The good news is blunt this week: Jesus’ friendship is based on obedience. He said, “You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:14). As the Father loved him, so he loved his disciples (John 15:9). The way that Jesus stayed in his Father’s love was to keep God’s commands. In the same way, Jesus told his followers that if they want to remain in his love, they must obey his commands (John 15:10). When Jesus promoted his disciples from servants to friends, he wasn’t releasing them from obedience but letting them know that they now knew the agenda and what he would be commanding them (John 15:14-15).
This may sound unfamiliar and even upsetting. We frequently imagine Jesus as only wanting to embrace everyone in a hug, but that is an unnuanced and, frankly, non-scriptural image. Jesus approached different types of people differently. To those who were caught in sin and/or cast out by polite society (sex workers, the possessed, those tax collectors complicit in foreign occupation, the hard-partying gluttons and drunkards), Jesus had nothing but warmth and inclusion. But once they had encountered him, Jesus instructed them to go and sin no more, especially when their sins hurt others (John 8:2-11, Matthew 5:27-32, Luke 3:12-14).
On the other hand, for those who were already part of religious, respectable society, Jesus was immediately confrontational. He decried hypocrisy (Matthew 6:1-18), judging others (Matthew 7:1-5) and elitism (Matthew 5:22). He also threatened with expulsion from the presence of God those who didn’t clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the sick/incarcerated and welcome the foreigner (Matthew 25:31-46).
To be sure, Jesus didn’t cut himself off from anyone. He dined with Pharisees, tax collectors, sex workers, disciples, supporters and detractors alike. Jesus regularly debated with those who held different opinions, and he included in his fellowship terrorists (Luke 6:15), collaborators with the empire (Matthew 9:9) and betrayers (John 6:71).
How can we love others through dying to ourselves? The first and most obvious way is to love in ways that make us uncomfortable. We can start by loving the people who Jesus specifically identifies with—prisoners and those under arrest, those experiencing homelessness, those experiencing food insecurity, the sick and foreigners
Returning to this week’s Gospel reading, what is the command that Jesus demanded that his followers obey in order to remain in his love? That we love one another as Jesus loved us (John 15:12)! This begs the question: how has Jesus loved us that we are to love each other?
Jesus explained this in his next statement: No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friend (John 15:13). Like any good teacher, Jesus modeled love for us first so that we can follow his example. Most of us aren’t called to literally die on behalf of others. Certainly, however, Christians are daily laying their bodies and lives on the line to save others in unjust societies across the world and at home. We would do well to remember these saints in our prayers.
But if we aren’t called to literally die, how can we love others through dying to ourselves? The first and most obvious way is to love in ways that make us uncomfortable. We can start by loving the people who Jesus specifically identifies with—prisoners and those under arrest, those experiencing homelessness, those experiencing food insecurity, the sick and foreigners (Matthew 25:31-46).
How can we love these folks in ways that cost us, that cause us to die to ourselves, at least a little? Certainly, if we follow Jesus’ command to love others as he loved us, it will involve giving up feeling safe, feeling comfortable, feeling provided for, feeling popular, feeling respectable. Probably very few of us will be crucified. But loving like Jesus will lead to us being hurt, I guarantee.
I’m thinking just now of Elle Dowd’s new book Baptized in Tear Gas and where her quest to love like Jesus has taken her. Tertullian, an early Christian writer, argued that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.” Our discomfort, pain and injuries as we love people will help us empathize with Jesus, who stepped out of the throne room of God to be made uncomfortable, experience pain and die from bodily trauma inflicted upon him by the Roman Empire on our behalf. At least for me, I feel like I can identify with Jesus a little more—and be more grateful for his work on my behalf—when I love someone in a way that hurts and makes me uncomfortable.
This week’s passage from Acts, in which gentiles received the Spirit of God that had, up to that point, been reserved for the children of Abraham, represents costly love. Peter, no doubt, felt great reservations about sharing love and power with a member of the occupying forces oppressing his people, no matter how gentle and kind the military officer was. And yet, he was called to emulate his master and reach out to those whose embrace would cost him. So he loved in an uncomfortable way, and showed himself to be a friend of Jesus who loved like his lord.
Sacrificial loving is not optional. Jesus was loved by his Father because he obeyed God’s commands. Jesus said that he will continue to love us if we do the same (John 15:9-10). Please be very careful—this must not be a precondition for embrace of outsiders but an absolute requirement for the citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Consider ways in which you can love someone in a way that costs you, especially if that person is a foreigner, a prisoner/arrested-human, someone who is sick, or someone who is poor and hungry. Love that person like the love of Jesus depends on it. Because in the kingdom of heaven here on earth, it does!