EXPOSITIONS OF HOLY SCRIPTURE
ALEXANDER MACLAREN, D. D., Litt. D.
ST. JOHN Chaps. XV to XXI
EXPOSITIONS OF HOLY SCRIPTURE
ALEXANDER MACLAREN, D. D., Litt. D.
ST. JOHN Chaps. XV to XXI
THE TRUE VINE (John xv. 1-4)
THE TRUE BRANCHES OF THE TRUE VINE (John xv. 5-8)
ABIDING IN LOVE (John xv. 9-11)
THE ONENESS OF THE BRANCHES (John xv. 12, 13)
CHRIST'S FRIENDS (John xv. 14-17)
SHEEP AMONG WOLVES (John xv. 18-20)
THE WORLD'S HATRED, AS CHRIST SAW IT (John xv. 21-25)
OUR ALLY (John xv. 26, 27)
WHY CHRIST SPEAKS (John xvi. 1-6)
THE DEPARTING CHRIST AND THE COMING SPIRIT (John xvi. 7, 8)
THE CONVICTING FACTS (John xvi 9-11)
THE GUIDE INTO ALL TRUTH (John xvi. 12-15)
CHRIST'S 'LITTLE WHILES' (John xvi. 16-19)
SORROW TURNED INTO JOY (John xvi. 20-22)
'IN THAT DAY' (John xvi. 23, 24)
THE JOYS OP 'THAT DAY' (John xvi. 25-27)
'FROM' AND 'TO' (John xvi. 28)
GLAD CONFESSION AND SAD WARNING (John xvi. 29-32)
PEACE AND VICTORY (John xvi. 33)
THE INTERCESSOR (John xvii. 1-19)
'THE LORD THEE KEEPS' (John xvii. 14-16)
THE HIGH PRIEST'S PRAYER (John xvii. 20-26)
THE FOLDED FLOCK (John xvii. 24)
CHRIST'S SUMMARY OF HIS WORK (John xvii. 26)
CHRIST AND HIS CAPTORS (John xviii. 6-9)
JESUS BEFORE CAIAPHAS (John xviii. 15-27)
'ART THOU A KING?' (John xviii. 28-40)
JESUS SENTENCED (John xix. 1-16)
AN EYE-WITNESS'S ACCOUNT OF THE CRUCIFIXION (John xix. 17-30)
THE TITLE ON THE CROSS (John xix. 19)
THE IRREVOCABLE PAST (John xix. 22)
CHRIST'S FINISHED AND UNFINISHED WORK (John xix. 30; Rev. xxi. 6)
CHRIST OUR PASSOVER (John xix. 36)
JOSEPH AND NICODEMUS (John xix. 38, 39)
THE GRAVE IN A GARDEN (John xix. 41, R.V.)
THE RESURRECTION MORNING (John xx. 1-18)
THE RISEN LORD'S CHARGE AND GIFT (John xx. 21-23)
THOMAS AND JESUS (John xx. 28)
THE SILENCE OF SCRIPTURE (John xx. 30, 31)
AN ELOQUENT CATALOGUE (John xxi. 2)
THE BEACH AND THE SEA (John xxi. 4)
'IT IS THE LORD' (John xxi. 7)
'LOVEST THOU ME?' (John xxi. 15)
YOUTH AND AGE, AND THE COMMAND FOR BOTH (John xxi. 18, 19)
'THEY ALSO SERVE WHO ONLY STAND AND WAIT' (John xxi. 21, 22)
THE TRUE VINE
'I am the true vine, and My Father is the husbandman. Every branch in Me that beareth not fruit He taketh away; and every branch that beareth fruit He purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in Me.'—JOHN xv. 14.
WHAT suggested this lovely parable of the vine and the branches is equally unimportant and undiscoverable. Many guesses have been made, and, no doubt, as was the case with almost all our Lord's parables, some external object gave occasion for it. It is a significant token of our Lord's calm collectedness, even at that supreme and heart- shaking moment, that He should have been at leisure to observe, and to use for His purposes of teaching, something that was present at the instant. The deep and solemn lessons which He draws, perhaps from some vine by the wayside, are the richest and sweetest clusters that the vine has ever grown. The great truth in this chapter, applied in manifold directions, and viewed in many aspects, is that of the living union between Christ and those who believe on Him, and the parable of the vine and the branches affords the foundation for all which follows.
We take the first half of that parable now. It is somewhat difficult to trace the course of thought in it, but there seems to be, first of all, the similitude set forth, without explanation or interpretation, in its most general terms, and then various aspects in which its applications to Christian duty are taken up and reiterated, I simply follow the words which I have read for my text.
I. We have then, first, the Vine in the vital unity of all its parts.
'I am the True Vine,' of which the material one to which He perhaps points, is but a shadow and an emblem. The reality lies in Him. We shall best understand the deep significance and beauty of this thought if we recur in imagination to some of those great vines which we sometimes see in royal conservatories, where for hundred of yards the pliant branches stretch along the espaliers, and yet one life pervades the whole, from the root, through the crooked stem, right away to the last leaf at the top of the farthest branch, and reddens and mellows every cluster, 'So,' says Christ, 'between Me and the totality of them that hold by Me in faith there is one life, passing ever from root through branches, and ever bearing fruit.'
Let me remind you that this great thought of the unity of life between Jesus Christ and all that believe upon Him is the familiar teaching of Scripture, and is set forth by other emblems besides that of the vine, the queen of the vegetable world; for we have it in the metaphor of the body and its members, where not only are the many members declared to be parts of one body, but the name of the collective body, made up of many members, is Christ. 'So also is'— not as we might expect, 'the Church,' but—'Christ,' the whole bearing the name of Him who is the Source of life to every part. Personality remains, individuality remains: I am I, and He is He, and thou art thou; but across the awful gulf of individual consciousness which parts us from one another, Jesus Christ assumes the Divine prerogative of passing and joining Himself to each of us, if we love Him and trust Him, in a union so close, and with a communication of life so real, that every other union which we know is but a faint and far-off adumbration of it. A oneness of life from root to branch, which is the sole cause of fruitfulness and growth, is taught us here.
And then let me remind you that that living unity between Jesus Christ and all who love Him is a oneness which necessarily results in oneness of relation to God and men, in oneness of character, and in oneness of destiny. In relation to God, He is the Son, and we in Him receive the standing of sons. He has access ever into the Father's presence, and we through Him and in Him have access with confidence and are accepted in the Beloved. In relation to men, since He is Light, we, touched with His light, are also, in our measure and degree, the lights of the world; and in the proportion in which we receive into our souls, by patient abiding in Jesus Christ, the very power of His Spirit, we, too, become God's anointed, subordinately but truly His messiahs, for He Himself says: 'As the Father hath sent Me, even so I send you.'
In regard to character, the living union between Christ and His members results in a similarity if not identity of character, and with His righteousness we are clothed, and by that righteousness we are justified, and by that righteousness we are sanctified. The oneness between Christ and His children is the ground at once of their forgiveness and acceptance, and of all virtue and nobleness of life and conduct that can ever be theirs.
And, in like manner, we can look forward and be sure that we are so closely joined with Him, if we love Him and trust Him, that it is impossible but that where He is there shall also His servants be; and that what He is that shall also His servants be. For the oneness of life, by which we are delivered from the bondage of corruption and the law of sin and death here, will never halt nor cease until it brings us into the unity of His glory, 'the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.' And as He sits on the Father's throne, His children must needs sit with Him, on His throne.
Therefore the name of the collective whole, of which the individual Christian is part, is Christ. And as in the great Old Testament prophecy of the Servant of the Lord, the figure that rises before Isaiah's vision fluctuates between that which is clearly the collective Israel and that which is, as clearly, the personal Messiah; so the 'Christ' is not only the individual Redeemer who bears the body of the flesh literally here upon earth, but the whole of that redeemed Church, of which it is said, 'It is His body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all.'
II. Now note, secondly, the Husbandman, and the dressing of the vine.
The one tool that a vinedresser needs is a knife. The chief secret of culture is merciless pruning. And so says my text, 'The Father is the Husbandman.' Our Lord assumes that office in other of His parables. But here the exigencies of the parabolic form require that the office of Cultivator should be assigned only to the Father; although we are not to forget that the Father, in that office, works through and in His Son.
But we should note that the one kind of husbandry spoken of here is pruning—not manuring, not digging, but simply the hacking away of all that is rank and all that is dead.
Were you ever in a greenhouse or in a vineyard at the season of cutting back the vines? What flagitious waste it would seem to an ignorant person to see scattered on the floor the bright green leaves and the incipient clusters, and to look up at the bare stem, bleeding at a hundred points from the sharp steel. Yes! But there was not a random stroke in it all, and there was nothing cut away which it was not loss to keep and gain to lose; and it was all done artistically, scientifically, for a set purpose—that the plant might bring forth more fruit.
