Weekly Seeds: The Joy of Love

Sunday, May 9, 2021
Sixth Sunday of Easter Year B

Focus Theme:
The Joy of Love

Focus Prayer:
Faithful God, make our hearts bold with love for one another. Pour out your Spirit upon all people, that we may live your justice and sing in praise the new song of your marvelous victory. Amen.

Focus Reading:
John 15:9–17
9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

All readings for this Sunday:
Acts 10:44–48
Psalm 98
1 John 5:1–6
John 15:9–17

Focus Questions:
1. What is joy?
2. How does abiding in God cultivate a joyful life?
3. In what ways are we called to lay aspects of our lives down?
4. What are you uniquely appointed to do?
5. What brings you joy that you gift to the world?

By Cheryl Lindsay

What is Joy?

I was recently in a Bible study led by Racquel S. Lettsome, PhD in which she stated that joy is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. The study centered on the day of Pentecost, but her point was more encompassing. Rejoicing is a response to the movement of the Spirit. In this week’s focus text, Jesus continues his discourse on abiding and reveals that the whole point of the conversation is “that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” As Robert A. Peterson notes, “Still another fruit is the great joy that comes from continuing in a warm personal relationship with Jesus.” Joy is a gift of and from God and a fruit of the Spirit.

That aspect of joy as a gift means that it must be given and received in order to be realized in our lives. We possess joy; it belongs to us. As the saying goes, “This joy that I have…the world didn’t give it….the world can’t take it away.” Joy comes from the God who comes to us and stays with us. This passage immediately follows Jesus’ words explaining the divine-human relationship as akin to vinegrower-vine-branches where the vinegrower becomes the vine in order to connect and nourish the branches. Here he continues to expound upon the theme of abiding and fruitfulness but shifts more explicitly to name love as the connecting agent.

It was God’s love that propels every iteration of God’s abiding presence, from the love of the Creator who breathed life into the first human beings to the Liberator of the Exodus story who manifested in the cloud that guided their journey to the voice of Truth spoken through the prophets to the Word made flesh. Frances Taylor Gench provides three observations about the nature of love distinctly communicated in John’s narrative:
1. Jesus’ admonition to love one another is particular to the relationship within the gathered community as distinct from the synoptic Gospels orientation toward neighbor or enemies. This love provides support and encouragement within while also presenting a compelling public demonstration and witness.
2. The model of love expressed here is not self-love (“as yourself”) but the love that Jesus exhibits towards the disciples as an extension of the love found within the Triune relationship.
3. Jesus defines the love that forms this abiding, joyful expression of love as the love of friendship.
More than any other Gospel, John’s narrative emphasizes Jesus as divine, which would suggest a Jesus who is somewhat other-worldly, separate and apart, and high and exalted from those with whom he interacted. Yet, this Jesus does not relate from a lofty status but willingly and willfully lays that life down in order to pursue friendship with humanity. The opening words of the gospel take us back to the beginning when human beings were in such intimate relationship with the Holy One that they lived in constant communion and communication. Jesus embodies that intimate companionship in his interaction with his disciples.

Jesus now announces the transformation: “You are my friends, if you are doing the things I command you.” This sounds like a conditional sentence, but if it were truly conditional we would have expected, “If you do the things I command you, you will be my friends,” making friendship dependent on performance. Instead, Jesus says, “You are my friends,” right up front, as if without qualification, just as he said without qualification, “Already you are clean”. (Michaels, J. Ramsey.)

God created humanity for friendship, John suggests, and Jesus comes to fulfill that promise, hope, and purpose. While this framing does not discount other relational metaphors for the divine-human relationship, this one is necessary to reflect the countercultural nature of this union. Just as the creation narratives countered the prevailing understanding of multiple gods at war with one another who used human beings as pawns and needed constant appeasement, this gospel account reframes the reign of God who is both sovereign and abiding in love.

I love superhero movies and have enjoyed the new series offered as off-shoots of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In particular, I recently finished The Falcon and the Winter Soldier that, in part, chronicles the transitions the position of Captain America from one superhero to another. It’s really interesting because the one who passed the title and its primary resource–a shield–to his self-identified successor actually possessed special powers given to him by ingesting a special serum designed for that purpose. The one being newly elevated to this position does not have nor want access to that serum and states, “The only superpower I have is that I believe that things can be better.”

