Acts 10:44-48 & John 15:9-17
Buddy Jesus and Boyfriend Jesus are incredibly popular in the Christian cultures in which I grew up. We sing about how Jesus loves us, and how Jesus is our friend. These sentiments are true, of course, but they do not tell us the full picture of what friendship with the messiah entails.
Jesus’ friendship is based on obedience. He said clearly, “You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:14). For Jesus, this is learned behavior that he first modeled and then expected his disciples to emulate. Jesus said that as the Father loved him, so he loved his disciples (John 15:9). The way that Jesus stayed in his Father’s love was to keep God’s commands (John 15:10). In the same way, Jesus told his followers that if they want to keep on being loved by him, they must obey his commands (John 15:10). When Jesus promoted his disciples from servants to friends, he was not releasing them from obedience, but letting them know that they now knew the agenda and what he would be commanding them (John 15:14-15).
This may sound unfamiliar and even upsetting. The Jesus of scripture frequently has little in common with the Jesus of Christianity. We frequently imagine Jesus as simply wanting to embrace everyone in a hug, but that is an unnuanced, and frankly unfaithful image. Jesus approached different types of people differently. To those who were caught in sin and/or cast out by polite society (prostitutes, the possessed, those tax collectors complicit in foreign occupation, the hard-partying gluttons and drunkards) Jesus had nothing but warmth and inclusion. But then once they had encountered him, Jesus demanded they go and sin no more, especially when their sins hurt other people, like illicit sex and theft/extortion (John 8:2-11, Matthew 5:27-32, Luke 3:12-14).
For those who were already part of religious, respectable society, on the other hand, Jesus was immediately confrontational. Jesus decried hypocrisy (Matthew 6:1-18), judging others (Matthew 7:1-5) and elitism (Matthew 5:22) and threatened those who did not clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the sick/prisoners and welcome the foreigner [ξένος – alien, stranger, foreigner] with expulsion from the presence of God in the hereafter (Matthew 25:31-46).
To be sure, Jesus did not cut himself off from anyone. Jesus dined with Pharisees (almost certainly indicating that he was a Pharisee himself – the key identifier of Pharisees was that they only ate with those of their order). Jesus regularly debated with those who held different opinions and he included in his fellowship terrorists (Luke 6:15), collaborators (Matthew 9:9), and betrayers (John 6:71). But Jesus demanded that his followers exhibit greater righteousness than the most assiduous followers of the law (Matthew 5:17-20). There is no room for continued anti-nomianism. Jesus was not against Law, and anyone who teaches that will be least in the Kingdom of Heaven.
So what is the law that Jesus demanded that his followers obey? That we love one another as Jesus loved us (John 15:12)! This begs the question: how has Jesus loved us that we are to love each other? Jesus explained this in his next statement: No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friend (John 15:13). Again, Jesus modeled love for us so that we can love in the way that he did by following his example. Most of us are not called to literally die on behalf of others. Certainly Christians are daily laying their lives on the line to save others in warzones and unjust societies, however. We would do well to remember these saints in our prayers.
But if we are not called to literally, die, how can we love others through dying to ourselves? The first and most obvious way, I would think, is to love in ways that make us uncomfortable. We can start by loving the people who Jesus specifically identifies with: prisoners, the homeless, the hungry, the sick and foreigners (Matthew 25:31-46). How can we love these folks in ways that cost us, that cause us to die to ourselves, at least a little? Certainly, if we follow Jesus’ command to love others as he loved us, it will involve giving up feeling safe, feeling comfortable, feeling provided for, feeling popular, feeling respectable. Probably very few of us will be crucified. But loving like Jesus will lead to us being hurt, guaranteed. Tertullian argued that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.” Our discomfort, pain, and injuries as we loved the people that Jesus says are him in disguise (Matthew 25: 34-36, 41-43) will help us to empathize with Jesus, who stepped out of the throne room of God to be made uncomfortable, experience pain and die from bodily trauma inflicted upon him by the Roman Empire on our behalf. At least for me, I feel like I can identify with Jesus a little more, and be more grateful for his work on my behalf, when I love someone in a way that hurts and makes me uncomfortable.
The passage from Acts this week in which gentiles received the Spirit of God, which up to that point had been reserved for the children of Abraham, represents costly love. Peter, no doubt, felt great reservations about sharing love and power with a member of the occupying forces oppressing his people, no matter how gentle and kind the military officer was, himself. And yet, he was called to emulate his master and reach out to those whose embrace would cost him. So he loved in an uncomfortable way, and showed himself to be a friend of Jesus who loved like his lord.
Sacrificial loving is not optional. Jesus was loved by his Father because Jesus obeyed God’s commands. Jesus said that he will continue to love us if we do the same (John 15:9-10). BE VERY CAREFUL: This is not a precondition for embrace of outsiders, but an absolute requirement for the citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. Consider ways in which you can love someone in a way that costs you, especially if that person in a foreigner, a prisoner, someone who is sick, or someone who is poor and hungry. Love like the love of Jesus depends on it. Because in the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth, it does!