An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Love: Make Yourself at Home in it

A sermon on John 15:9-17 by Nathan Nettleton

A couple of weeks ago, Alison preached a truly wonderful sermon here on the fear of accepting love. She did such a good job of it that I am hesitant to approach the topic again, but perhaps it is something God wants to hammer us with a bit at the moment, because the more I sat with this week’s scripture readings, and the harder I tried to take them in several other obvious directions, the more convinced I became that this was the direction the Holy Spirit was calling me to take us again.

I’ve been listening quite a bit lately to a couple of CDs by a Sydney-based singer songwriter named Karl Broadie. One of his songs that often puts shivers up my spine has him looking back regretfully on a great love that he threw away, and he asks, “What makes a man leave without trying, and suppose there’s more out there, that he needs to find?” I think the reason that line hits me is that I know the impulse he is referring to. I’ve nearly given up a great love to that impulse a couple of times, and as I’ve got older I’ve become increasingly aware that no matter how powerful that impulse sometimes is, the inner voice suggesting that there must be something more and better waiting for me out there is completely illusory. Instead of being able to accept love as a gift and just enjoy it and reciprocate it, we can sometimes begin to measure it and question it and wonder whether there might be more out there that we need to find.

In our reading tonight from the Gospel according to John, there was much said about love, and although it didn’t actually say anything about how hard it can be to accept love, the fact that Jesus even gets to the point of saying we can take his call to love as an order makes it pretty clear that he knows this is not going to come easy to us. And his comments on the relationship between living in love and keeping the commandments point to an awareness of one of our difficulties with it. We keep expecting love to be measured out in proportion to our performance. We expect it to be something we earn, something we receive in reward for our goodness and lovingness. Apart from anything else, if and when it does work that way, it puts us in control of it. We are able to control and manage the way people love us and keep it all within our comfort zones by behaving more or less loveably towards them.

In some ways it is strange that the alarm bells don’t go off quicker about such thoughts. Our evangelical and protestant traditions have taught us to be immediately suspicious of anything that might undermine our belief in salvation by grace through faith alone. We know that we can’t earn our salvation. We know that we can’t earn God’s forgiveness. We tend to think that we’ve got the law and grace in their proper places and all sorted out. We wouldn’t fall for any of that rubbish about earning God’s grace by obedience to the law. Or would we?
Substitute in the word “love” for the word “grace” and suddenly many of us are a lot less sure of ourselves. Suddenly many of us are reverting to trying to earn God’s love, or fleeing it altogether. And yet they are the same thing. Grace is not just some kind of door pass for heaven. Grace is love that we don’t deserve and could never earn. Grace means that God loves you freely and unreservedly and passionately and that nothing you could ever do — nothing at all — could ever make God love you any more, or any less. We can’t control God’s love. We can’t elicit more or less of it by our behaviour, by our choices. Jesus says, “You did not choose me but I chose you.” You are not in control here, choosing whether or not God will love you. All you can control is whether you welcome God’s love and live in it, or flee it and repudiate it. “You did not choose me, I chose you.” And you were not chosen because of anything that you had done or might yet do. You were chosen “in order to” bear the fruit of love, not because you already had or because there was any certainty that you would. You were chosen because God is free to love, and free to love you no matter what you do, and God has chosen to love you and to continue loving you.

Now that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care how you respond. If God didn’t care, God wouldn’t be loving. Love cares. Your response or lack of response isn’t going to change whether or not God loves you, or even how much God loves you, but it is going to make a huge difference to you, and God cares passionately about what happens to you. Jesus says, “Abide in my love. Make yourself at home in my love. I am telling you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” God wants us to enjoy that love, to enjoy being loved and to joyously bear the fruits of love. God wishes us to take pleasure in living in love.