At the heart of that power is love, and it is the power of God’s love in the world that transforms lives, communities and creation. That love exacts costs:

John speaks of in-house love, calling Christians to “love one another.” We ought not to assume, however, that this makes John’s love commandment easier to follow. Indeed, Gail R. O’Day cautions against dismissing its ethical seriousness, noting that “the history of the church and of individual communities of faith suggests that to love one another may be the most difficult thing Jesus could have asked. There are many circumstances in which it is easier to love one’s enemies than it is to love those with whom one lives, works, and worships day after day” (“John,” The Women’s Bible Commentary ed. C. A. Newsom and S. H. Ringe [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992] 302). The intensity of the conflict in which many churches and denominations are presently (and perennially) engaged attests to the wisdom of this observation. (Frances Taylor Gench)

Love is the most difficult thing, but it is also the most necessary thing. Love is the antidote to human shortcomings because the lack of it constitutes the source. What if we considered the restriction God places–eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil–not as a test of obedience, but as a missed opportunity to show God love? How many of us have asked a friend not to do something without explanation…and considered it a gift and confirmation of friendship when the friend honored that request on the basis of the relationship alone? Does God deserve less than our close human companions?

This mutual love propels the community from within but also attracts the world.

Moreover, mutual love, the heart of John’s vision of the Christian life, is crucial not only for the community’s life together but also for its public witness. The world is not likely to be impressed by Christian love for outsiders, however expansive, nor compelled to join the company of believers, if those who call themselves Christian exhibit hatred for one another. Thus, throughout the Farewell Discourse, the believing community is given to understand that the quality of its life together is its most convincing witness to the truth and power of the gospel it proclaims (e.g., 13:35; 17:20-26). (Frances Taylor Gench)

Consider the moments of Jesus’ ministry that garnered large crowds–the Sermon on the Mount, the feeding of the five thousand, and the Triumphal Entry are three examples, but they reflect how his teaching, care, and promise generated attention. It seems to me that so much focus on the church being relevant (in terms of engaging with contemporary culture) has been preoccupied with creating recipes for substandard fruit rather than cultivating the soil and planting seeds with the radical, abundant, overwhelming, and joyful love of God. If we functioned from love, of course, we would be more inclusive and welcoming with our worship styles. If we lead with love, our stewardship campaigns would benefit from an increased spirit of gratitude and generosity. If love were our primary metric, our budget would be community-serving rather than self-serving. And, rather than sparking internal discord when adapting to the changing world around us, we’d be making paths in for the kin-dom of God on earth and spreading the joy of love.

Part of the joy of love comes from knowing that this is not an exchange of a commodity, but the giving and receiving of a gift. God is not looking for a transactional relationship even though the last part of this passage has been misinterpreted to indicate that if we only use the name of Jesus, our prayers will be answered. Here too, Jesus emphasizes the relationship and this assurance flows from the abiding in Christ’s love.

Jesus’ “friends” are thus also partners in the divine mission. For this reason, they are “in the know,” privy to the plan and intention of God revealed in Jesus Christ: “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father” (15:15). Indeed, they have been befriended for a purpose, solely at Jesus’ initiative: “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (15:16). In short, the church, the community of Jesus’ friends, is elected not for privilege but for a mission in the world that is a continuation of Jesus’ own—a mission to bear the fruit of love in the world. Such love keeps the spirit of Jesus alive in the world, for as long as Christian love is in the world, the world is still encountering Jesus. It is an awesome vocation, one in which believers are supported and sustained by the one who loved them and chose them and who promises that prayers in his name in behalf of their mission will be answered by his Father (15:16). (Frances Taylor Gench)

The love that Jesus offers is truly that “gift that keeps on giving.” That reference doesn’t come from scripture, it’s a relic of an ad campaign that’s nearly a century old. But it is like a vine, with branches that are properly cared for, planted in fertile soil, nourished with Living Water, that grows, spreads, produces new branches, and ultimately bears fruit.

Who wouldn’t receive that gift?

Who wouldn’t become that gift?

For further reflection:
“Joy lies in the fight, in the attempt, in the suffering involved, not in the victory itself.” —Mahatma Gandhi
“Joy is the holy fire that keeps our purpose warm and our intelligence aglow.” —Helen Keller
“There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward.” —Khalil Gibran

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (lindsayc@ucc.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gather ed communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

About Weekly Seeds

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.