When Jesus says something five times in a row we probably need to pay attention! “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” “I know my own and my own know me… and I lay down my life for the sheep.” “I lay down my life in order to take it up again.” “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” “I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”
The only other place in John’s gospel I can remember this happening is on the final night Jesus spent with his disciples. After washing their feet he told them: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” [Jn 13:34-35]
Just in case the disciples missed the importance of what Jesus was saying, he repeated himself a little later in the evening: “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…I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” [Jn 15:12,13,17]
Ah! Did you see what Jesus did there? He connected loving one another with laying down one’s life. These two things are tied together. They cannot be separated. This is what grace upon grace looks like. This is what he did for us and expects us to do for others. We are called to love one another as Jesus has loved us. We do this by laying down our lives for others.
Just to make sure his thick-headed disciples remembered the importance of “loving one another” and “laying down one’s life,” Jesus offered a final repetition on the same night using the phrase “abide in me”: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.
If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you…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. [Jn 15:4-10]
Ding! Ding! We have a winner! The word “abide” appears 11 times in a row. Cleary, abiding is connected to the command to love one another which is connected to laying down one’s life for one’s friends.
So, that’s a lot of Scripture I’m throwing at you this morning. What is going on here? Why all this repetition? Like I said before, when Jesus says something five times in a row we probably need to pay attention! When he says something 11 times is a row he’s clearly flashing a giant neon sign in front of our faces. This is important stuff. It’s the summary of everything he taught, and everything he set out to do. We may forget a parable or two, but we’re not supposed to forget “abide in me,” “love one another,” and the need to “lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
I would like to suggest that these are the Cliff’s Notes for the gospel of John. If you are unfamiliar with the term Cliffs Notes are a series of student study guides that are written by teachers and published in little booklets. These booklets summarize all the great works of literature, such as Romeo and Juliet or Great Expectations. Cliff’s Notes are designed to help us understand what is important in each book and what we really needed to know about it.
So, that’s what I think is going on in John’s gospel. This is Christianity 101. It’s the stuff we really need to know. We may forget a story or two, but we cannot forget these concepts. It’s the reason why Jesus repeated them so many times. They are the non-negotiables of the faith. They are the foundation on which we build our lives as followers of Jesus. So, let’s take a look at each of them briefly, and see what we can learn from them.
First of all, we begin with “abide in me” since this is repeated 11 times. The word “abide” implies intimacy. It is the branches that are connected to the vine. They are inseparable from one another. It’s the only way fruit is produced. If the branch is severed from the vine, it will die. Plain and simple.
This kind of abiding we also see in the relationship between the sheep and the shepherd. The sheep instinctively know the shepherd’s voice. They trust the shepherd to lead them to green pastures, still waters and places of safety. They know the shepherd will put himself in harm’s way in order to protect them from all who would seek to do them harm.
Abiding in Christ is all about relationship. It’s a matter of faith and trust in the One who promises us “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” [Jn 10:10] Far too many followers of Jesus emphasize the rules and regulations of being a Christian. If we follow all the right rules, Jesus will be happy with us, and will reward us for good behavior. If we believe all the right things about Jesus, (whatever that means), then we will be Christians in good standing. “Abiding” tells us it’s not about rules, ou]r having the correct beliefs about Jesus. It’s all about relationship. Jesus told us this 11 times in a row to make sure we got it right. And yet, his words sometimes fall on deaf ears.
The second phrase is “love one another.” Jesus said that “everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” If we abide in Jesus, love should be the byproduct of that relationship. So why is it that we see so much hatred, intolerance and judgmental attitudes from followers of Jesus these days? I’m not pointing any fingers because progressives and conservatives can be equally as intolerant and spiteful of one another. It’s not a left or a right issue. It’s a common problem we all share. If we are going to heal our nation then Christians on both sides of the political and spiritual aisle, have got to learn how to love each other. There are so many stories about Jesus in the gospels, where he showed the most extravagant, gracious love to the marginalized and forgotten. It baffles me that we seem incapable of following his example.
The third phrase leaves no doubt about what it looks like to love one another. It means to “lay down ones life for ones friends.” The synoptic gospels place more of an emphasis on Jesus’ suffering at the hands of others. However, John sees Jesus as the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep as an act of his own will. John tells the passion story in a way that reinforces this theological viewpoint: In John, Jesus directs his own arrest; he proclaims to Pilate that he can do nothing unless God allows it; he carries his own cross; he decides when it is time to die and then “lays down his life.” In John, Jesus is not forced to do this. He gives his life freely and willingly as a sacred gift to us. This profoundly shapes the lives of those who abide in Jesus and who love one another as he has loved us.
If there is any doubt as to what this kind of love looks like when we embody it, our Second Lesson makes things crystal clear: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ died for us. And we, too, ought to lay down our lives for our sisters and brothers. If you have more than enough material possessions and you see your neighbors in need yet close your hearts to them, how can the love of God be living in you? My children, our love must not be simply words or mere talk—It must be true love, which shows itself in action and truth. This, then, is how we’ll know we belong to the truth The commandments are these: that we believe in the name of God’s Only, Jesus Christ, and that we love one another as we were told to do.” [Inclusive Bible]
Friends in Christ, can there be any doubt regarding what it means to be followers of Jesus? John gave us Jesus’ Cliff’s Notes regarding what it means to be disciples of Christ. May we abide in him deeply and profoundly. May we love one another, fully and completely, as Christ has loved us. May we lay down our lives in service to others, with humility and compassion. THIS. This is how others will know that we are his disciples. AMEN.
Copyright ©2018 by David Eck