into exile in Babylon for it, God still would not reject them. He was making a way for them to return to the holy city, Jerusalem, to rebuild the temple that had been completely destroyed. Why would God act in such a way towards those who had been so unfaithful? Why would the only true God who had openly moved before Israel in powerful ways be willing to forgive them when they preferred worshipping a piece of wood, stone, or metal? I have read these stories so many times and I still marvel at God’s patience and love.

The Psalmist sings the same acknowledgment about God in Psalm 33:6–8,

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,       
        and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap;       
        he puts the deeps in storehouses. 
Let all the earth fear the Lord;       
        let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!

In Isaiah and the Psalms, we find the reasons that we should love God and stand in awe of him. He is our creator and there is no one like Him. As we said last week, “Who has ever heard of such a thing as this?” The question before us this morning is: what does it mean for us to love God?

We can begin to understand the answer to this question from the way that the Father and the Lord Jesus love each other. In our gospel reading Jesus defines what he means by using the word love between him and the Father and between us and the Father. Let’s turn back to our gospel reading from John 15 and read verses 9–11,

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 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.”

This passage comes right after Jesus had been teaching about the union of Christ and his people being compared to the relationship between a vine and the branches. Jesus calls himself the true vine and those who are attached to him will bear the same fruit that he does. In verse 8 Jesus says,

“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”

The evidence of being in union with Jesus is to be seen through the bearing of fruit (a life marked by victory over temptation and manifesting the fruit of the Spirit, Galatians 5:22). These works are not the grounds for our acceptance by God, rather they are the inevitable result of our union with Christ. They are not the cause of salvation but rather the effect of it, an effect that is so much a part of this union that where fruit is not present there is good reason to wonder if salvation has taken place. That is the context that brings us to this morning’s passage.

The glory of the Father is Jesus’ main purpose and was the focus of all that he taught and did, and this would be the trademark of his disciples as well. The result would be that they would remain in his love just like the love that the Father and the Son shared.

In verse 9 Jesus said, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.”

The word that Jesus uses for “loved” is “agapao” which is the verb form of agape, a feminine noun. In this case the words mean to feel great affection, to have feelings of goodwill or benevolence.

In essence, Jesus was telling the disciples that the Father had acted with love towards the Son through his actions and Jesus has done the same thing towards them. Why? Because of the deep feeling of affection (agape) that the Father has for the Son and the Son has for his disciples. The feeling causes the action (agapao) and Jesus explains that this feeling of love for the Father should prompt the disciples to act in such a way that their affection would be shown. It would be an outward way of living, prompted by a deep affection (agapao) for God. We see that in verse 10,

“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.”

Jesus wanted his disciples to see that their actions of obedience to God’s commands would allow them to live into the expression of the Father’s love instead of dealing with his fatherly discipline. He tells them, “these things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”

As Jesus’ word remains in them through their faithfulness to God’s commands, they are actually sharing in his life with the Father, which is characterized not only by obedience but a fullness of joy not found elsewhere. Usually joy is not something that comes to mind when people think of being obedient to God’s law. They often see obedience as conforming to rules, which stifles their creativity and individualism. Rules often produce guilt when they are not followed or, in our culture, many seem to have delight and pride in standing up to the oppression and bigotry of being told they must obey laws they see as oppressive. But the obedience that Jesus is talking about is not to societal rules and regulations but to the God who is characterized by love and mercy. To obey the Father is to conform our lives to the pattern of God’s own life. God is calling his people to share with him in a life of harmony, grace, goodness and beauty.

We should never see the commands of God as burdensome but as a gift of his love. It is God who has given us life and laid out how it is best lived. This is God moving in love for his children. This is why Jesus said that our loving response to God is to obey his commands. In doing so we are accepting his love and responding appropriately.

When we turn to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith, we are in intimate union with him like a branch feeding off of the nourishment of the vine. In this we are swept up into the dance that we were created and designed for and which brings the deepest fulfillment and deepest joy to our lives. Jesus’ joy and fulfillment came from the intimacy that he shared with the Father and the delight he had in pleasing him. If we have no joy in obeying the Father, then we should consider whether we know him as Jesus knows him and whether we understand his will as the description of his true freedom and joy.

