The Gospel reading for today takes us to the night of Jesus’ betrayal when Jesus delivered his so-called “Farewell Speech” or “Upper Room Discourse.” This speech is extended from Chapter 13 to 17 in John’s Gospel. In this message, Jesus now prepares his way of his passion and death. And at the same time, he helps the disciples be ready as he reminds themselves of his teachings and tells them how to live their life without his physical presence. So, in a certain way, this message is a kind of Jesus’ will prior to his death. Nobody writes unimportant things in the will. When someone writes a will, he/she would take a silent time, reflect deeply on what to include, and try to deliver the most significant things from the bottom of heart. In this sense, Jesus’ farewell speech essentially includes the things that Jesus truly wants us to know and do. This is a lengthy farewell speech, and we may assume that Jesus would convey many lessons in detail, but actually most of his teachings simply revolve around one word, one core word. What is the word? Yes, it is love.
As the believers of Jesus, we firmly believe that Jesus is the love incarnate, the embodiment of the divine love, and our religion and faith is all about love. We are gathered here today because of that love. Right? Even in John’s First Letter, we see that love is not only the center of Christian life but also who God is. In the letter, John simply affirms, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). It doesn’t say, God loves, but God “is” love. Clearly, it tells us that love is not just one of many things that God does. But God is Love. Love indeed is what God is, what Jesus embodies and teaches, and therefore, what we should do in this world. Of course, there should be no doubt about the truth that love is the supreme value to those who follow Jesus.
But here comes one question. Then, “what kind” of love is the love we are talking about? We can say that this love is not just a fuzzy feeling or an abstract idea. But what kind of love is God’s love, the Christ-like love, that we should carry out in our lives? As Methodists, we believe that we are on our journey to reach our goal of faith, Christian perfection. This Christian perfection means the state of our heart that is habitually filled with the love for God and for neighbors. But how can we reach such perfection in love if we are not clear about what kind of love we should live out?
The inspiring voice of John in today’s scripture readings guides us to the answers and to draw a concrete picture of the divine love. What kind of love is God’s love? From today’s readings, we can find three features of God’s love. First, the Gospel reading says that God’s love is just love. God is love, and God is the God of justice. For God, we are sinners; there are times when we are not in good communion with God; we are evil enough to be judged. So although God loves us, God does judge us by the justice of God. And the judgment must be followed by due punishment. In the Gospel reading, Jesus says, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower” (John 15:1). And Jesus says that we are the branches of the vine, and it means that we are connected to Jesus and thus one Body of Christ. But it doesn’t mean that we are now immune to God’s judgment. Rather, according to Jesus, God, the vine grower, is the one who “removes” every branch that bears no fruit and “prunes” every branch to make it bear more fruit (John 15:2). Even though Jesus, the true vine, takes us in as his own branches, we are always under God’s judgement, the vine grower’s cutting and pruning. Indeed, God, who is love, is just.
But wait a moment here. Doesn’t it sound a little weird? On the one hand, God, who is love, dearly cares for us and saves us. On the other hand, God, who is justice, solemnly judges us and punishes us. It seems like God has two sides, two very contradictory sides in Godself. How can God be love and justice at the same? How can redemption and punishment work at the same time? To love us justly, God doesn’t just wait until we repent and become totally pure and sinless, which is impossible. To love us justly, God has justified us, changed us, the sinful, into the justified through Jesus who suffered in our place. God, in Jesus Christ, has taken our sins to the cross and died for our sake. So here, we can see the second character of God’s love: God’s love is self-giving love. Jesus’ sacrificial love on the cross liberates us from our bondage to sin and death and thus, if we believe in him, we can be justified and free. Each one of us is a receiver of this enormous grace. In his letter, John tells us, “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9). And he continues to say, if we abide in God’s love, “we may have boldness on the day of judgment,” because love casts out our fear for punishment (1 John 4:17-18).
Now, the self-giving love of Jesus has opened a way of grace for us to be in a restored relationship with God, to live in God. As the branches on the vine, we are connected to Christ and nurtured in faith, in love. We abide in Christ. Then, what? Do we just abide in Jesus and do nothing? No. We are called to abide in Jesus in order to bear fruits of love. We Methodists believe, once we are justified by God’s grace we are called to the journey of sanctification until we reach Christian perfection. Once we are loved and so abide in Christ, we are also called to love others as Jesus loves us. The vine branches should bear fruits of love—joy, hope, faith, endurance, courage, self-denial, and many others. Then, lastly, we can say, God’s love is fruitful love.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, I hope you to remember that when we say God is love, we say just love, self-giving love, and fruitful love. With this love God loved us first. And today God is asking us, with this just, self-giving, and fruitful love, we should love one another. It is so true, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). So we may love justly. As we love one another, let us address any inequities or sins to our common attention so that we may repent and receive God’s forgiveness. We may love in a self-giving way. As we love one another, let us love unconditionally, forgive and embrace, serve others first, empty ourselves. Also, we may love fruitfully. As we love one another, let us abide in Jesus, live in the presence of the Lord together, yield fruits of faith, hope, and more love. Let us love as he first loved us. Let us love as we abide in God’s love that is just, self-giving, and fruitful. Amen.