There is no point in starting a race if you are not going to finish it. I remember running cross-country in college. I was not on the team, but the team didn’t have enough members to qualify for an upcoming meet. Someone had heard that I had run cross-country in high school. I did. My sophomore year. Now I was in college, and I hadn’t run long distance since. But they prevailed upon me, and I said okay.
Just before the race, the captain of the team gave us a rousing speech of running hard and not giving up. About halfway through the race, I remember seeing him ahead of me. He stopped. He put his hands on his knees. He coughed. And then he proceeded to walk off the course. No, there is no point in starting a race if you are not going to finish it.
Jesus is speaking to his disciples at the end of his earthly ministry. Soon he will leave them. He assures them that he will not abandon them. As branches are united to the vine, so the disciples were and would be united to Jesus. And so, he says in verse 9, “Remain in my love.” “As the Father has loved me, I have also loved you. Remain in my love.”
Then he goes on to tell them how they can remain in his love. “If you keep my commands you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love” (v. 10).
Notice this is a promise. But it is a promise that depends on a condition. “If you keep my commands you will remain in my love…” Jesus isn’t teaching salvation by works here. He is not saying, “if you keep my commandments, you will be saved.” They were already saved. In verse 3 of chapter 15 Jesus said, “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.” No, Jesus places a condition on this promise not because he hadn’t already given them eternal life, but so that they would know how not to lose their eternal life. For we have the tremendous power to throw God’s good gifts away.
Have you ever met anyone like that? They have it all and then throw it away? Do you believe that you are capable of throwing it away?
You see, the teaching of the Bible is that we are dead apart from Christ. Christ is the vine. He gives life to the branches. Any strength and power that the branches have come from the vine. Any strength and power to believe in Jesus and do his will (i.e., produce fruit), comes from Jesus and not from ourselves.
But you and I have the tremendous ability to NOT keep his will, and to NOT do as he commands. We have an Old Adam. And this is what the Christian tends to forget. Christians like to think that once they are saved, they are now good. No. You are forgiven, but not every part of you is good. Be honest with yourself. You are not entirely good. The only one who is good is God. He is the vine. We are the branches. And so, we want to remain in him, for he is the source of life itself.
But how? Well, Jesus tells us: by keeping his commands. So, we have to ask ourselves, “What are Jesus’ commands?”
We might think that he is referring to the Ten Commandments, but that is not what Jesus is referring to. His commands do not exclude the Ten Commandments, but by calling them his commands, he is referring to the directives he gave to his disciples while he was with them. In other words, the things he told them to do as his disciples.
So, what are those things? Well, to believe in him for one thing. Right? That is a command. To listen to this voice as sheep listen to the voice of their Shepherd. To baptize. To take, eat, and drink Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion for the forgiveness of sins. This is what Jesus told his disciples to do. For if sin is what separates us from him, then forgiveness is what keeps us united to him. And so, he says to us, “Remain in me by continuing to do the things I’ve told you, for that is how you receive the forgiveness of sins. I have forgiven you. Don’t ever stop believing it.”
Why not? So that we go to heaven, yes. But it goes beyond that. Jesus says, “I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete” (v. 11). That is the byproduct of remaining united to Jesus. Joy. But not just an earthly joy. Even unbelievers have earthly joy. The joy of romantic love. The joy of the birth of a child. Christ’s joy goes beyond all that. Indeed, Jesus refers to it as “my joy”. This is a saving joy. This is the joy of the Shepherd who goes in search of the one, lost sheep and then finds him. This is the joy of the Father who lost his prodigal son to sin and temptation, and then is reunited with him.
Remember the quote from Charles Spurgeon that I read last Sunday. “If I were utterly selfish and had no care for anything else other than my own happiness, I would choose if I might under God to be a soul winner. For never did I know perfect, overflowing, unutterable happiness of the purest and most ennobling order till I first heard of one who had sought and found the Savior through my means. No young mother ever so rejoiced over her first-born child. No warrior was ever so exultant over a hard-won victory.”
You see, there is a difference between Christ’s love for humans and the love that humans have for each other. The two are totally different. Sinful humans can love, but only with a worldly love. And because it is only a worldly love, the joy that arises is only a worldly joy. But everything in this world eventually dies out and ends. Christ, here, speaks of his love that will never end. Not even death can end his love for you. Not even sin! For he forgives sin! And the resulting joy is the fullest joy one could ever experience. It is the joy of God himself. It is the joy that that occurs when the backslider finds his way back to God.
Now, here is the key to this text. Jesus says, “This is my command. Love one another as I have loved you” (v. 12). How has Jesus loved you? With a saving love. He then continues with an example of his saving love. He says, “No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends” (v. 13).
This is the love of Christ. And his command is that we love each other in this way—that the foremost thought on our mind is that the brothers and sisters among us are saved, and that they remain saved!
Is that the foremost thought on the mind of this congregation? That the brothers and sisters who once stood here and confessed Christ are still remaining in him as a branch remains connected to its vine? Well then, where are they all? For there are many people who once came that no longer come.
I have no way of knowing whether their faith remains intact, but I do know that the way faith remains intact is by following Jesus’ Gospel commands. “Follow me!” Jesus says. “Don’t keep your distance from me. Come to me!” How do we come to Jesus? We come to his words and promises, for that is what he left us. His words are spirit and they are life.
Cradle to grave. That is our utmost concern in this congregation. That the believers who start their relationship with Jesus here remain in their relationship with Jesus here. So, we probably need to get a Sunday School back up running again. That’s just one example. You say, “Well, there are no kids.” Well, there are among Hispanic brothers and sisters. And they even speak English! Are we not one congregation? Is not their maturity as young branches also important?
I am not saying that anyone here thinks it is unimportant. But these are the types of things we want to keep in the forefront of our minds. Because these are the types of things that are in the forefront of Jesus’ mind. And these are the issues that weigh heavy on his heart. Remember his command: “Love one another just as I have loved you”. It is a saving love. It is a love that seeks to save the lost.
Can we love each other in this way at Immanuel? Not just as acquaintances, but as friends. Jesus goes on to say, “You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants anymore, because a servant doesn’t know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father” (vv. 14,15).
Now, go and ponder that for a brief while this afternoon and see if you ever reach the end of it! Jesus calls us his friends. No, even more amazing, he calls you his friend! We are not his equals. But he stoops down to our level, and he genuinely enjoys our company. He takes pleasure in mutual conversation. We speak to him in prayer. He speaks to us in his word. He doesn’t hide things from us. There is no distance such as when the servant knows what his master does externally but doesn’t understand the internal “why?”. No, we know why Jesus laid down his life for his friends. He loves them.
Loved ones, let us love each and every person in this congregation with the same type of saving love. What lengths will we go to so that our brothers and sisters remain in that saving love? Will we call them on the phone if we haven’t seen them for quite a while? Will we text them sand say, “Hey, how’s it going?” Will we serve them by participating within the congregation so that the work of the church can be done? Are we willing to make ourselves uncomfortable for the sake of the Gospel?
No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you … This is what I command you: Love one another” (John 15:13,14,17).