Thus, says Christ, the main thing that is needed—not, indeed, to improve the life in the branches, but to improve the branches in which the life is—is excision. There are two forms of it given here —absolutely dead wood has to be cut out; wood that has life in it, but which has also rank shoots, that do not come from the all- pervading and hallowed life, has to be pruned back and deprived of its shoots.
It seems to me that the very language of the metaphor before us requires us to interpret the fruitless branches as meaning all those who have a mere superficial, external adherence to the True Vine. For, according to the whole teaching of the parable, if there be any real union, there will be some life, and if there be any life, there will be some fruit, and, therefore, the branch that has no fruit has no life, because it has no real union. And so the application, as I take it, is necessarily to those professing Christians, nominal adherents to Christianity or to Christ's Church, people that come to church and chapel, and if you ask them to put down in the census paper what they are, will say that they are Christians—Churchmen or Dissenters, as the case may be—but who have no real hold upon Jesus Christ, and no real reception of anything from Him; and the 'taking away' is simply that, somehow or other, God makes visible, what is a fact, that they do not belong to Him with whom they have this nominal connection.
The longer Christianity continues in any country, the more does the Church get weighted and lowered in its temperature by the aggregation round about it of people of that sort. And one sometimes longs and prays for a storm to come, of some sort or other, to blow the dead wood out of the tree, and to get rid of all this oppressive and stifling weight of sham Christians that has come round every one of our churches. 'His fan is in His hand, and He will throughly purge His floor,' and every man that has any reality of Christian life in him should pray that this pruning and cutting out of the dead wood may be done, and that He would 'come as a refiner's fire and purify' His priesthood.
Then there is the other side, the pruning of the fruitful branches. We all, in our Christian life, carry with us the two natures—our own poor miserable selves, and the better life of Jesus Christ within us. The one flourishes at the expense of the other; and it is the Husbandman's merciful, though painful work, to cut back unsparingly the rank shoots that come from self, in order that all the force of our lives may be flung into the growing of the cluster which is acceptable to Him.
So, dear friends, let us understand the meaning of all that comes to us. The knife is sharp and the tendrils bleed, and things that seem very beautiful and very precious are unsparingly shorn away, and we are left bare, and, as it seems to ourselves, impoverished. But Oh! it is all sent that we may fling our force into the production of fruit unto God. And no stroke will be a stroke too many or too deep if it helps us to that. Only let us take care that we do not let regrets for the vanished good harm us just as much as joy in the present good did, and let us rather, in humble submission of will to His merciful knife, say to Him, 'Cut to the quick, Lord, if only thereby my fruit unto Thee may increase.'
III. Lastly, we have here the branches abiding in the Vine, and therefore fruitful.
Our Lord deals with the little group of His disciples as incipiently and imperfectly, but really, cleansed through 'the word which He has spoken to them,' and gives them His exhortation towards that conduct through which the cleansing and the union and the fruitfulness will all be secured. 'Now ye are clean: abide in Me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself except it abide in the vine, no more can ye except ye abide in Me.'
Union with Christ is the condition of all fruitfulness. There may be plenty of activity and yet barrenness. Works are not fruit. We can bring forth a great deal 'of ourselves,' and because it is of ourselves it is nought. Fruit is possible only on condition of union with Him. He is the productive source of it all.
There is the great glory and distinctive blessedness of the Gospel. Other teachers come to us and tell us how we ought to live, and give us laws, patterns and examples, reasons and motives for pure and noble lives. The Gospel comes and gives us life, if we will take it, and unfolds itself in us into all the virtues that we have to possess. What is the use of giving a man a copy if he cannot copy it? Morality comes and stands over the cripple, and says to him, 'Look here! This is how you ought to walk,' and he lies there, paralysed and crippled, after as before the exhibition of what graceful progression is. But Christianity comes and bends over him, and lays hold of his hand, and says, 'In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk,' and his feet and ankle bones receive strength, and 'he leaps, and walks, and praises God.' Christ gives more than commandments, patterns, motives; He gives the power to live soberly, righteously, and godly, and in Him alone is that power to be found.
Then note that our reception of that power depends upon our own efforts. 'Abide in Me and I in you.' Is that last clause a commandment as well as the first? How can His abiding in us be a duty incumbent upon us? But it is. And we might paraphrase the intention of this imperative in its two halves, by—Do you take care that you abide in Christ, and that Christ abides in you. The two ideas are but two sides of the one great sphere; they complement and do not contradict each other. We dwell in Him as the part does in the whole, as the branch does in the vine, recipient of its life and fruit- bearing energy. He dwells in us as the whole does in the part, as the vine dwells in the branch, communicating its energy to every part; or as the soul does in the body, being alive equally in every part, though it be sight in the eyeball, and hearing in the ear, and colour in the cheek, and strength in the hand, and swiftness in the foot.
'Abide in Me and I in you.' So we come down to very plain, practical exhortations. Dear brethren, suppress yourselves, and empty your lives of self, that the life of Christ may come in. A lock upon a canal, if it is empty, will have its gates pressed open by the water in the canal and will be filled. Empty the heart and Christ will come in. 'Abide in Him' by continual direction of thought, love, desire to Him; by continual and reiterated submission of the will to Him, as commanding and as appointing; by the honest reference to Him of daily life and all petty duties which otherwise distract us and draw us away from Him. Then, dwelling in Him we shall share in His life, and shall bring forth fruit to His praise.
Here is encouragement for us all. To all of us, sometimes, our lives seem barren and poor; and we feel as if we had brought forth no fruit to perfection. Let us get nearer to Him and He will see to the fruit. Some poor stranded sea-creature on the beach, vainly floundering in the pools, is at the point of death; but the great tide comes, leaping and rushing over the sands, and bears it away out into the middle deeps for renewed activity and joyous life. Let the flood of Christ's life bear you on its bosom, and you will rejoice and expatiate therein.
Here is a lesson of solemn warning to professing Christians. The lofty mysticism and inward life in Jesus Christ all terminate at last in simple, practical obedience; and the fruit is the test of the life. 'Depart from Me, I never knew you, ye that work iniquity.'
And here is a lesson of solemn appeal to us all. Our only opportunity of bearing any fruit worthy of our natures and of God's purpose concerning us is by vital union with Jesus Christ. If we have not that, there may be plenty of activity and mountains of work in our lives, but there will be no fruit. Only that is fruit which pleases God and is conformed to His purpose concerning us, and all the rest of our busy doings is no more the fruit a man should bear than cankers are roses, or than oak-galls are acorns. They are but the work of a creeping grub, and diseased excrescences that suck into themselves the juices that should swell the fruit. Open your hearts to Christ and let His life and His Spirit come into you, and then you will have 'your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.'
THE TRUE BRANCHES OF THE TRUE VINE
'I am the vine, ye are the branches: he that abideth in Me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without Me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in Me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. If ye abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you. Herein is My Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be My disciples.'—JOHN xv. 5-8.
No wise teacher is ever afraid of repeating himself. The average mind requires the reiteration of truth before it can make that truth its own. One coat of paint is not enough, it soon rubs off. Especially is this true in regard to lofty spiritual and religious truth, remote from men's ordinary thinkings, and in some senses unwelcome to them. So our Lord, the great Teacher, never shrank from repeating His lessons when He saw that they were but partially apprehended. It was not grievous to Him to 'say the same things,' because for them it was safe. He broke the bread of life into small pieces, and fed them little and often.
So here, in the verses that we have to consider now, we have the repetition, and yet not the mere repetition, of the great parable of the vine, as teaching the union of Christians with Christ, and their consequent fruitfulness. He saw, no doubt, that the truth was but partially dawning upon His disciples' minds. Therefore He said it all over again, with deepened meaning, following it out into new applications, presenting further consequences, and, above all, giving it a more sharp and definite personal application.
Are we any swifter scholars than these first ones were? Have we absorbed into our own thinking this truth so thoroughly and constantly, and wrought it out in our lives so completely, that we do not need to be reminded of it any more? Shall we not be wise if we faithfully listen to His repeated teachings?
The verses which I have read give us four aspects of this great truth of union with Jesus Christ; or of its converse, separation from Him. There is, first, the fruitfulness of union; second, the withering and destruction of separation; third, the satisfaction of desire which comes from abiding in Christ; and, lastly, the great, noble issue of fruitfulness, in God's glory, and our own increasing discipleship. Now let me touch upon these briefly.
