A Duty to Love?

John 15:9-17

Even if we’re not mothers ourselves, we’re all daughters and sons of mothers.  That means that we all have stories to tell about motherhood.  This is especially true of our newest mothers (and fathers, of course).
When we think of mothers, whether it’s Mother’s Day or not, what comes to mind might be that special intimacy that seems to exist between mother and child, which  begins at birth.  Or, perhaps it begins even earlier, during that long period when a child begins to take form in the womb.  This relationship is often complex but it’s also very powerful.
Although Protestants have struggled to find a place for Mary in our faith story, she remains an important contributor to that story.  Catholics, on the other hand, have tapped into the image of Mary the Mother of God, and seek Mary’s intercession with Jesus.  Catholics don’t pray to Mary because she is divine, but because of a belief that since she is Jesus’ mother, she has special access to her son.  As you know, sons often have a hard time saying no to their mothers!  So, when you see those pictures of Madonna and child, think of that intimate relationship that exists between mother and child, which expresses a deep and abiding love.
I may not be a mother, but I am a parent.  Like many of you,  I’ve shared in both the joys and the travails of parenthood.  Yes, I know that being a parent isn’t always easy.  We parents love our children, but they can test our patience.
While we tend to think of Jesus being a perfect child, even he seems to have caused his parents some grief.  Luke tells a story that should be required reading on both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.  You see, Jesus was about twelve when the family took a trip to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover.  When the family was heading home, Mary and Joseph discovered that Jesus wasn’t with the group.  So, they went back to Jerusalem and they finally found him in the Temple talking theology!
As you might expect Mary was a bit distressed at Jesus’ disappearance, and she reprimanded him:   “Child, why have you treated us like this? Listen! Your father and I have been worried. We’ve been looking for you!” (Lk 2:48b).  Jesus, being a good twelve-year-old boy, gave her what he thought was a perfectly good answer, but I’m not so sure, she was satisfied.   After all, he could have asked permission!
But, Jesus seems to have learned his lesson, because when they returned to Nazareth, Luke says that he was obedient to his parents, and he matured in wisdom, and his neighbors grew to respect him.
As I look back on my own life, I can safely say that I too gave my mother a few headaches.  I too wandered off on occasion, though my parents didn’t find me sitting in the Temple.  More likely they found me in the toy department.  On one such occasion, after I disappeared at Portland’s Lloyd Center, I went to bed without dinner!
Then during my high school days, when I really got religion, and left the church of my upbringing, and embraced what I thought was “true Christianity,”  my zeal for my new found faith led me to some unfortunate exchanges with my mother.  You see, I was known to occasionally offer my condemnation for her version of the faith, which I deemed to be rather unspiritual.  For some reason, she put up with my zealous and rather unloving attempts to convert her, and through all of this, her love for me and my brother never failed, even though these were rather difficult times for our family.  So, why did she love me?  Was it her duty?  Or is there a deeper reservoir of love from which she drew?
In our gospel reading today, we find Jesus sitting with his disciples.  They’ve finished the meal, he’s washed their feet, and now he’s teaching them one last time before he goes to the cross.  Jesus says to the disciples, “As the Father loved me, I too have loved you.”  Therefore, “remain in my love.”
Perhaps a more appropriate word here is “abide in my love.”  Now, as I was reminded the other evening during worship at the Academy of Parish Clergy meeting, we don’t use this word “abide” very often. Still, it might be the most appropriate word to describe the relationship that Jesus is inviting us to share in.
Although Jesus talks about commandments, which makes it sound as if love is a duty, is this what Jesus really has in mind?  Is there some kind of quid pro quo that requires our obedience before we experience the love of God?  We can read this passage in that way, but is this the way we ought to read it?
Think about a parent’s love – at its best.  Do we earn that love, or is it given to us without qualification?  If our answer is – no a parent’s love, at its best, is unconditional – that doesn’t mean that a parent always likes us or approves of what we do.  And yet, our behavior isn’t a barrier to a parent’s love.
I realize  that there are lots of imperfect family situations.  My relationship with my father, for instance, wasn’t of the same order as my relationship with my mother.   Many grow up in dysfunctional homes that are emotionally cold and loveless, and this coldness can be perpetuated from generation to generation.  Still, at their best, our interactions with our parents teach us what it means to love.  And if we become parents, and abide in this love, we can love as we have been loved.
Yes, we love, because God first loved us.   Jesus says to the disciples – you didn’t choose me, I chose you.  That sounds a lot like family.  We don’t choose our family of origin.  It chooses us.  And Jesus says, because I have chosen you and loved you, you can now produce fruit that will last.  Whatever you ask in his name, the Father provides.  There is, in Jesus, an abundance that we can draw upon as we live our lives in the presence of God.
In that first sentence of this passage, John reminds us that love cannot be experienced or learned in isolation.  If we’re to abide in love, we do so in community.  In the family relationship, for instance, a child learns to love by abiding in the love of one’s parents.  We also learn to abide in love in the church, as we share in relationships that are rooted in the love that flows from Father to Son to the people of God.
This sense of connectedness is underscored in Jesus’ claim to be the “true vine.”  The fifteenth chapter begins with Jesus saying: I am the true vine, and you are the branches.  As the gardeners among us know – indeed even those of us who are not proficient at trimming and pruning know – when a branch is cut off from the vine it dies.  But, when it is  connected, there is life and fruitfulness.  Jesus speaks of obeying the commandments, but the commandment to love is not an onerous duty.  It is, instead, a calling that flows out of our relationship with God.  We love each other, when we abide in Christ’s love.
There’s another image in this passage that expresses this point.  Jesus says to the disciples – you are no longer servants.  Instead, you are my friends, and in the First Century, when relationships were defined in hierarchical ways, for a master to call his disciples friends, meant raising them up to a level of equality.  Jesus says to them – from now on you are my friends, and what the Father shares with me, I will share with you.  Nothing will be hidden.  You will now be in the know!
Not only that, but Jesus shows us that true friendship is rooted in a willingness to lay down one’s life for the other.  It is a relationship of interdependence, where the focus is on our mutual responsibility to each other, rather than seeking control or power over the other.
By keeping the commandments to love God and neighbor, we abide in Christ’s love.  This love may not always be reciprocated in the ways we desire, but if we abide in it, it will continue on from generation to generation.
Do we love out of duty?  Or do we love because we abide in the love that the Father shares with the Son, and through the Son to us by the Holy Spirit?