Scripture: John 15:9-17
On September 2nd, 1945 after six long years of global conflict, World War II officially ended with the formal surrender of Japan. However, even though the war was officially over the fighting did not stop for everyone. Across the Pacific as Japanese forces were forced to retreat they were given order to hold out. Small squads of soldiers across the Pacific were ordered not to surrender, not to be captured, and not to quit. This was the final command they were given and they carried it out. For years after the official end of the war, Japanese holdouts would be found and convinced to surrender. None of these holdouts were more tenacious than Hiroo Onoda. He and three other men were ordered to hold out on Lubang Island in the Philippines. So that is what they did. When leaflets were dropped across the Jungle declaring the war is over, they assumed it was propaganda. When more leaflets, addressed specifically to them by name were dropped later, they still assumed it was propaganda. Onoda and his men continued to fight the war they thought had not ended. They would regularly engage in guerrilla warfare, burning crops and fighting in skirmishes with local farmers and law enforcement. These fire fights had causalities including the men serving with Onoda so that eventually he was the only one left holding out. Years passed. Onoda managed to evade discovery and continued his fight. Finally, a man from Japan who had set specifically to find Onoda as one of the last known holdouts found him. However, Onoda refused to surrender until he was ordered to do so. This brought Onoda’s former commanding officer to the island, and he formally relieved Onoda of duty who then surrendered. Onoda personally finished fighting the war in 1974. This was thirty years after he was given the order to hold out.
Even though Onoda went on to live another 30+ years it is a bit of a tragedy that so much of his life was spent trying to fight a lost war. On the other hand, his commitment and dedication to carrying out the last order he was given is commendable. This morning’s scripture gives the final order, the final command, which Jesus gives his disciples in the gospel of John. Honestly, I cannot help to think that the world would be a much better place if follower of Jesus were as dedicated to following the final command as Hiroo Onoda was. However, unlike the orders Onoda was given, this final command of Jesus is still active and in place today.
This morning’s scripture comes from the last time that Jesus was his disciples before the Crucifixion. On the night of the last supper, the gospel of John records a lot of Jesus’ last words to his disciples. Of the 21 chapters that we have divided John into, five of them (almost one fourth) are dedicated the words that Jesus says to his disciples on that night. Among all of the words Jesus said, perhaps one of the more important parts for the twelve disciples that night were the ones included in this morning’s scripture. Because it is in this scripture that Jesus gives his disciples a new command.
To understand why this is so important we need to back up and more fully consider the context of the disciples. Jesus was not the only traveling rabbi of first century Israel, and he was not the only one to have disciples. Each of these rabbis had their own unique understanding of the Torah. They had the rules from the Torah the emphasized and the application of these rules they taught. These specific teachings of the rabbi were referred to as the Rabbi’s yoke. Those who took to following the rabbi as disciples were supposed to completely put themselves under the rabbi’s teachings. In other words they were to take the rabbi’s yoke upon themselves.
Many of these rabbis had extensive yokes. They had high expectations of being able to memorize and apply the interpretation of the rabbi’s understanding in a variety of settings. Jesus was different than these rabbis though. Jesus said in Matthew 11:29-30, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Unlike other Rabbis Jesus did not thrust a bunch of rules, regulations, and technical details upon his disciples. In fact Jesus only lifted up two commandments, claiming that all of the others hung on them: Love the Lord you God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself. The yoke that Jesus offered to disciples was not as complicated as other rabbis. It was not based in understanding a myriad of legalistic interpretations. Instead it was based in living out and honoring the intent of the two great commandments in all that we do. This is the way that the disciples had committed to follow and learn, this is the way that at the point of the last supper they had given close to three years of their lives to. Then on the night of the last supper, Jesus expanded his yoke a little bit. He gave them a new command: Love each other. This is not just a rehash of the command to love neighbors. Rather Jesus is urging his disciples to intentionally love one another as followers of Christ. Not only are they to love each other but they are to love each other the way that Jesus loves them. Jesus defines what constitutes this love in verse 13: “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In short the strength of love that held Jesus to the cross is the same love that the followers of Jesus are to have for each other. This was the final command that Jesus gave at the last supper, and it is a command that we should still follow today.