I. First, then, our Lord sets forth, with no mere repetition, the same broad idea which He has already been insisting upon—viz., that union with Him is sure to issue in fruitfulness. He repeats the theme, 'I am the Vine'; but He points its application by the next clause, 'Ye are the branches.' That had been implied before, but it needed to be said more definitely. For are we not all too apt to think of religious truth as swinging in vacuo as it were, with no personal application to ourselves, and is not the one thing needful in regard to the truths which are most familiar to us, to bring them into close connection with our own personal life and experience?
'I am the Vine' is a general truth, with no clear personal application. 'Ye are the branches' brings each individual listener into connection with it. How many of us there are, as there are in every so-called Christian communion, that listen pleasedly, and, in a fitful sort of languid way, interestedly, to the most glorious and most solemn words that come from a preacher's lips, and never dream that what he has been saying has any bearing upon themselves! And the one thing that is most of all needed with people like some of you, who have been listening to the truth all your days, is that it should be sharpened to a point, and the conviction driven into you, that you have some personal concern in this great message. 'Ye are the branches' is the one side of that sharpening and making definite of the truth in its personal application, and the other side is, 'Thou art the man.' All preaching and religious teaching is toothless generality, utterly useless, unless we can manage somehow or other to force it through the wall of indifference and vague assent to a general proposition, with which 'Gospel-hardened hearers' surround themselves, and make them feel that the thing has got a point, and that the point is touching their own consciousness. 'Ye are the branches.'
Note next the great promise of fruitfulness. 'He that abideth in Me, and I in Him, the same bringeth forth much fruit.'
I need not repeat what I have said in former sermons as to the plain, practical duties which are included in that abiding in Christ, and Christ's consequent abiding in us. It means, on the part of professedly Christian people, a temper and tone of mind very far remote from the noisy, bustling distractions too common in our present Christianity. We want quiet, patient waiting within the veil. We want stillness of heart, brought about by our own distinct effort to put away from ourselves the strife of tongues and the pride of life. We want activity, no doubt, but we want a wise passiveness as its foundation.
'Think you, midst all this mighty sum Of things for ever speaking, That nothing of itself will come, But we must still be seeking?'
Get away into the 'secret place of the Most High,' and rise into a higher altitude and atmosphere than the region of work and effort; and sitting still with Christ, let His love and His power pour themselves into your hearts. 'Come, My people, enter thou into thy chambers and shut thy doors about thee.' Get away from the jangling of politics, and empty controversies and busy distractions of daily duty. The harder our toil necessarily is, the more let us see to it that we keep a little cell within the central life where in silence we hold communion with the Master. 'Abide in Me and I in you.'
That is the way to be fruitful, rather than by efforts after individual acts of conformity and obedience, howsoever needful and precious these are. There is a deeper thing wanted than these. The best way to secure Christian conduct is to cultivate communion with Christ. It is better to work at the increase of the central force than at the improvement of the circumferential manifestations of it. Get more of the sap into the branch, and there will be more fruit. Have more of the life of Christ in the soul, and the conduct and the speech will be more Christlike. We may cultivate individual graces at the expense of the harmony and beauty of the whole character. We may grow them artificially and they will be of little worth—by imitation of others, by special efforts after special excellence, rather than by general effort after the central improvement of our nature and therefore of our life. But the true way to influence conduct is to influence the springs of conduct; and to make a man's life better, the true way is to make the man better. First of all be, and then do; first of all receive, and then give forth; first of all draw near to Christ, and then there will be fruit to His praise. That is the Christian way of mending men, not tinkering at this, that, and the other individual excellence, but grasping the secret of total excellence in communion with Him.
Our Lord is here not merely laying down a law, but giving a promise, and putting his veracity into pawn for the fulfilment of it. 'If a man will keep near Me,' He says, 'he shall bear fruit.'
Notice that little word which now appears for the first time. 'He shall bear much fruit.' We are not to be content with a little fruit; a poor shrivelled bunch of grapes that are more like marbles than grapes, here and there, upon the half-nourished stem. The abiding in Him will produce a character rich in manifold graces. 'A little fruit' is not contemplated by Christ at all. God forbid that I should say that there is no possibility of union with Christ and a little fruit. Little union will have little fruit; but I would have you notice that the only two alternatives which come into Christ's view here are, on the one hand, 'no fruit,' and on the other hand, 'much fruit.' And I would ask why it is that the average Christian man of this generation bears only a berry or two here and there, like such as are left upon the vines after the vintage, when the promise is that if he will abide in Christ, he will bear much fruit?
This verse, setting forth the fruitfulness of union with Jesus, ends with the brief, solemn statement of the converse—the barrenness of separation—'Apart from Me' (not merely 'without,' as the Authorised Version has it) 'ye can do nothing.' There is the condemnation of all the busy life of men which is not lived in union with Jesus Christ. It is a long row of figures which, like some other long rows of algebraic symbols added up, amount just to zero. 'Without me, nothing.' All your busy life, when you come to sum it up, is made up of plus and minus quantities, which precisely balance each other, and the net result, unless you are in Christ, is just nothing; and on your gravestones the only right epitaph is a great round cypher. 'He did not do anything. There is nothing left of his toil; the whole thing has evaporated and disappeared.' That is life apart from Jesus Christ.
II. And so note, secondly, the withering and destruction following separation from Him.
Commentators tell us, I think a little prosaically, that when our Lord spoke, it was the time of pruning the vine in Palestine, and that, perhaps, as they went from the upper room to the garden, they might see in the valley, here and there, the fires that the labourers had kindled in the vineyards to burn the loppings of the vines. That does not matter. It is of more consequence to notice how the solemn thought of withering and destruction forces itself, so to speak, into these gracious words; and how, even at that moment, our Lord, in all His tenderness and pity, could not but let words of warning—grave, solemn, tragical—drop from His lips.
This generation does not like to hear them, for its conception of the Gospel is a thing with no minor notes in it, with no threatenings, a proclamation of a deliverance, and no proclamation of anything from which deliverance is needed—which is a strange kind of Gospel! But Jesus Christ could not speak about the blessedness of fruitfulness and the joy of life in Himself without speaking about its necessary converse, the awfulness of separation from Him, of barrenness, of withering, and of destruction.
Separation is withering. Did you ever see a hawthorn bough that children bring home from the woods, and stick in the grate; how in a day or two the little fresh green leaves all shrivel up and the white blossoms become brown and smell foul, and the only thing to be done with it is to fling it into the fire and get rid of it? 'And so,' says Jesus Christ, 'as long as a man holds on to Me and the sap comes into him, he will flourish, and as soon as the connection is broken, all that was so fair will begin to shrivel, and all that was green will grow brown and turn to dust, and all that was blossom will droop, and there will be no more fruit any more for ever.' Separate from Christ, the individual shrivels, and the possibilities of fair buds wither and set into no fruit, and no man is the man he might have been unless he holds by Jesus Christ and lets His life come into him.
And as for individuals, so for communities. The Church or the body of professing Christians that is separate from Jesus Christ dies to all noble life, to all high activity, to all Christlike conduct, and, being dead, rots.
Withering means destruction. The language of our text is a description of what befalls the actual branches of the literal vine; but it is made a representation of what befalls the individuals whom these branches represent, by that added clause, 'like a branch.' Look at the mysteriousness of the language. 'They gather them.' Who? 'They cast them into the fire.' Who have the tragic task of flinging the withered branches into some mysterious fire? All is left vague with unexplained awfulness. The solemn fact that the withering of manhood by separation from Jesus Christ requires, and ends in, the consuming of the withered, is all that we have here. We have to speak of it pityingly, with reticence, with terror, with tenderness, with awe lest it should be our fate.
But O, dear brethren! be on your guard against the tendency of the thinking of this generation, to paste a bit of blank paper over all the threatenings of the Bible, and to blot out from its consciousness the grave issues that it holds forth. One of two things must befall the branch, either it is in the Vine or it gets into the fire. If we would avoid the fire let us see to it that we are in the Vine.
III. Thirdly, we have here the union with Christ as the condition of satisfied desires.
'If ye abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.' Notice how our Lord varies His phraseology here, and instead of saying 'I in you,' says 'My words in you.' He is speaking about prayers, consequently the variation is natural. In fact, His abiding in us is largely the abiding of His words in us; or, to speak more accurately, the abiding of His words in us is largely the means of His abiding in us.
What is meant by Christ's words abiding in us? Something a great deal more than the mere intellectual acceptance of them. Something very different from reading a verse of the Gospels of a morning before we go to our work, and forgetting all about it all the day long; something very different from coming in contact with Christian truth on a Sunday, when somebody else preaches to us what he has found in the Bible, and we take in a little of it. It means the whole of the conscious nature of a man being, so to speak, saturated with Christ's words; his desires, his understanding, his affections, his will, all being steeped in these great truths which the Master spoke. Put a little bit of colouring matter into the fountain at its source, and you will have the stream dyed down its course for ever so far. See that Christ's words be lodged in your inmost selves, by patient meditation upon them, by continual recurrence to them, and all your life will be glorified and flash into richness of colouring and beauty by their presence.