Eugene Peterson in his book, “The Jesus Way” wrote,

To follow Jesus implies that we enter into a way of life that is given character and shape and direction by the one who calls us. To follow Jesus means picking up rhythms and ways of doing things that are often unsaid but always derivative from Jesus, formed by the influence of Jesus. To follow Jesus means that we can’t separate what Jesus is saying from what Jesus is doing and the way that he is doing it.

Accepting sin in our lives is not walking in love because it grieves God. Accepting sin as normal in our culture for the sake of unity is to guarantee separation from God and the assurance of his righteous judgment.

One of the earliest surviving post-biblical documents describing the Christian faith and life is called The Didache. The first chapter opens with these words,

Two ways there are, one of life and one of death, and there is a great distance between the two ways.

Jesus came to pay the penalty for our sins and because of that he expected his disciples to respond to this love by following his example of sacrificial love. Let’s read John 15:12–15,

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing, but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”

Jesus loves just as the Father loves and he commands his disciples to love one another just as he had loved them. If they did then the community would be characterized by divine love. This was not to just be a love defined by a feeling but by action that revealed the depth of love within the heart. Jesus defines the terms of this love when he says that it includes the laying down of our lives for our friends. The word that Jesus uses for friend is “philos” which is an adjective related to the verb form of phileo, meaning brotherly love, from which we get the name of “Philadelphia, the city of Brotherly Love.” Jesus is not just saying that we should only lay our lives down for our friends because he had taught that he had come to lay his life down for even his enemies. He is telling them that they were no longer servants, but they were now his friends. The intimacy that Jesus invites them into is quite extraordinary, but it demanded that they follow his way of life.

The love that Jesus is calling the disciples into with him and the Father is quite different from what they had originally assumed. The early church understood this concept of following the pattern that Jesus had given them through his life and teachings. They picked up on the same words that Jesus used. Luke records the actions of Saul seeking to arrest the followers of Jesus in Acts 9:1–2,

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.

In John 14:6 Jesus referred to himself as, “The Way the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through me.”

Geoff Chapman in his book, Growing into Jesus ‘ Life, writes,

The word ‘Way’ means most simply a road or a path to a destination. But we also use it to mean a manner or pattern of activity. When the early Christians claimed this phrase, they meant to say that following Christ is far more than rearranging our intellectual furniture or occasional worship attendance. They meant to say that following Christ brings us the gift of life, his very own life, which includes his way of life, happily embraced as our way of life.

Mankind was being invited into friendship with God and the characteristic of this friendship would be unity of purpose and a common desire that God be glorified, worshipped and obeyed. The result would be friendship and intimacy like Adam initially experienced in the Garden of Eden where God walked with them in fellowship.

Is this how you understood the offer of the Gospel when it was presented to you?

So often people are asked to pray the “sinners’ prayer” which invites repentance of sin and asking Jesus to be their Savior and Lord. That’s fine but the real invitation is to follow that Way of Jesus which is living for the glory of God and following his commands. It’s not merely a “Get Out of Hell Free” card but a complete change of direction. Instead of following after our own desires we are promising to follow after the heart of Jesus which is to glorify the Father who is in Heaven. The offer is amazing, but it must be understood for what it is. To reject this is madness, which is why we must be those who share the story that God has begun in us. It is not loving when we don’t speak words of life to those who are perishing and heading towards an eternity in Hell.

Unfortunately, the Gospel message has been watered down to make it more appealing for the unbeliever. There is often little said about our sins and separation from God. The offer of the Gospel doesn’t confront the sinner with his/her need for repentance and faith and the reality of facing a Holy God in judgment. This morning we must invite the Lord to reveal our hearts to us and invite him to move in and through each of us so that we are following the way of Jesus, which is life, instead of the way of the world, which in truth ends with eternal death.

Let’s pray.

©2021 Rev. Mike Moffitt

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