There are two things that really strike me about this command of Jesus. First, it is how terrible of a job we collectively as Christians do at keeping it. I am not even talking about the doctrinal divides that separate denominations. The fact that some branches of Christianity are really quick to denounce other branches as not Christian is deeply problematic, but we have a hard time following Jesus’ command on an even more local level. I am thinking specifically about problems that many churches have with people not getting along in the same pews. In many instances Christians have failed to keep Jesus’ command and love one another.
Thom Rainer, head of the Rainer Research Group once got a message from someone explaining issues they were having in their church. This person wrote, “The non-Christians I associate with are much nicer people than the members of my church.” Rainer also recounts a story that was told to him while doing research. A young man who considered himself a seeker went to an open business meeting of a church he was attending because he was interesting in being more involved. This turned out to be a mistake. This young man reported he was blown away by the petty disagreements and harsh language at the meeting. After seeing his Sunday school teacher angrily belittle another church member, this young man vowed he was not going back. In the interview he said, “I felt like I was at a playground fight with six year olds.” Clearly these couple of anecdotes are extreme examples, but the sad reality is that infighting, negativity, and even hatred is too common in churches today. This should not happen. Ever. Jesus our Lord and savior gave us the command to “love one another.” The command was not to love the other believers who think like you do, who support your ideas, or do things the way that you like them. The command was to love one another. Whenever someone feels judged, marginalized, or unwanted by their church family then that is a failure at keeping Jesus’ command. None of us are perfect, and we need the grace of God in our lives daily to help us with our shortcomings, but we both as individuals and as a church need to dedicated and extremely serious about upholding this command. We need to be committed to loving each other.
The other thing that really strikes me about this command, is the reason why Jesus gave it in the first place. At first glance it does seem kind of that one of the last commands that Jesus would give the disciples is to love one another, to be inwardly focused. One of the most common complaints of churches from people outside of churches is that they feel like churches are too inwardly focused. What we have to remember is that the early church, the church of Acts, had explosive daily growth and they did this by focusing on loving one another. Often when there are complaints about an inwardly focused church, it is about a church putting their own personal preferences above everything else. That is not what the command to love one another is about. When we love one another, the way that Jesus loved, we put one another above ourselves. We show the world what God’s radical love looks like in practice.
I think Jesus gave this command because he knew that for people to understand the love of God, they would need to see it in action. Have you ever tried to explain a picture to someone over the phone, especially a schematic? It is impossible! It can be really hard to verbally communicate what an image can simply convey. In the same way, talking about the transforming love God does not communicate it as effectively as us showing that love through our actions. When we follow Jesus command and love one another, we put one another first. We stand apart from a selfish world and we are living examples of the kind of love that Jesus shows. When we love each other completely as Jesus loves, then we are living examples of what greater love truly looks like in practice. This kind of love is still extremely effective. In a study for the book Millennials: Connecting to America’s largest generation, it was found that only about 15% of millennials are dedicated Christians. Of those who are not, it was found that 97% of them believe mutual respect is the most critical component of any relationship. In other words, when we say God is love, we have to prove it by what we do. The most consistent way to do this is treat those who sit next to us in the pews as dearly beloved brothers and sisters in Christ. We have to love one another.
Jesus said in this morning’s scripture: “Greater love has none than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” That kind of sacrificial love, to truly put the needs of someone else fully above our own, does not come naturally to us. It requires investment, practice, and a deep commitment. I know that in a time of social distancing and COVID it has been harder to have this kind of investment in one another. Circumstances have kept us isolated and we honestly are all the worst for it. However, as conditions continue to improve it is my goal and hope that as a congregation we can return to one another, we can commit to invest in one another, and we recommit to our commitment to each other. As we are able throughout this year, it is our hope to provide more and more opportunities to spend time together, to be with one another, and as the people of God love one another.
One of the things that made Jesus unique compared to other rabbis is that he did not give a list of rules to follow, but he lifted up the most important commands that we are to live out in our daily lives. Loving God and loving others was to be the defining mark of Jesus’ original disciples, and then he added one final command: love each other. Jesus commanded us to love one another, not because we are supposed to be, but because it is who we are supposed to be. May we be the body of Christ transformed by the love of God. May we show to a world aching for love, what God’s love looks like by how we treat each other. May God’s love spill out of these doors and may it make an eternal difference.