The main effect of such abiding of the Lord's words in us which our Lord touches upon here is, that in such a case, if our whole inward nature is influenced by the continual operation upon it of the words of the Lord, then our desires will be granted. Do not so vulgarise and lower the nobleness and the loftiness of this great promise as to suppose that it only means—If you remember His words you will get anything you like. It means something a great deal better than that. It means that if Christ's words are the substratum, so to speak, of your wishes, then your wishes will harmonise with His will, and so 'ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.'
Christ loves us a great deal too well to give to our own foolish and selfish wills the keys of His treasure-house. The condition of our getting what we will is our willing what He desires; and unless our prayers are a great deal more the utterance of the submission of our wills to His than they are the attempt to impose ours upon Him, they will not be answered. We get our wishes when our wishes are moulded by His word.
IV. The last thought that is here is that this union and fruitfulness lead to the noble ends of glorifying God and increasing discipleship.
'Herein is My Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit.' Christ's life was all for the glorifying of God. The lives which are ours in name—but being drawn from Him, in their depths are much rather the life of Christ in us than our lives—will have the same end and the same issue.
Ah, dear brethren, we come here to a very sharp test for us all. I wonder how many of us there are, on whom men looking think more loftily of God and love Him better, and are drawn to Him by strange longings. How many of us are there about whom people will say, 'There must be something in the religion that makes a man like that'? How many of us are there, to look upon whom suggests to men that God, who can make such a man, must be infinitely sweet and lovely? And yet that is what we should all be—mirrors of the divine radiance, on which some eyes, that are too dim and sore to bear the light as it streams from the Sun, may look, and, beholding the reflection, may learn to love. Does God so shine in me that I lead men to magnify His name? If I am dwelling with Christ it will be so.
I shall not know it. 'Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone'; but, in meek unconsciousness of the glory that rays from us, we may walk the earth, reflecting the light and making God known to our fellows.
And if thus we abide in Him and bear fruit we shall 'be' or (as the word might more accurately be rendered), we shall 'become His disciples.' The end of our discipleship is never reached on earth: we never so much are as we are in the process of becoming, His true followers and servants.
If we bear fruit because we are knit to Him, the fruit itself will help us to get nearer Him, and so to be more His disciples and more fruitful. Character produces conduct, but conduct rests on character, and strengthens the impulses from which it springs. And thus our action as Christian men and women will tell upon our inward lives as Christians, and the more our outward conduct is conformed to the pattern of Jesus Christ, the more shall we love Him in our inmost hearts. We ourselves shall eat of the fruit which we ourselves have borne to Him.
The alternatives are before us—in Christ, living and fruitful; out of Christ, barren, and destined to be burned. As the prophet says, 'Will men take of the wood of the vine for any work?' Vine-wood is worthless, its only use is to bear fruit; and if it does not do that, there is only one thing to be done with it, and that is, 'They cast it into the fire, and it is burned.'
ABIDING IN LOVE
'As the Father hath loved Me, so have I loved you: continue ye In My love. If ye keep My commandments, ye shall abide in My love; even as I have kept My Father's commandments, and abide in His love. These things have I spoken unto you, that My joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.'—JOHN xv. 9-11.
The last of these verses shows that they are to be taken as a kind of conclusion of the great parable of the Vine and the branches, for it looks back and declares Christ's purpose in His preceding utterances. The parable proper is ended, but the thoughts of it still linger in our Lord's mind, and echo through His words, as the vibration of some great bell after the stroke has ceased. The main thoughts of the parable were these two, that participation in Christ's life was the source of all good, and that abiding in Him was the means of participation in His life. And these same thoughts, though modified in their form, and free from the parabolical element, appear in the words that we have to consider on this occasion. The parable spoke about abiding in Christ; our text defines that abiding, and makes it still more tender and gracious by substituting for it, 'abiding in His love.' The parable spoke of conduct as 'fruit,' the effortless result of communion with Jesus. Our text speaks of it with more emphasis laid on the human side, as 'keeping the commandments.' The parable told us that abiding in Christ was the condition of bearing fruit. Our text tells us the converse, which is also true, that bearing fruit, or keeping the commandments, is the condition of abiding in Christ. So our Lord takes His thought, as it were, and turns it round before us, letting us see both sides of it, and then tells us that He does all this for one purpose, which in itself is a token of His love, namely, that our hearts may be filled with perfect and perennial joy, a drop from the fountain of His own.
These three verses have three words which may be taken as their key- notes—love, obedience, joy. We shall look at them in that order.
I. First, then, we have here the love in which it is our sweet duty to abide. 'As the Father hath loved Me, so have I loved you. Abide ye in My love.'
What shall we say about these mysterious and profound first words of this verse? They carry us into the very depths of divinity, and suggest for us that wonderful analogy between the relation of the Father to the Son, and that of the Son to His disciples, which appears over and over again in the solemnities of these last hours and words of Jesus. Christ here claims to be, in a unique and solitary fashion, the Object of the Father's love, and He claims to be able to love like God. 'As the Father hath loved Me, so have I loved you'; as deeply, as purely, as fully, as eternally, and with all the unnameable perfectnesses which must belong to the divine affection, does Christ declare that He loves us.
I know not whether the majesty and uniqueness of His nature stand out more clearly in the one or in the other of these two assertions. As beloved of God, and as loving like God, He equally claims for Himself a place which none other can fill, and declares that the love which falls on us from His pierced and bleeding heart is really the love of God.
In this mysterious, awful, tender, perfect affection He exhorts us to abide. That comes yet closer to our hearts than the other phrase of which it is the modification, and in some sense the explanation. The command to abide in Him suggests much that is blessed, but to have all that mysterious abiding in Him resolved into abiding in His love is infinitely tenderer, and draws us still closer to Himself. Obviously, what is meant is not our continuance in the attitude of love to Him, but rather our continuance in the sweet and sacred atmosphere of His love to us. For the connection between the two halves of the verse necessarily requires that the love in which we are to abide should be identical with the love which had been previously spoken of, and that is clearly His love to us, and not ours to Him. But then, on the other hand, whosoever thus abides in Christ's love to Him will echo it back again, in an equally continuous love to Him. So that the two things flow together, and to abide in the conscious possession of Christ's love to me is the certain and inseparable cause of its effect, my abiding in the continual exercise and outgoing of my love to Him.
Now note that this continuance in Christ's love is a thing in our power, since it is commanded. Although it is His affection to us of which my text primarily speaks, I can so modify and regulate the flow of that divine love to my heart that it becomes my duty to continue in Christ's love to me.
What a quiet, blessed home that is for us! The image, I suppose, that underlies all this sweet speech in these last hours, about dwelling in Christ, in His joy, in His words, in His peace, and the like, is that of some safe house, into which going, we may be secure. And what sorrow or care or trouble or temptation would be able to reach us if we were folded in the protection of that strong love, and always felt that it was the fortress into which we might continually resort? They who make their abode there, and dwell behind those firm bastions, need fear no foes, but are lifted high above them all. 'Abide in My love,' for they who dwell within the clefts of that Rock need none other defence; and they to whom the riven heart of Christ is the place of their abode are safe, whatsoever befalls. 'As the Father hath loved Me, so have I loved you. Abide ye in My love.'
II. Now note, secondly, the obedience by which we continue in Christ's love.
The analogy, on which He has already touched, is still continued. 'If ye keep My commandments, ye shall abide in My love; even as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love.' Note that Christ here claims for Himself absolute and unbroken conformity with the Father's will, and consequent uninterrupted and complete communion with the Father's love. It is the utterance of a nature conscious of no sin, of a humanity that never knew one instant's film of separation, howsoever thin, howsoever brief, between Him and the Father. No more tremendous words were ever spoken than these quiet ones in which Jesus Christ declares that never, all His life long, had there been the smallest deflection or want of conformity between the Father's will and His desires and doings, and that never had there been one grain of dust, as it were, between the two polished plates which adhered so closely in inseparable union of harmony and love.
And then notice, still further, how Christ here, with His consciousness of perfect obedience and communion, intercepts our obedience and diverts it to Himself. He does not say, 'Obey God as I have done, and He will love you'; but He says, 'Obey Me as I obey God, and I will love you.' Who is this that thus comes between the child's heart and the Father's? Does He come between when He stands thus? or does He rather lead us up to the Father, and to a share in His own filial obedience?
