United Methodist Clergy
West Sacramento, CA
Summary: We are a community of stewards of the gospel; we are called to love one another and all of God’s people with the same origin, quality, and intensity with which God in Christ loves us.
I have called you friends”—what a thrilling thing for Jesus to say! But initially it is troubling as well, because Jesus links it with following his commandments. He is on the last stage of his journey to Calvary, and his words in this passage connect friendship with a willingness to give oneself for others—all the way to death.
So let’s dig into the scripture.
One way to see John 15 is as two sections: verses 1 to 8 saying “remain in me” and verses 9 to 17 saying “remain in my love.”1 Their side-by-side placement tells us that who Jesus is wraps itself up in how he loves, and that he invites us to a lifelong response of mutuality.*
The two sections begin and end with the idea of “word” or “commandment.” Within each section, Jesus speaks about God’s love for him, his love for us, and our ongoing love in return. The hinge is verse 11, where Jesus says “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” The structure of the chapter implies that who Jesus is and who we are are deeply connected to each other and linked to our following his commandments and remaining in God’s love. Such indwelling, almost a mystical mutuality, is characteristic of the entire fourth Gospel.
Working in Jesus’ presence, remaining in his love
So what does Jesus mean when he uses the word “love”? It is not primarily an emotion. In John, love is ethical: our choices and behavior towards others. And love is also an inward reality, a divine quality that God entrusts to us so that we can participate in unity with the Father and with Jesus.3 (See John 17.) Throughout this Gospel, Jesus’ words “my love” refer to “my love for you.” As with everything we steward in life, we begin with love, not with our response; not even with God’s overflowing gifts, but with God, the incredibly generous Giver. (See John 3:16; 1 John 3:1; 4:7, 10.) Our generosity of heart and hands, the total involvement of who we are, originally comes from God and can, by God’s grace, naturally flow through us to transform the world, one experience at a time.
But Jesus also says “remain in my love.” Even though love comes from God, we can decide whether or not to remain in Jesus’ love for us.4 The verb “remain,” sometimes translated as “abide,” means to live for the long term. When we choose to remain in Jesus’ love, we share in his life by loving him (vv. 9-10) and by loving one another (vv. 12-17).
So how might remaining in Jesus’ love change the way we do business as the church? How does it affect how we live as stewards of all God entrusts to us? It means that our business ultimately has nothing to do with church programs, denominational affiliations, or religious duties. Rather, our life as stewards and church persons has everything to do with relating back to this alive, loving, relational God, acting on decisions that reflect God’s gifts of unity and mutuality, and living in the personal presence of the risen Christ.
Making a covenant vow
In seminary and countless Bible studies since, I have heard about two kinds of covenants God makes in the Hebrew scriptures. Conditional covenants, such as the Decalogue (Exodus 20:1-17) and the covenant at Shechem (Joshua 24:14-24), express God’s holiness and intention for us to become righteous.5 Unconditional covenants, such as those that came through Noah (Genesis 9:11-17), Abraham (Genesis 15), and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:31-34), convey God’s shocking, sovereign decision to bless us, forgive us, and form us into God’s people.
But the part I missed was that God’s covenants with us are not just treaties between humans and our Redeemer Creator. It is not just the Sustainer’s unconditional covenant of grace. These covenants are intimate vows with each one and with all, from before time to past the end of time. Throughout the scriptures, God promises to be our God and to let us be God’s people (Genesis 17:8; Exodus 6:7; Revelation 21:7). This covenant vow is fulfilled in our relationship with Jesus (John 15:15). It is the lasting basis of our relationship with God, undergirding all we are called to be and become, and everything we are called to do as “good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10). This oh-so-generous God is the One who calls us into generous living, not because of our third-party beliefs, ritualistic everydayness, or legalistic obligation, but because of God’s sheer choice for forgiveness, re-creation, and grace!
Becoming a beloved community
So we return to John 15 knowing we are bathed in the love of God and living in the personal presence of Jesus Christ. Jesus says he does not call us servants, as if we were unaware of what he is doing. Rather, he has already called us “friends”–philoi–because he has made known to us everything he has heard from God.
Our current English term “friend” fails to translate this stunning word. Philos comes from philein, which means “to love.” In the plural it translates better as “those whom Jesus loves,” or as “Jesus’ beloved ones.” This is a more intimate relationship than obligatory belief or proper behavior! It is knowing each other personally, really, fully. It is intimacy between the cosmic Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer and our Lilliputian selves. Amazingly, it is also knowing and participating in God’s purposes. When James (2:23) calls Abraham “the friend of God,” he uses philos, God’s beloved. And here in John 15:15, Jesus clearly tells the community of disciples, “You are my beloved ones.”
Ah, so this makes sense now! Our friendship with Jesus fits with following his commandments! In John 15:14, Jesus says, “You are my beloved ones (philoi) if you do what I command you”–and Jesus’ sole distinctive commandment fills the two verses just before it: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” So he is not talking about our acquiescence to multiple minute laws, but rather about our making a basic creaturely response. We do not obey God in order to have God love us, or follow Jesus in order to have him call us “beloved.” He already calls us philoi, and has proved it by going all the way to the cross. Because of this fact, we naturally pour out our love (both choices and actions) with gratitude, looking for ways to steward the incredible gift God gives us. Because we are a community of stewards of the gospel, we are called to love one another and all of God’s people with the same origin, quality, and intensity with which God in Christ loves us.
Living as Jesus’ loved ones
So what does John 15:15 tell us? We are Jesus’ loved ones, a community of stewards of God’s love. Who we are is wrapped in how we love, by our choices and our actions. Whatever we do is centered in Jesus’ living, personal presence, not in our religious beliefs, church business, or ministry programs. Our relationship with Jesus embodies God’s unconditional covenant with us, a vow from God’s generous heart, which flows out through us in generous living.
Reprinted with permission of the Ecumenical Stewardship Center, 2007.
*Another view of the structure of the passage notes the “chiastic” pattern of verses 7-17, meaning that verses 17-12 mirror verses 7-10.2
Questions for Discussion
1. What difference does it make in my personal and spiritual life that Jesus calls me a friend rather than a servant?
2. How does being a friend of Jesus make a difference to my congregation and the way it invites giving and distribution of gifts for ministry?
3. Why is the language of a personal relationship with Jesus frightening to many religious and church-going people? What might be done to remove those fears?
4. What might we do to promote giving and ministry as a dynamic relationship with a loving God rather than as institutional budget-balancing?
5. What one thing am I challenged to do by this conversation?
1Rudolph Bultmann, cited in Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI (Anchor Bible, Vol. 29, Part A). (Des Moines: Anchor Bible, 1970), 665.
2Raymond Brown, ibid, 667-8.
3R. Borig, cited in Raymond Brown, ibid, p. 681.
4Henri Nouwen, “Abiding in My Love,” John 15 (audiotape).
5Righteousness is a person’s dynamic relationship with God where our sense of justice and compassion are as essential to us as is breathing. See Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, Vol. I (New York Harper & Row, 1962), 199-201.