Today, we continue in the gospel according to John—picking right up where we left off last week in the middle of Jesus’ farewell discourse, as he prepares his disciples for his death and resurrection and continues to encourage us to abide in him.
Scripture: John 15:9-17
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
In both last week’s text and this week’s, there are a lot of rabbit trails to follow. What does Jesus mean when he says “the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name?” What does “so that your joy may be complete” mean? What is the “fruit that will last?” What commandments is Jesus talking about? All of them?
And for two thousand years or so, theologians have chased those rabbit trails. There is a lot of good writing out there on the theological implications of any of those questions—and A LOT of not-so-good writing about it, too.
Either way, a good chunk of those questions are meant to diminish or distract from the core message here: that what Jesus has received from God the Father, he passes on to his disciples—the love, the joy, the instruction, the chosenness, the belovedness, the friendship and relationship. And not just that, but those disciples are expected to pass it on to their own communities, and to teach them to pass it on further, until that love and joy and chosenness and friendship has permeated the whole world.
And that’s why I love this passage. I reference it in baptism and in communion and in what feels like every third sermon I preach. It’s one of my mantras in my own life, when I’m feeling tired or grumpy or blah: “we love, because Christ first loved us.”
But I’m going to level with you: I think a vague encouragement to love one another is the last thing we right now, because we are busy people with chaotic lives and our fair share—sometimes more than our fair share—of difficult relationships and difficult people in our lives. I am willing to bet that most of us can name someone close to us who lives with an addiction or a mental illness. I know for a fact that many of us live and work every day with people who’ve experienced trauma of varying degrees. Sometimes, we have to live and work with people who just plain irritate us.
And sharing space and life with them means trying to love people who are sometimes difficult to love. Not because they’re somehow bad or broken, or because we don’t want to care for them, but because we don’t always know how to love them well.
So that’s the question I want us to ask today: what does it take, and what does Jesus offer us, when we are called to love people who, for any reason, are not easy to love?
What I have for us, then, as we think about how we can live and love like Jesus is this: three basic principles, two caveats, and one reminder.
Principle #1: Start With ‘Beloved.’
As social worker and researcher Brene Brown often says, “humans are hard-wired for connection.” We have a deep-seated need to connect with others, and we need a variety of relationships to sustain us—friends, colleagues, family, people who share our experiences and people who live very different lives.
But that doesn’t mean our connection will be easy, or automatic.
Think of the person who irritates you most, at their most irritating.
Now picture Jesus, however you imagine Jesus to look, greeting them in that exact moment with a solid hug, and a “hello, beloved.”
There are very few absolutes in my life or my faith—but one of them is this: EVERY. SINGLE. PERSON. on this earth is a beloved child of God. God sees them, God knows them, and God loves them. There are no throwaway people, because they all belong to God.
Choosing to start there, with every person you meet—from the person who’s driving slowly in the left lane, to the employee you can’t get to listen, to the friend who can’t seem to pull themselves together—is not a magic bullet. But remembering that image while you respond may prevent you from doing or saying something you’ll regret later.
Jesus says ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.’
To do this is to remember that because you are beloved, so is everyone else.
So start there with yourself, too. You are a beloved child of God, whom God sees and knows through and through, and loves deeply. That means you don’t put up with anything and everything. It means you set limits and take care of yourself and pay attention to what you need in order to be healthy and engaged in the world. God does not ask you to love the whole world and lose track of your own soul.
Principle #2: Be Specific
Jesus said: I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”
Healthy relationships of any sort—marriages, friendships, even employment—are rooted in honest, shared expectations and open communication.
When you’re living with or loving a difficult person, there are a few things you’ll need to clarify.
What’s your relationship? Are you an employer? A mentor? A parent or grandparent? An employee? A friend? A helper? Overlapping relationships can, very quickly and very easily, complicate things and make it hard to set appropriate limits and boundaries. Figure out who you are and what kind of relationship you can invest yourself in.
At the same time, clarify what precisely makes this person difficult to love and whether they’re aware of it.
Is it that they’re asking more than you can give? Is there a specific behavior that makes you want to run in the other direction? Is there a habit that just grinds your gears? Do they just remind you of someone whom you would rather not remember? Is the difficulty about them and their actions, or about you and your thoughts?