He further assures us that, by keeping His commandments, we shall continue in that sweet home and safe stronghold of His love. Of course the keeping of the commandments is something more than mere outward conformity by action. It is the inward harmony of will, and the bowing of the whole nature. It is, in fact, the same thing (though considered under a different aspect, and from a somewhat different point of view), as He has already been speaking about as the 'fruit' of the vine, by the bearing of which the Father is glorified. And this obedience, the obedience of the hands because the heart obeys, and does so because it loves, the bowing of the will in glad submission to the loved and holy will of the heavens—this obedience is the condition of our continuing in Christ's love.
He will love us better, the more we obey His commandments, for although His tender heart is charged towards all, even the disobedient, with the love of pity and of desire to help, He cannot but feel a growing thrill of satisfied and gratified affection towards us, in the measure in which we become like Himself. The love that wept over us, when we were enemies, will 'rejoice over us with singing,' when we are friends. The love that sought the sheep when it was wandering will pour itself yet more tenderly and with selector gifts upon it when it follows in the footsteps of the flock, and keeps close at the heels of the Good Shepherd. 'If ye keep My commandments, ye shall abide in My love,' so we will put nothing between us and Him which will make it impossible for the tenderest tenderness of that holy love to come to your hearts.
The obedience which we render for love's sake will make us more capable of receiving, and more blessedly conscious of possessing, the love of Jesus Christ. The lightest cloud before the sun will prevent it from focussing its rays to a burning point on the convex glass. And the small, thin, fleeting, scarcely visible acts of self-will that sometimes pass across our skies will prevent our feeling the warmth of that love upon our shrouded hearts. Every known piece of rebellion against Christ will shatter all true enjoyment of His favour, unless we are hopeless hypocrites or self-deceived. The condition of knowing and feeling the warmth and blessedness of Christ's love to me is the honest submission of my nature to His commandments. You cannot rejoice in Jesus Christ unless you do His will. You will have no real comfort and blessedness in your religion unless it works itself out in your daily lives. That is why so many of you know nothing, or next to nothing, about the joy of Christ's felt presence, because you do not, for all your professions, hourly and momentarily regulate and submit your wills to His commandments. Do what He wants, and do it because He wants it, if you wish that His love should fill your hearts.
And, further, we shall continue in His love by obedience, inasmuch as every emotion which finds expression in our daily life is strengthened by the fact that it is expressed. The love which works is love which grows, and the tree that bears fruit is the tree that is healthy and increases. So note how all these deepest things of Christian teaching come at last to a plain piece of practical duty. We talk about the mysticism of John's Gospel, about the depth of these last sayings of Jesus Christ. Yes! they are mystical, they are deep—unfathomably deep, thank God!—but connected by the shortest possible road with the plainest possible duties. 'Let no man deceive you. He that doeth righteousness is righteous.' It is of no use to talk about communion with Jesus Christ, and abiding in Him, in possession of His love, and all those other properly mystical sides of Christian experience, unless you verify them for yourselves by the plain way of practice. Doing as Christ bids us, and doing that habitually, and doing it gladly, then, and only then, are we in no danger of losing ourselves on the heights, or of forgetting that Christ's mission has for its last result the influencing of character and of conduct. 'If ye keep My commandments, ye shall abide in My love, even as I have kept My Father's commandments, and abide in His love.'
III. Lastly, note the joy which follows on this practical obedience. 'These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain,' (or 'might be') 'in you, and that your joy might be full.'
'My joy might be in you'—a strange time to talk of His 'joy.' In half an hour he would be in Gethsemane, and we know what happened there. Was Christ a joyful man? He was a 'Man of sorrows' but one of the old Psalms says, 'Thou hast loved righteousness ... therefore God hath anointed Thee with the oil of gladness above Thy fellows.' The deep truth that lies there is the same that He here claims as being fulfilled in His own experience, that absolute surrender and submission in love to the beloved commands of a loving Father made Him—in spite of sorrows, in spite of the baptism with which He was baptized, in spite of all the burden and the weight of our sins—the most joyful of men.
This joy He offers to us, a joy coming from perfect obedience, a joy coming from a surrender of self at the bidding of love, to a love that to us seems absolutely good and sweet. There is no joy that humanity is capable of to compare for a moment with that bright, warm, continuous sunshine which floods the soul, that is freed from all the clouds and mists of self and the darkness of sin. Self- sacrifice at the bidding of Jesus Christ is the recipe for the highest, the most exquisite, the most godlike gladnesses of which the human heart is capable. Our joy will remain if His joy is ours. Then our joy will be, up to the measure of its capacity, ennobled, and filled, and progressive, advancing ever towards a fuller possession of His joy, and a deeper calm of that pure and perennial rapture, which makes the settled and celestial bliss of those who have 'entered into the joy of their Lord.'
Brother! there is only one gladness that is worth calling so—and that is, that which comes to us, when we give ourselves utterly away to Jesus Christ, and let Him do with us as He will. It is better to have a joy that is central and perennial—though there may be, as there will be, a surface of sorrow and care—than to have the converse, a surface of joy, and a black, unsympathetic kernel of aching unrest and sadness. In one or other of these two states we all live. Either we have to say, 'as sorrowful yet always rejoicing' or we have to feel that 'even in laughter the heart is sorrowful, and the end of that mirth is heaviness.' Let us choose for ourselves, and let us choose aright, the gladness which coils round the heart, and endures for ever, and is found in submission to Jesus Christ, rather than the superficial, fleeting joys which are rooted on earth and perish with time.
THE ONENESS OF THE BRANCHES
'This is My commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.'—JOHN xv. 12, 13.
The union between Christ and His disciples has been tenderly set forth in the parable of the Vine and the branches. We now turn to the union between the disciples, which is the consequence of their common union to the Lord. The branches are parts of one whole, and necessarily bear a relation to each other. We may modify for our present purpose the analogous statement of the Apostle in reference to the Lord's Supper, and as He says, 'We being many, are one body, for we are all partakers of that one bread,' so we may say—The branches, being many, are one Vine, for they are all partakers of that one Vine. Of this union amongst the branches, which results from their common inherence in the Vine, the natural expression and manifestation is the mutual love, which Christ here gives as the commandment, and commends to us all by His own solemn example.
There are four things suggested to me by the words of our text—the Obligation, the Sufficiency, the Pattern, and the Motive, of Christian love.
I. First, the Obligation of love.
The two ideas of commandment and love do not go well together. You cannot pump up love to order, and if you try you generally produce, what we see in abundance in the world and in the Church, sentimental hypocrisy, hollow and unreal. But whilst that is true, and whilst it seems strange to say that we are commanded to love, still we can do a great deal, directly and indirectly, for the cultivation and strengthening of any emotion. We can either cast ourselves into the attitude which is favourable or unfavourable to it. We can either look at the facts which will create it or at those who will check it. We can go about with a sharp eye for the lovable or for the unlovable in man. We can either consciously war against or lazily acquiesce in our own predominant self-absorption and selfishness. And in these and in a number of other ways, our feelings towards other Christian people are very largely under our own control, and therefore are fitting subjects for commandment.
Our Lord lays down the obligation which devolves upon all Christian people, of cherishing a kindly and loving regard to all others who find their place within the charmed circle of His Church. It is an obligation because He commands it. He puts Himself here in the position of the absolute Lawgiver, who has the right of entire and authoritative control over men's affections and hearts. And it is further obligatory because such an attitude is the only fitting expression of the mutual relation of Christian men, through their common relation to the Vine. If there be the one life-sap circling through all parts of the mighty whole, how anomalous and how contradictory it is that these parts should not be harmoniously concordant among themselves! However unlike any two Christian people are to each other in character, in culture, in circumstances, the bond that knits those who have the same relations to Jesus Christ one to another is far deeper, far more real, and ought to be far closer, than the bond that knits either of them to the men or women to whom they are likest in all these other respects, and to whom they are unlike in this central one. Christian men! you are closer to every other Christian man, down in the depths of your being, however he may be differenced from you by things that are very hard to get over, than you are to the people that you like best, and love most, if they do not participate with you in this common love to Jesus Christ.
I dread talking mere sentiment about this matter, for there is perhaps no part of Christian duty which has been so vulgarised and pawed over by mere unctuous talk, as that of the fellowship that should subsist between all Christians. But I have one plain question to put,—Does anybody believe that the present condition of Christendom, and the relations to one another even of good Christian people in the various churches and communions of our own and of other lands, is the sort of thing that Jesus Christ meant, or is anything like a fair and adequate representation of the deep, essential unity that knits us all together?
