Here is a draft of a sermon on John 15:9-17
A group of seminarians were returning home from a trip to Jerusalem. As they waited in the airport for their boarding call, they gathered for a final time of sharing and prayer in the Holy Land. The students took turns praying for one another. The faculty leader of the group stayed on the periphery preferring to empower the students to learn to lead. As they prayed, a Muslim businessman observed with interest this display of devotion and the warmth with which they interacted with one another.
Once aboard the Muslim entrepreneur found himself in a seat next to the faculty guide. He recognized him as part of the Christian group from the airport lobby. The businessman began a conversation about the different claims of Islam and Christianity. In particular, he was adamant about the Bible’s misrepresentation of Jesus.
About an hour into the conversation, the professor excused himself and got up from his seat to stretch his legs. He needed to pray and reflect for a few minutes about how to make the most of the interreligious discussion in which he was engaged. It was a transatlantic flight so passengers were permitted to move about the plane freely. As he moved toward the front of the plane, he was surprised to hear the Muslim businessman continuing to make his points about the superiority of the Koran. The man had followed him up the aisle. They stopped near the flight attendant station outside of First Class seating. Their conversation was respectful but it began to attract the attention of several flight attendants and passengers who were both intrigued and frightened by this high altitude religious debate.
The professor realized that the eyes of many were on the two of them. It was vital that the conversation not descend into either a shouting match or an unhelpful tit for tat exchange. At that moment, the professor gazed intently into the eyes of the Muslim businessman and said, “If you can love me more than I love you right now, I will convert to Islam.”
In our Scripture lesson, Jesus presents the central defining characteristic of an ethic worthy of those who seek to follow the master: love. Jesus calls on his followers to embody and practice a paradigm shifting love for one another that will distinguish the community as a community of Jesus followers and impact the world by reaching others with the same love modeled by the Son of God. These words serve as a mission statement. The Christian community is unleashed to love freely and profoundly in a world that desperately needs a glimpse of the reality of God’s Kingdom. Love is the means by which followers of Jesus’ witness to the truth of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Love Defined by Jesus
Love must be defined by Jesus. Every culture and nation has its own means of assessing and showing love. For Christ followers, Jesus embodies the love of God. If we seek to love as Jesus loved, we must learn Jesus’ way.
In our text, Jesus points to two core practices. First, abiding in Jesus’ love involves faithful obedience. God’s commandments serve as a guide and witness to a life of love. Second, Jesus modeled sacrificial love for others on the cross. Jesus says it best: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Love Embodied by Jesus’ Followers
Jesus’ followers are known by love. This is the mark of the Christian. This is the abiding witness of a life transformed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We love because he first loved us.
Jesus unleashes his followers to love others.
As we discussed earlier, love is primarily an action. Love can spur feelings, but action must be privileged over mere words or feelings. Let your love for others be known by your deeds. C. S. Lewis penned these helpful words about the importance of action in learning to love:
Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less.
The community of Jesus’ followers focuses on adding value to others, standing with the oppressed, and comforting the hurting. It is more about serving others than being served. It is about treating others as friends rather than maintaining hierarchies in relationships. Most profoundly, loving others means being willing to sacrifice oneself for the sake of the wellbeing of another.
Love Changes the World
The embodiment of Jesus’ call to love one another within the Christian community is not an end but a means. The goal of Jesus’ commandment is not the creation of isolated enclaves apart from a world that desperately needs the influence and transforming power of the Gospel. The goal of a community known and shaped by love is the propagation and spread of the good news about Jesus among all peoples, cultures and nations. Jesus calls us to “bear fruit, fruit that will last.” Church strategist Alex McManus reminds us, “The Gospel comes to us on the way to someone else.”
Most of us recognize the need for outreach and mission, but we find ourselves paralyzed by the immensity of the need and our fear that we lack the means to reach others with Jesus’ message. Too often we wring our hands and wrack our minds seeking some new innovative way to reach our culture with the Gospel. Friends, there is a simpler way. Jesus suggests that techniques are secondary to the necessity of a faithful commitment to the other in our lives. A modeling of the selfless, other-oriented, value adding, sacrificial love of Jesus is the means.
Influential missionary and teacher Leslie Newbigin echoes the teaching of Jesus in our text. Newbigin served as a missionary in India for several decades. When he returned to his native United Kingdom at the end of his service, he was shocked to discover that his homeland had shifted from being a missionary sending nation to a thoroughly secular, post-Christian culture. Newbigin spent the rest of his years articulating the need for reengaging Western culture with the truth of the Gospel. His thinking is provocative but simple. He echoed Jesus’ call for a new community shaped by the love of God as evidenced in the love of others:
How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross? I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it. I am, of course, not denying the importance of many activities by which we seek to challenge public life with the gospel‚ evangelistic campaigns, distribution of Bibles and Christian literature, conferences, and even books such as this one. But I am saying that these are all secondary, and that they have power to accomplish their purposes only as they are rooted in and lead back to a believing community. (Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Eerdmans, 1989), 227.)
“If you can love me more than I love you right now, I will convert to Islam.” These words uttered at 30,000 feet were well chosen. They cut to the chase. The professor could have argued endlessly with the businessman over the truth claims of Christianity as opposed to Islam. But he knew that the truth of the Gospel was demonstrated most powerfully through the witness of a community known and shaped by the love of Jesus. There is no greater apologetic before a watching world. The reaction on the airliner was immediate and powerful. The Muslim businessman stood speechless. He may have encountered the essence of the Gospel for the first time in his life. Several of the passengers and flight attendants broke out in a spontaneous applause. What had started as a debate about the merits of the Bible versus the Koran had transcended into a decisive God-moment in which the transforming power of God’s love had made itself known in a memorable way.
The great American author and lecturer, Ralph Waldo Emerson perhaps captured best the transforming power of love: “Love would put a new face on this weary old world in which we dwell as pagans and enemies too long…Love will creep where it cannot go, will accomplish that by imperceptible methods,–being its own lever, fulcrum, and power,–which force could never achieve.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, Addresses, and Lectures [Harvard University Pres, 1971], 159
Ready to change the world? People often say, “Try to make a difference in the world.” Friends, this is not radical enough. God desires to unleash us to embrace an ethos of sacrificial love for others in order to serve in God’s mission to create a different world.