So why do we so often miss out on that? Why are love and joy so seldom the characteristic marks of our lives? There isn’t just one answer to that question. There are many. Alison gave us a glimpse into the depths of some of them a fortnight ago, grounded in her experience. Most of us recognised something of ourselves in the mirror she held up, but I know that there are other mirrors in which I recognise things of myself too. Often as a pastor, I encounter things in some of you that become little mirrors and give me new insights into myself as well, and so hopefully I can sometimes turn the mirror around for you to see too.

One of the things I’ve seen at work in some of you, and then recognised in myself as well, is the desire to be in charge of love. We have been raised in a culture that worships personal choice; free individuals who have complete control over their own destiny. We expect to be able to set the terms for our relationships and choose who we will love and be loved by. We try to keep our distance from those whose perceptions of us we are powerless to influence: either because they see right through us or because their response to us is so gratuitously free that nothing we do seems to make any difference. Such people threaten our sense of autonomy. They are immune to our power. When Jesus says, “You did not choose me but I chose you,” it can sound quite threatening to those of us addicted to our own sense of control. We demand the right to be chosen on our merits, to be given the opportunity to earn our selection. Ask any sporting competitor whether they would rather earn their place in the team or find themselves in because there was a string of injuries and they were needed to make up the numbers. But God’s team of chosen ones does not have a limit on the numbers and God does not hold selection trials. “You did not choose me. I chose you. Live in my love.” God’s love resists our attempts to control it and regulate it and measure it out to the deserving alone. God will go on loving without any respect for our petty rules about what is fair and fit and proper and responsible and manageable.

Another thing I have seen in some of you and then recognised in myself is related but also a little different. And it brings me back to the Karl Broadie song. Sometimes some of us refuse to accept God’s generous love because we are subconsciously holding out for something better. We think there is more out there if we just hold back a bit longer until we find it. This is not usually as crude as thinking that there might be some love that is bigger and deeper than God’s love. Instead it is a kind of bargaining with God for better conditions. Usually without realising what we are doing, we are putting conditions on accepting the gifts of love that God offers us. We are saying, “I’ll accept your love providing you deal with this, or free me from that, or include this blessing, or allow me to become that kind of person in the community.” And we go on holding out, waiting for God to meet our conditions, and meanwhile we are the only losers. We need to trust God to be God, and allow God to decide what shape the love given to us will take. “You did not choose me but I chose you. Make yourself at home in my love. I am saying these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. Make yourself at home in my love.”

The love God offers us in Jesus the Messiah is extravagant and free and overwhelming. There is nothing held back. It is no leftover love tossed to us in condescension. Jesus says, “I love you in the same way that I am loved by the Father. Make yourselves at home in my love.” We are being invited to share in the full depths of love that exist in the relationships within God; the relationships of pure love between the Father, the Son and the Spirit. Just like that, so I have loved you,” says Jesus. And a little further on in the passage he tells us that he no longer refers to us as his servants, but as his friends, because we are no longer kept in the dark about what is going on between the Father, Son and Spirit. We are now invited into the inner life of God, to experience and enjoy and participate. To love. And if any doubt remained, Jesus points out that there is no greater expression of love than to lay down your life for your friends, and then he does just that. He lays down his life for us, for us who he has called friends. He lays down his life rather than surrender us up to the violent systems that would regulate love and measure it out in miserly handfuls to those deemed worthy by the dominant systems that control our culture. He lays down his life rather than surrender to the ideology that says that the fullness of love is only for the beautiful or successful or deserving or privileged.

And we gather here because he goes on laying down his life and offering us more love than we could ever imagine, and more than most of us feel able to cope with. In a few minutes we will be gathered around this table where we will again encounter the risen Christ laying down his life for us and offering himself to us. “Abide in my love,” he says. “Feed on me, that I may be in you and you may be in me and that together we may be in God in the fullness of love. I say these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. Make yourself at home in my love.” As we gather at that table, I will be praying for you, that you will have the courage to be loved, and to let go of any desires to control love or bargain with God for something more. I will pray for you. Please pray for me, for this is my struggle too. But there is hope, for in the life of God there is freedom, there is love, and when we surrender to God’s love, there is joy in all its fullness.


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