We need far more to realise the fact that our emotions towards our brother Christians are not matters in which our own inclinations may have their way, but that there is a simple commandment given to us, and that we are bound to cherish love to every man who loves Jesus Christ. Never mind though he does not hold your theology; never mind though he be very ignorant and narrow as compared with you; never mind though your outlook on the world may be entirely unlike his. Never mind though you be a rich man and he a poor one, or you a poor one and he rich, which is just as hard to get over. Let all these secondary grounds of union and of separation be relegated to their proper subordinate place; and let us recognise this, that the children of one Father are brethren. And do not let it be possible that it shall be said, as so often has been said, and said truly, that 'brethren' in the Church means a great deal less than brothers in the world. Lift your eyes beyond the walls of the little sheepfold in which you live, and hearken to the bleating of the flocks away out yonder, and feel—'Other sheep He has which are not of this fold'; and recognise the solemn obligation of the commandment of love.
II. Note, secondly, the Sufficiency of love.
Our Lord has been speaking in a former verse about the keeping of His commandments. Now He gathers them all up into one. 'This is my commandment, that ye love one another' All duties to our fellows, and all duties to our brethren, are summed up in, or resolved into, this one germinal, encyclopaediacal, all-comprehensive simplification of duty, into the one word 'love.'
Where the heart is right the conduct will be right. Love will soften the tones, will instinctively teach what we ought to be and do; will take the bitterness out of opposition and diversity, will make even rebuke, when needful, only a form of expressing itself. If the heart be right all else will be right; and if there be a deficiency of love nothing will be right. You cannot help anybody except on condition of having an honest, beneficent, and benevolent regard towards him. You cannot do any man in the world any good unless there is a shoot of love in your heart towards him. You may pitch him benefits, and you will neither get nor deserve thanks for them; you may try to teach him, and your words will be hopeless and profitless. The one thing that is required to bind Christian men together is this common affection. That being there, everything will come. It is the germ out of which all is developed. As we read in that great chapter to the Corinthians—the lyric praise of Charity,—all kinds of blessing and sweetness and gladness come out of this, It is the central force which, being present, secures that all shall be right, which, being absent, ensures that all shall be wrong.
And is it not beautiful to see how Jesus Christ, leaving the little flock of His followers in the world, gave them no other instruction for their mutual relationship? He did not instruct them about institutions and organisations, about orders of the ministry and sacraments, or Church polity and the like. He knew that all these would come. His one commandment was, 'Love one another,' and that will make you wise. Love one another, and you will shape yourselves into the right forms. He knew that they needed no exhortations such as ecclesiastics would have put in the foreground. It was not worth while to talk to them about organisations and officers. These would come to them at the right time and in the right way. The 'one thing needful' was that they should be knit together as true participators of His life. Love was sufficient as their law and as their guide.
III. Note, further, the Pattern of love.
'As I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.' Christ sets Himself forward then, here and in this aspect, as He does in all aspects of human conduct and character, as being the realised Ideal of them all. And although the thought is a digression from my present purpose, I cannot but pause for a moment to reflect upon the strangeness of a man thus calmly saying to the whole world, 'I am the embodiment of all that love ought to be. You cannot get beyond Me, nor have anything more pure, more deep, more self-sacrificing, more perfect, than the love which I have borne to you.'
But passing that, the pattern that He proposes for us is even more august than appears at first sight. For, if you remember, a verse or two before our Lord had said, 'As the Father hath loved Me so I have loved you.' Now He says, 'Love one another as I have loved you.' There stand the three, as it were, the Father, the Son, the disciple. The Son in the midst receives and transmits the Father's love to the disciple, and the disciple is to love his fellows, in some deep and august sense, as the Father loved the Son. The divinest thing in God, and that in which men can be like God, is love. In all our other attitudes to Him we rather correspond than copy. His fullness is met by our emptiness, His giving by our recipiency, His faithfulness by our faith, His command by our obedience, His light by our eye. But here it is not a case of correspondence only, but of similarity. My faith answers God's gift to me, but my love is like God's love. 'Be ye, therefore, imitators of God as beloved children'; and having received that love into your hearts, ray it out, 'and walk in love as God also hath loved us.'
But then our Lord here, in a very wonderful manner, sets forth the very central point of His work, even His death upon the Cross for us, as being the pattern to which our poor affection ought to aspire, and after which it must tend to be conformed. I need not remind you, I suppose, that our Lord here is not speaking of the propitiatory character of His death, nor of the issues which depend upon it, and upon it alone, viz., the redemption and salvation of the world. He is not speaking, either, of the peculiar and unique sense in which He lays down His life for us, His friends and brethren, as none other can do. He is speaking about it simply in its aspect of being a voluntary surrender, at the bidding of love, for the good of those whom He loved, and that, He tells us—that, and nothing else—is the true pattern and model towards which all our love is bound to tend and to aspire. That is to say, the heart of the love which He commands is self-sacrifice, reaching to death if death be needful. And no man loves as Christ would have him love who does not bear in his heart affection which has so conquered selfishness that, if need be, he is ready to die.
The expression of Christian life is not to be found in honeyed words, or the indolent indulgence in benevolent emotion, but in self- sacrifice, modelled after that of Christ's sacrificial death, which is imitable by us.
Brethren, it is a solemn obligation, which may well make us tremble, that is laid on us in these words, 'As I have loved you.' Calvary was less than twenty-four hours off, and He says to us, 'That is your pattern!' Contrast our love at its height with His—a drop to an ocean, a poor little flickering rushlight held up beside the sun. My love, at its best, has so far conquered my selfishness that now and then I am ready to suffer a little inconvenience, to sacrifice a little leisure, to give away a little money, to spend a little dribble of sympathy upon the people who are its objects. Christ's love nailed Him to the Cross, and led Him down from the throne, and shut for a time the gates of the glory behind Him. And He says, 'That is your pattern!'
Oh, let us bow down and confess how His word, which commands us, puts us to shame, when we think of how miserably we have obeyed.
Remember, too, that the restriction which here seems to be cast around the flow of His love is not a restriction in reality, but rather a deepening of it. He says, 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.' But evidently He calls them so from His point of view, and as He sees them, not from their point of view, as they see Him—that is to say, He means by 'friends' not those who love Him, but those whom He loves. The 'friends' for whom He dies are the same persons as the Apostle, in his sweet variation upon the words of my text, has called by the opposite name, when He says that He died for His 'enemies.'
There is an old, wild ballad that tells of how a knight found, coiling round a tree in a dismal forest, a loathly dragon breathing out poison; and how, undeterred by its hideousness and foulness, he cast his arms round it and kissed it on the mouth. Three times he did it undisgusted, and at the third the shape changed into a fair lady, and he won his bride. Christ 'kisses with the kisses of His mouth' His enemies, and makes them His friends because He loves them. 'If He had never died for His enemies' says one of the old fathers, 'He would never have possessed His friends.' And so He teaches us here in what seems to be a restriction of the purpose of His death and the sweep of His love, that the way by which we are to meet even alienation and hostility is by pouring upon it the treasures of an unselfish, self-sacrificing affection which will conquer at the last.
Christ's death is the pattern for our lives as well as the hope of our hearts.
IV. Lastly, we have here by implication, though not by direct statement, the Motive of the love.
Surely that, too, is contained in the words, 'As I have loved you.' Christ's commandment of love is a new commandment, not so much because it is a revelation of a new duty, though it is the casting of an old duty into new prominence, as because it is not merely a revelation of an obligation, but the communication of power to fulfil it. The novelty of Christian morality lies here, that in its law there is a self-fulfilling force. We have not to look to one place for the knowledge of our duty, and somewhere else for the strength to do it, but both are given to us in the one thing, the gift of the dying Christ and His immortal love.
That love, received into our hearts, will conquer, and it alone will conquer, our selfishness. That love, received into our hearts, will mould, and it alone will mould, them into its own likeness. That love, received into our hearts, will knit, and it alone will knit, all those who participate in it into a common bond, sweet, deep, sacred, and all-victorious.
And so, brethren, if we would know the blessedness and the sweetness of victory over these miserable, selfish hearts of ours, and to walk in the liberty of love, we can only get it by keeping close to Jesus Christ. In any circle, the nearer the points of the circumference are to the centre, the closer they will necessarily be to one another. As we draw nearer, each for himself, to our Centre, we shall feel that we have approximated to all those who stand round the same centre, and draw from it the same life. In the early spring, when the wheat is green and young, and scarcely appears above the ground, it comes up in the lines in which it was sown, parted from one another and distinctly showing their separation and the furrows. But when the full corn in the ear waves on the autumn plain, all the lines and separations have disappeared, and there is one unbroken tract of sunny fruitfulness. And so when the life in Christ is low and feeble, His servants may be separated and drawn up in rigid lines of denominations, and churches, and sects; but as they grow the lines disappear. If to the churches of England to-day there came a sudden accession of knowledge of Christ, and of union with Him, the first thing that would go would be the wretched barriers that separate us from one another. For if we have the life of Christ in any adequate measure in ourselves, we shall certainly have grown up above the fences behind which we began to grow, and shall be able to reach out to all that love the Lord Jesus Christ, and feel with thankfulness that we are one in Him.
