The Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 4, 2024

May 10, 2024 | by Nichole Torbitzky

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John 15:9-17

Historical Background and Setting:
Jesus and the disciples have traveled to Jerusalem from Bethany for the Passover Festival. Jerusalem was a relatively big city and would have been crowded with all of the pilgrims for the Passover Festival. Jerusalem was also relatively cosmopolitan due to Roman influence and the wealth of certain Jewish leaders.
It may be helpful to keep in mind that the chronology of these days varies from the Synoptics to John. John sets this “last supper” on a Friday, whereas the synoptics set it on a Thursday. In John, this is not a Passover meal, but before the Passover festival, and Jesus does not institute communion here in John’s telling. Our passage for today Jesus and the disciples have gotten up from the table (see John 14:31) and “gone on their way.” While on their way, Jesus offers some final teaching to the disciples. Our passage then is set in the context of walking in the city of Jerusalem out toward the Kidron valley and comes as supplementary teaching to the metaphor of the vines and branches found at the beginning of Chapter 15.
The Text: (NRSV)
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 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. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
In these verses, Jesus establishes the nature of his love for the disciples. This is a divine love. The NRSV still uses the word “abide.” This word has become archaic for most English speakers today. It carries several connotations including: comply with, keep to, act in accordance with, stick to, and stand by, among others. One of the great problems of translation is that choosing one translation leaves out the nuance of the others. In this case, you may want to substitute an English phrase in that gets your meaning across. Stick to or act in accordance with, might help this sentence make sense in the context of the next, where Jesus talks explicitly about abiding/keeping his commandments. In the next sentence, Jesus clearly explains that ‘keeping to’ his love, means following his commandments, just like Jesus has followed God’s. In the next sentence he explains further that he has told them these things not as a burden or another rule to follow, but as a source of joy.
‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. 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. 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. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
After telling them what they are supposed to follow his commands, Jesus makes clear what this joyful, God-like command is–love one another as I have loved you. This next sentence echoes Aristotle’s lecture on friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics that the greatest form of friendship is to die for one’s friends. In our passage Jesus asserts that his is the greatest kind of the friendship. His willingness to sacrifice himself demonstrates that. The disciples can demonstrate the depth of their friendship by doing what he commands them (love each other as Jesus loved them). As friends, the disciples are privy to the insider information that comes directly from God. As friends chosen by Jesus they are empowered to act on this knowledge. This action, he explains, is to bear fruit, fruit that will last. As friends, as those empowered to act, God will supply the needs of those friends. The pericope closes with Jesus’ reminder that the command is to love one another.
God the Vending Machine?
It is easy to preach this passage about loving one another. If your congregation needs to hear about the foundational ethic of loving each other because God loves us, then please do explain how love is relational, not coercive. Please help your congregation learn or remember that God works with us in ways that are relational, that honors our freedom and choices, and never forces God’s will upon us. Remind them that this is how we are supposed to behave toward each other. Assure them that the fruits of this kind of love is lasting, kin-dom building fruit. Model that kind of love in how you and the structures of your church do ministry.
For today, let’s tackle that verse that is harder to make sense of. When Jesus says, “the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name,” my radar goes up. What does Jesus mean here?
Without a Process Relational understanding of how God works, this is a very problematic passage. If God is in control of everything and has all of the power, then it goes against God’s sovereignty to do whatever a believer asks in Jesus’ name. It makes God look like a vending machine, and that is contrary to ideas of God’s omnipotence. The way some preachers get around this is to assert that a true believer would never ask anything that was not already God’s will. The problem then, is what do we do when a truly faithful person asks for something in Jesus’ name that is truly good and that good does not arrive? That makes either Jesus a liar or Scripture unreliable. This view of God, as all-powerful, is unsupportable in the light of this passage.
When we gain a clearer understanding of God, this passage makes sense in its entirety. In Process terms, we think of it this way, when we ask in Jesus’ name, it is not the magic words that force God into giving what we want. In the context of this passage, if we are asking in Jesus’ name we are asking as friends, not servants, as those empowered to help bring about the kin-dom. We ask as those who are acting in the kind of relational love Jesus models and empowers us to access. God will not coerce us, and we cannot coerce God. So, when we ask as those empowered to do good for the world, God will respond with what we need to make the next best possible choice. God works in relational love for us and this whole world to help us move the needle for the good.
God doesn’t vend wealth or health or cures to our blues. God does offer grace for each moment of our lives to supply us with what we need to choose the good, to move toward the best possible. And, to be fair, sometimes the best possible does not look great in every situation. And yet, if we open ourselves to the kind of relational love Jesus is urging here, if we ask for and therefore will the kind of good Jesus wants for us, we make it easier for God to partner with us for the good. When we ask for the good, God will supply the grace for that moment to support us for the good. The kind of partnering Jesus describes here is one of mutuality and respect, between the disciples themselves, between the disciples and Jesus, between Jesus and God, and between God and the disciples. We can understand Jesus’ assurance that even when he is gone, when we act in love, God will be there for us and act with us, through us.

Nichole TorbitzkyRev.Dr. Nichole Torbitzky is Associate Professor of Religion and University Chaplain at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO. Her current research investigates Whiteheadian notions related to Christian atonement theory. She serves as the editor for the Center for Process and Faith’s Lectionary Commentary series.  She co-edited the process and preaching book, Preaching the Uncontrolling Love of God: Sermons, Essays, and Worship Elements from the Perspective of Open, Relational, and Process Theology.