Easter 6 · John 15:9-17 · May 17, 2009
By Quentin F. Wesselschmidt
In his recent book, The Lost History of Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2008), Philip Jenkins writes:
In the late ninth century, an elderly Egyptian monk shocked his Muslim listeners when he explicitly denied that Christianity could be supported purely on the grounds of reason, and agreed that ideas like the Trinity and the crucified God flatly contradicted reason. Instead, he said, “I find the proof of the truth of Christianity in its contradictions and inconsistencies which are rejected by intelligence and repelled by the mind because of their difference and contrast. Analysis cannot help it, though the intelligence and perception enquire and search into it” (76).
This seems reminiscent of the famous statement attributed to Tertullian but is not found in his writings, Credo, quia absurdum est (I believe, because it is absurd). I mention this ninth century quote above because I think it applies very apdy to this text and may help us avoid misconstruing its meaning.
God has been called the mysterium tremendum and “the totally other” to emphasize his absolute transcendence in relation to the created order (See Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy [New York: Oxford University Press, 1958]). When we attempt to bring God into our finite world and make him completely comprehensible, we do both God and ourselves a great disservice by attempting to remake him into the image of a human being or something that fits neady into the order of the finite world, thereby diminishing God and sacrificing our sense of awe and reverence. As the Egyptian monk asserted in the quote above, if we are to be intellectually honest, we must remember that God is a great, incomprehensible mystery, beyond all human reason. This applies not only to the doctrines of the Trinity, Incarnation, Predestination, and other divine activities and attributes—It also applies to God’s αγάπη love.
Not only is God transcendent, he is also immanent. Even though Christ entered into our world to express God’s love for us in more human terms, his love is still a mystery, although a little more comprehensible. We often try to understand God’s love in terms of the various kinds of love that we experience in this world, such as the love of a parent, love for a spouse and children, love for our profession or occupation, or love for a favored means of relaxation or leisure. We tend to think that these human experiences of purely human types of love enable us to fathom God’s great love for us. In a limited way they can help us understand the love God expressed in the redeeming work of his Son since that was a love expressed in a human context with human beings as its object. Athanasius once said about the mystery of the Trinity: “[Man can] perceive only the hem of the garment of the triune God; the cherubim cover the rest with their wings.” We can do no better in our attempts to understand his love. As long as God’s love remains a mystery to us, we must stand in deep awe and respect for his love, and be motivated to keep his commandments as he says in verse 12. God’s command is twofold: love God in return with all your heart, mind, and soul; and love one another.
In our text, the love of God originates in the Father since he is the source of the Trinity itself and of all things visible and invisible within the created order. The first love mentioned is the Father’s love for his Son. Next he mentions the love of the Father for the Son. Then Jesus says, “Abide in my love” and “keep my commandments,” which is explained in verse 12: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” In experiencing the love of Christ we are commanded to keep his commandments and love others in the same selfless, αγάπη manner in which he has loved us. Christ has patterned this obedience and love for us in his keeping of the will of his Father and loving us as his Father loved him. Jesus’ love for us challenges us to rise above purely human love both in our relation to God and with one another.
In verses 13 and 14, Jesus calls us friends, φιλοι from the verb φιλειν, the fraternal love between or among human beings. However, this love is usually between equals and motivated by self-advantage or a gain of some sort (the Vulgate translates άγαπειν and φιλειν with words derived from diligere and amare, but these two words do not have the rich meaning and contrast of the Greek terms). This fraternal relationship is possible because of his assumption of a human nature.
Since God is both a transcendent and an immanent being, the love of God as transcendent will always remain a mystery, while the love of God as immanent will be vaguely, but not completely, understandable to us.
In the introductory overview for some of these verses in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament IV b, p. 172 (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), the editor lists these captions: “God reveals himself in our charity, as we love one another as God has loved us.” “When we love one another, we love God and, in effect, keep all that he has commanded, since love encompasses all other commandments.” “It is the love of God that motivates us to love one another as God’s love is intertwined with out own” (172). A sermon outline could be developed out of the three captions, or I would suggest the following outline as another organizational structure for a sermon:
The Mystery of God’s Love
I. God the Father is the source or cause of all true, genuine, God-pleasing love, beginning with the love that exists among the members of the Trinity itself. This love is a profound mystery.
A. The Father is not only the source of the other two Persons of the Godhead, the created order, man’s salvation, but also of Christ’s love for us.
B. God is the source and model of all unselfish, God-pleasing love. When by God’s grace we reflect that love back to God or to others in our world, it is a mystery to non-Christians.
II. Since the love of the Son for mankind originates in the pure αγάπη love of the Father and is expressed within the realm of human existence, it is a semi-mystery.
A. Christ’s love is more comprehensible because he shared a human nature with us and we witness his love as it is expressed in a more human way.
B. His love became demonstrable and tangible in his acts of mercy and regard for human beings, and especially in his redemptive, self-sacrificing work on the cross.
III. The αγάπη love of Christians is a reflection of the Father’s love for his Son and their love for the world, to the degree that we can imitate the love of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Since our inter-human expressions of love fall short of the love of the Father and of his Son, it is less a mystery than the love of God, but still a mystery to our world.
A. Since our human natures remain sinful, which they do this side of the saintly bliss of heaven, our love for others will never be a true, perfect reflection of God’s αγάπη love.
B. However, we can rise above the purely selfish love of this world when our love for others is anchored in and patterned after the αγάπη of God as modeled by Christ in our world.
Unfortunately we are often influenced by the popular conceptions of love that are fashioned by the Hollywood model, described in romance novels, magazines, and the entertainment industry generally. To try to use that model to understand the αγάπη love of God is a real tragedy and sacrifices the true, profound mystery of God’s love for us. When the sense of divine mystery is lost, we also lose the sense of awe and reverence necessary to truly appreciate God’s love for us and His efforts to transform our lives through the redeeming work of Christ.