'Ye are My friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of My Father I have made known unto you. Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain; that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in My name, He may give it you. These things I command you, that ye love one another.'—JOHN xv. 14-17.
A wonderful word has just dropped from the Master's lips, when He spoke of laying down His life for His friends. He lingers on it as if the idea conveyed was too great and sweet to be taken in at once, and with soothing reiteration He assures the little group that they, even they, are His friends.
I have ventured to take these four verses for consideration now, although each of them, and each clause of them, might afford ample material for a discourse, because they have one common theme. They are a description of what Christ's friends are to Him, of what He is to them, and of what they should be to one another. So they are a little picture, in the sweetest form, of the reality, the blessedness, the obligations, of friendship with Christ.
I. Notice what Christ's friends do for Him.
'Ye are My friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.' In the former verse, 'friends' means chiefly those whom He loved. Here it means mainly those who love Him. They love Him because He loves them, of course; and the two sides of the one thought cannot be parted. But still in this verse the idea of friendship to Christ is looked at from the human side, and He tells His disciples that they are His lovers as well as beloved of Him, on condition of their doing whatsoever He commands them.
He lingers, as I said, on the idea itself. As if He would meet the doubts arising from the sense of unworthiness, and from some dim perception of how He towers above them, and their limitations, He reiterates, 'Wonderful as it is, you poor men, half-intelligent lovers of Mine, you are My friends, beloved of Me, and loving Me, if ye do whatsoever I command you.'
How wonderful that stooping love of His is, which condescends to array itself in the garments of ours! Every form of human love Christ lays His hand upon, and claims that He Himself exercises it in a transcendent degree. 'He that doeth the will of My Father which is in heaven, the same is My brother and sister and mother.' That which is even sacreder, the purest and most complete union that humanity is capable of—that, too, He consecrates; for even it, sacred as it is, is capable of a higher consecration, and, sweet as it is, receives a new sweetness when we think of 'the Bride, the Lamb's wife,' and remember the parables in which He speaks of the Marriage Supper of the Great King, and sets forth Himself as the Husband of humanity. And passing from that Holy of Holies out into this outer court, He lays His hand, too, on that more common and familiar, and yet precious and sacred, thing—the bond of friendship. The Prince makes a friend of the beggar.
Even if we do not think more loftily of Jesus Christ than do those who regard Him simply as the perfection of humanity, is it not beautiful and wonderful that He should look with such eyes of beaming love on that handful of poor, ignorant fishermen, who knew Him so dimly, and say: 'I pass by all the wise and the mighty, all the lofty and noble, and My heart clings to you poor, insignificant people?' He stoops to make them His friends, and there are none so low but that they may be His.
This friendship lasts to-day. A peculiarity of Christianity is the strong personal tie of real love and intimacy which will bind men, to the end of time, to this Man that died nineteen hundred years ago. We look back into the wastes of antiquity: mighty names rise there that we reverence; there are great teachers from whom we have learned, and to whom, after a fashion, we are grateful. But what a gulf there is between us and the best and noblest of them! But here is a dead Man, who to-day is the Object of passionate attachment and a love deeper than life to millions of people, and will be till the end of time. There is nothing in the whole history of the world in the least like that strange bond which ties you and me to the Saviour, and the paradox of the Apostle remains a unique fact in the experience of humanity: 'Jesus Christ, whom, having not seen, ye love.' We stretch out our hands across the waste, silent centuries, and there, amidst the mists of oblivion, thickening round all other figures in the past, we touch the warm, throhbing heart of our Friend, who lives for ever, and for ever is near us. We here, nearly two millenniums after the words fell on the nightly air on the road to Gethsemane, have them coming direct to our hearts. A perpetual bond unites men with Christ to-day; and for us, as really as in that long-past Paschal night, is it true, 'Ye are My friends.'
There are no limitations in that friendship, no misconstructions in that heart, no alienation possible, no change to be feared. There is absolute rest for us there. Why should I be solitary if Jesus Christ is my Friend? Why should I fear if He walks by my side? Why should anything be burdensome if He lays it upon me and helps me to bear it? What is there in life that cannot be faced and borne—aye, and conquered,—if we have Him, as we all may have Him, for the Friend and the Home of our hearts?
But notice the condition, 'If ye do what I command you.' Note the singular blending of friendship and command, involving on our parts the cultivation of the two things which are not incompatible, absolute submission and closest friendship. He commands though He is Friend; though He commands He is Friend. The conditions that He lays down are the same which have already occupied our attention in former sermons of this series, and so may be touched very lightly. 'Ye are My friends if ye do the things which I command you,' may either correspond with His former saying, 'If a Man love Me he will keep My commandments,' or with His later one, which immediately precedes our text, 'If ye keep My commandments ye shall abide in My love.' For this is the relationship between love and obedience, in regard to Jesus Christ, that the love is the parent of the obedience, and the obedience is the guard and guarantee of the love. They who love will obey, they who obey will strengthen love by acting according to its dictates, and will be in a condition to feel and realise more the warmth of the rays that stream down upon them, and to send back more fully answering obedience from their hearts. Not in mere emotion, not in mere verbal expression, not in mere selfish realising of the blessings of His friendship, and not in mere mechanical, external acts of conformity, but in the flowing down and melting of the hard and obstinate iron will, at the warmth of His great love, is our love made perfect. The obedience, which is the child and the preserver of love, is something far deeper than the mere outward conformity with externally apprehended commandments. To submit is the expression of love, and love is deepened by submission.
II. Secondly, note what Christ does for His friends.
'Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth.' The slave may see what his lord does, but he does not know his purpose in his acts—'Theirs not to reason why.' In so far as the relation of master and servant goes, and still more in that of owner and slave, there is simple command on the one side and unintelligent obedience on the other. The command needs no explanation, and if the servant is in his master's confidence he is more than a servant. But, says Christ, 'I have called you friends'; and He had called them so before He now named them so. He had called them so in act, and He points to all His past relationship, and especially to the heart-outpourings of the Upper Room, as the proof that He had called them His friends, in the fact that whatsoever He had heard of the Father He had made known to them.
Jesus Christ, then, recognises the obligation of absolute frankness, and He will tell His friends everything that He can. When He tells them what He can, the voice of the Father speaks through the Son. Every one of Christ's friends stands nearer to God than did Moses at the door of the Tabernacle, when the wondering camp beheld him face to face with the blaze of the Shekinah glory, and dimly heard the thunderous utterances of God as He spake to him 'as a man speaks to his friend.' That was surface-speech compared with the divine depth and fullness of the communications which Jesus Christ deems Himself bound, and assumes Himself able, to make to them who love Him and whom He loves.
Of course to Christ's frankness there are limits. He will not pour out His treasures into vessels that will spill them; and as He Himself says in the subsequent part of this great discourse, 'I have many things to say unto you, but you are not able to carry them now.' His last word was, 'I have declared Thy name unto My brethren, and will declare it.' And though here He speaks as if His communication was perfect, we are to remember that it was necessarily conditioned by the power of reception on the part of the hearers, and that there was much yet to be revealed of what God had whispered to Him, ere these men, that clustered round Him, could understand the message.
That frank speech is continued to-day. Jesus Christ recognises the obligation that binds Him to impart to each of us all that each of us is in our inmost spirits capable of receiving. By the light which He sheds on the Word, by many a suggestion through human lips, by many a blessed thought rising quietly within our hearts, and bearing the token that it comes from a sacreder source than our poor, blundering minds, He still speaks to us, His friends.
Ought not that thought of the utter frankness of Jesus make us, for one thing, very patient, intellectually and spiritually, of the gaps that are left in His communications and in our knowledge? There are so many things that we sometimes think we should like to know, things about that dark future where some of our hearts live so constantly, things about the depths of His nature and the divine character, things about the relation between God's love and God's righteousness, things about the meaning of all this dreadful mystery in which we grope our way. These and a hundred other questionings suggest to us that it would have been so easy for Him to have lifted a little corner of the veil, and let a little more of the light shine out. He holds all in His hand. Why does He thus open one finger instead of the whole palm? Because He loves. A friend exercises the right of reticence as well as the prerogative of speech. And for all the gaps that are left, let us bow quietly and believe that if it had been better for us He would have spoken. 'If it were not so I would have told you.' 'Trust Me! I tell you all that it is good for you to receive.'