Figuring that out is a process. Oh, mercy, is it a process. You’ll notice that my office now has a couch, if you need some help processing that. But here’s the thing: once you have that clarity, then you’ll also be able to come up with some specific ways to deepen, repair, or change that relationship.
Principle #3: Set Limits
Once you’ve gained some insight on how you’re relating to your own difficult person, then you need to decide what to do with that information.
And most often, that will involve setting boundaries—for you, not for them. Unless that person is your minor child, you cannot control someone else’s behavior. You can only control your own: your time, your energy, your practices and habits.
Some great examples of boundary-setting:
Let’s say you have someone you care deeply for who calls or drops by, just to chat, and will often want to spend more time than you have, and you always feel guilty that you can’t give them the attention they want.
The boundary you need to set is about expectations, and your own time and energy. So, next time, greet them enthusiastically and honestly:
“Hi, I have half an hour to talk, and then I have to go. How are you?”
Or, let’s say you have one acquaintance or family member who, every time you run into them, tries to goad you into an argument. They poke fun of your politics, they make jabs at your friends or your family, they subtly (or not so subtly) critique your appearance or your life. Instead of buying in, you decide you want to disrupt that pattern.
When it starts, you have three basic options: you can engage and fight back, which is usually unlikely to get you anything but frustration; you can walk away and never speak to them again, which may or may not be possible; or, you can pause, then look them in the eye and say “you know, I’m not here to argue with you. We can change the subject, or we can end this conversation.”
In both of those examples, you’ve set a firm boundary in a compassionate way—with your time, with your emotional energy, and with your habits. Jesus reminds us that the goal is not just to produce fruit—joy, belovedness, patience, peace—but to produce fruit that will last. When you’re proactive about your boundaries, it’s a whole lot easier to maintain that love for yourself and for the people you encounter who push your buttons.
This brings us to our…
First Caveat: You Can’t Fix People
One of the really hurtful ways to interpret this passage is to read it backwards: that to love someone is to fix them.
Our love may encourage, it may bring hope or peace or comfort or joy. The love we pour into the world might bring a small light to someone’s darkest days.
At the same time, we cannot expect that because we love someone, they will be able to receive that love, or to use it as fuel for their own transformation. That may not be possible for them at that particular moment, and that’s okay.
The best we can do is love them anyway, because that is Jesus’ commandment for us.
Our Second Caveat is much like the first. It’s actually a quote from one of my favorite comedians, Jon Stewart:
“Remember to love your neighbor as yourself. And if you don’t like yourself, then please just leave your neighbor alone.”
It’s pretty self-explanatory, really, and it’s something that I had to learn the hard way. To love others while hating yourself, or dwelling in shame, is like trying to pour from a pitcher with a hole in the bottom: it’s going to be messy at best.
We don’t have to have it all together. But before we go loving difficult people on purpose, we should have a pretty solid grasp on our own worth, our own belovedness, our own hope and joy, our own priorities and our own resurrection stories.
What is not healed in us will, purposely or accidentally, get passed on in all of our relationships—even the best ones.
This leaves us just one reminder:
The core, the heart of the gospel, is not hate or anger or rightness. The deepest heart of God, the thing Jesus most often calls us to imitate, the whole reason for his life and ministry, his death and resurrection, is love.
Jesus doesn’t ask us to tolerate one another as he tolerates us.
It’s not easy—in fact, this sort of unconditional love is deeply counter-cultural and even more counter-intuitive. We are the Jesus people, who are consistently asked to love people who, according to many standards, don’t deserve it. We are the people called to treat every human being with the dignity of Christ.
We are also the people who will, most days, fail. We will get flustered and frustrated and snap even at the people we like.
But we’re called to it anyway.
Brene Brown, in her book Daring Greatly, points out the old positive-thinking axiom: “what would you do if you knew you could not fail?”
And she says “well, that’s vastly unhelpful, because I’m bound to fail somehow.”
So she reframes it, instead, to ask: “What’s worth doing, even if you fail?”
Love is always worth doing, no matter how many times and ways we fail.
Because at the end of the day, our love is Christ’s love—that’s what we remember every time we gather around the waters of baptism or the feast of Christ’s table: that Christ lived and loved for us, that Christ died for us, that Christ was raised so that we, too, might be raised to new life.
We love, because Christ first loved us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.