Fruit that Lasts
Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
Imagine you’re hearing today’s Gospel reading for the first time. For some of you, this isn’t much of a stretch – it is the first time you’re hearing it. For others, if you haven’t heard it before, it feels like you have – nothing seems shocking or earth-shaking. Love each other. Of course, Jesus would say that. It’s a noble thought, but not so specific that it has any real bite. It doesn’t mention the classmate or colleague everyone finds annoying, or the Op Shop customer who feels no need to observe proprieties, or the elderly relative who’s not acting grateful at all. It doesn’t specify ex-spouses here or the addicts in our lives or the “undeserving” poor. As long as we can keep love an abstraction, we’re fine.
It is a little odd to think of being commanded to love, though. Can love really be commanded? I think of love as a gift, and if a gift is commanded – well, it’s no longer a gift. It’s payment. And to be honest, I’m not used to thinking of myself as someone who responds readily to commands; I’m not a dog. Nor am I in the military, where following the chain of command can mean the difference between life and death. At the very least, a relationship based on command and response doesn’t feel like what I know of as friendship or how grown-ups are supposed to function in the world. So what’s really going on here, and what does it have to do with a life worth living?
Those of us who have heard this passage a few times could add some details that might help. It helps to know when Jesus is saying these words and the people he’s saying them to. We’re at the Last Supper on the night before Jesus is executed, just hours before he’ll be betrayed and deserted by his friends – these friends, in fact. In John’s version of the story, he’s with his closest followers (not just the twelve disciples, but certainly including them) – and he’s just washed their feet as an example of how they’re supposed to take care of each other when he’s gone. No one in a Christian community is above the most humbling acts of service. Changing diapers, washing feet, serving food, cleaning up afterwards – all of it is on the table as to what they might be called to do as followers of Jesus.
That might have been a bit shocking for his first audience. He’s talking to the people who have been with him for the last few years, who’ve heard him teach and seen him preach, who’ve been taught how to heal body and soul in his name. They’re the ones who expected to get positions of rank and title in his new administration. They’d showed up to lead, and here Jesus is telling them how to serve – as if service and leadership are never really that far apart.
John, our Gospel writer, uses this moment to throw in all kinds of final instructions. Everything we want to tell our loved ones as they’re facing a huge transition – whether it’s graduation or marriage or our own impending death – everything we want them to remember when we’re no longer by their side to shield them – that is what John’s Jesus is trying to communicate here. He’s not married after all; he doesn’t have kids. He has no property to pass down, no pile of possessions to prove that he was here. He didn’t start a company or a school; he didn’t even write his own ideas down. This motley group of friends – the words they write about him and the acts of compassion and grace given in his name – that, in a sense, is his legacy.
So what does he tell them? Part of me wishes we could drop the commandment language all together, but I’m not sure that does justice to the seriousness of his words – or the weight they carry if he is who he says he is. Loving each other is, for Jesus, a matter of life and death. And I’m not talking about the sentimental affections that get stirred up by holidays and Hallmark cards here. Jesus defines the kind of love he’s talking about: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” Considering the painful death Jesus is about to face, one wonders what kind of love this is. It’s not a love that protects us from all harm at any cost; it recognizes that there are some things – like justice, like good news for the poor – that are actually worth living and dying for. It’s not a possessive, isolating, zero-sum kind of love where there’s only so much to go around – where my loving you makes it less possible for me to love someone else. The love of God makes us more generous with our love and stretches our capacity to give of our time or our money, whichever we find most valuable. It’s not a smothering, infantilizing love that insists we remain as children with children’s responsibilities; it gives us adult-sized power to impact other people’s lives with our choices and expects us to use that power for good.
If we’re going to reduce what Jesus asks of us to just one thing, here it is: “Love one another as I have loved you.” This is a love that calls us out of the shadows into leadership, that sees more in us than we see in ourselves. It doesn’t pretend that we’re innocent, and it doesn’t always protect us from the consequences of our actions. It’s a love that sees our faults clearly – our ignorance and stubbornness and cowardice - and asks us to serve and lead anyway. It wills good to those who’ve harmed us – even if we can’t actively be part of that good anymore. The love of Jesus doesn’t hide the costs of compassion or forgiveness or justice; that’s why we’re no longer servants, but friends. It lets us know up front that our lives are at stake – and that self-giving love is the only way to a life worth living.
Without love, nothing we accomplish means anything. As songwriter Jon Brooks puts it, “If it’s not love, we can’t take it when we go.” Memories fade; words and actions are forgotten; buildings burn; books collect dust on the shelf. Our bodies, no matter how carefully we’ve maintained them, will one day return to dust; even our children have a limited shelf life. The way of life Jesus offers us here is not cheap or easy, but it is the only way I know of to bear fruit that will actually last. If God is love, and love is eternal, then every relationship based in love will ultimately prove itself stronger than evil, stronger than memory, stronger even than death.
In the silence that follows, I invite you to think about what lasts and what doesn’t – and who in your life has shown you what a non-possessive, generous love might look like. Who has reflected the love of Jesus to you and given you room to grow up, whether you knew what they were doing at the time or not? When has love brought you joy and strength at the same time, and who can you thank out loud for that? In the Name of the One who makes love more than a toothless abstraction, who embodies it and gives us what we need to do the same, Amen.