And that frankness may well teach us another lesson, viz., the obligation of keeping our ears open and our hearts prepared to receive the speech that does come from Him. Ah, brother! many a message from your Lord flits past you, like the idle wind through an archway, because you are not listening for His voice. If we kept down the noise of that 'household jar within'; if we silenced passion, ambition, selfishness, worldliness; if we withdrew ourselves, as we ought to do, from the Babel of this world, and 'hid ourselves in His pavilion from the strife of tongues'; if we took less of our religion out of books and from other people, and were more accustomed to 'dwell in the secret place of the Most High,' and to say, 'Speak, Friend! for Thy friend heareth,' we should more often understand how real to-day is the voice of Christ to them that love Him.
'Such rebounds the inward ear Catches often from afar; Listen, prize them, hold them dear, For of God—of God—they are.'
III. Thirdly, notice how Christ's friends come to be so, and why they are so.
'Ye have not chosen,' etc. (verse 16).
Our Lord refers here, no doubt, primarily to the little group of the Apostles; the choice and ordaining as well as 'the fruit that abides,' point, in the first place, to their apostolic office, and to the results of their apostolic labours. But we must widen out the words a great deal beyond that reference.
In all the cases of friendship between Christ and men, the origination and initiation come from Him. 'We love Him because He first loved us.' He has told us how, in His divine alchemy, He changes by the shedding of His blood our enmity into friendship. In the previous verse He has said, 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.' And as I remarked in my last sermon, the friends here are the same as 'the enemies' for whom, the Apostle tells us that Christ laid down His life. Since He has thus by the blood of the Cross changed men's enmity into friendship, it is true universally that the amity between us and Christ comes entirely from Him.
But there is more than that in the words. I do not suppose that any man, whatever his theological notions and standpoint may be, who has felt the love of Christ in his own heart in however feeble a measure, but will say, as the Apostle said, 'I was apprehended of Christ.' It is because He lays His seeking and drawing hand upon us that we ever come to love Him, and it is true that His choice of us precedes our choice of Him, and that the Shepherd always comes to seek the sheep that is lost in the wilderness.
This, then, is how we come to be His friends; because, when we were enemies, He loved us, and gave Himself for us, and ever since has been sending out the ambassadors and the messengers of His love—or, rather, the rays and beams of it, which are parts of Himself—to draw us to His heart. And the purpose which all this forthgoing of Christ's initial and originating friendship has had in view, is set forth in words which I can only touch in the lightest possible manner. The intention is twofold. First, it respects service or fruit. 'That ye may go'; there is deep pathos and meaning in that word. He had been telling them that He was going; now He says to them, 'You are to go. We part here. My road lies upward; yours runs onward. Go into all the world.' He gives them a quasi-independent position; He declares the necessity of separation; He declares also the reality of union in the midst of the separation; He sends them out on their course with His benediction, as He does us. Wheresoever we go in obedience to His will, we carry the consciousness of His friendship.
'That ye may bring forth fruit'—He goes back for a moment to the sweet emblem with which this chapter begins, and recurs to the imagery of the vine and the fruit. 'Keeping His commandments' does not explain the whole process by which we do the things that are pleasing in His sight. We must also take this other metaphor of the bearing of fruit. Neither an effortless, instinctive bringing forth from the renewed nature and the Christlike disposition, nor a painful and strenuous effort at obedience to His law, describe the whole realities of Christian service. There must be the effort, for men do not grow Christlike in character as the vine grows its grapes; but there must also be, regulated and disciplined by the effort, the inward life, for no mere outward obedience and tinkering at duties and commandments will produce the fruit that Christ desires and rejoices to have. First comes unity of life with Him; and then effort. Take care of modern teachings that do not recognise these two as both essential to the complete ideal of Christian service—the spontaneous fruit-bearing, and the strenuous effort after obedience.
'That your fruit should remain'; nothing corrupts faster than fruit. There is only one kind of fruit that is permanent, incorruptible. The only life's activity that outlasts life and the world is the activity of the men who obey Christ.
The other half of the issues of this friendship is the satisfying of our desires, 'That whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in My name He may give it you.' We have already had substantially the same promise in previous parts of this discourse, and therefore I may deal with it very lightly. How comes it that it is certain that Christ's friends, living close to Him and bearing fruit, will get what they want? Because what they want will be 'in His name'—that is to say, in accordance with His disposition and will. Make your desires Christ's, and Christ's yours, and you will be satisfied.
IV. And now, lastly, for one moment, note the mutual friendship of Christ's friends.
We have frequently had to consider that point—the relation of the friends of Christ to each other. 'These things I command you, that ye love one another.' This whole context is, as it were, enclosed within a golden circlet by that commandment which appeared in a former verse, at the beginning of it, 'This is My commandment, that ye love one another,' and reappears here at the close, thus shutting off this portion from the rest of the discourse. Friends of a friend should themselves be friends. We care for the lifeless things that a dear friend has cared for; books, articles of use of various sorts. If these have been of interest to him, they are treasures and precious evermore to us. And here are living men and women, in all diversities of character and circumstances, but with this stamped upon them all— Christ's friends, lovers of and loved by Him. And how can we be indifferent to those to whom Christ is not indifferent? We are knit together by that bond. We are but poor friends of that Master unless we feel that all which is dear to Him is dear to us. Let us feel the electric thrill which ought to pass through the whole linked circle, and let us beware that we slip not our hands from the grasp of the neighbour on either side, lest, parted from them, we should be isolated from Him, and lose some of the love which we fail to transmit.
SHEEP AMONG WOLVES
'If the world hate you, ye know that it hated Me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his Lord. If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept My saying, they will keep yours also.'—JOHN xv. 18-20.
These words strike a discord in the midst of the sweet music to which we have been listening. The key-note of all that has preceded has been love—the love of Christ's friends to one another, and of all to Him, as an answer to His love to all. That love, which is one, whether it rise to Him or is diffused on the level of earth, is the result of that unity of life between the Vine and the branches, of which our Lord has been speaking such great and wonderful things. But that unity of life between Christians and Christ has another consequence than the spread of love. Just because it binds them to Him in a sacred community, it separates them from those who do not share in His life, and hence the 'hate' of our context is the shadow of 'love'; and there result two communities—to use the much-abused words that designate them—the Church and 'the World'; and the antagonism between these is deep, fundamental, and perpetual.
Unquestionably, our Lord is here speaking with special reference to the Apostles, who, in a very tragic sense, were 'sent forth as sheep in the midst of wolves.' If we may trust tradition, every one of that little company, Speaker as well as hearers, died a martyr's death, with the exception of John himself, who was preserved from it by a miracle. But, be that as it may, our Lord is here laying down a universal statement of the permanent condition of things; and there is no more reason for restricting the force of these words to the original hearers of them than there is for restricting the force of any of the rest of this wonderful discourse. 'The world' will be in antagonism to the Church until the world ceases to be a world, because it obeys the King; and then, and not till then, will it cease to be hostile to His subjects.
I. What makes this hostility inevitable?
Our Lord here prepares His hearers for what is coming by putting it in the gentle form of an hypothesis. The frequency with which 'If' occurs in this section is very remarkable. He will not startle them by the bare, naked statement which they, in that hour of depression and agitation, were so little able to endure, but He puts it in the shape of a 'suppose that,' not because there is any doubt, but in order to alleviate the pain of the impression which He desires to make. He says, 'If the world hates,' not 'if the world hate'; and the tense of the original shows that, whilst the form of the statement is hypothetical, the substance of it is prophetic.
Jesus points to two things, as you will observe, which make this hostility inevitable. 'If the world hate you, ye know that it hated Me before it hated you.' And again, 'If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.' The very language carries with it the implication of necessary and continual antagonism. For what is 'the world,' in this context, but the aggregate of men, who have no share in the love and life that flow from Jesus Christ? Necessarily they constitute a unity, whatever diversities there may be amongst them, and necessarily, that unity in its banded phalanx is in antagonism, in some measure, to those who constitute the other unity, which holds by Christ, and has been drawn by Him from 'out of the world.'
If we share Christ's life, we must, necessarily, in some measure, share His fate. It is the typical example of what the world thinks of, and does to, goodness. And all who have 'the Spirit of life which was in Jesus Christ' for the animating principle of their lives, will, just in the measure in which they possess it, come under the same influences which carried Him to the Cross. In a world like this, it is impossible for a man to 'love righteousness and hate iniquity,' and to order his life accordingly, without treading on somebody's corns; being a rebuke to the opposite course of conduct, either interfering with men's self-complacency or with their interests. From the beginning the blind world has repaid goodness by antagonism and contempt.
And then our Lord touches another, and yet closely-connected, cause when He speaks of His selecting the Apostles, and drawing them out of the world, as a reason for the world's hostility. There are two groups, and the fundamental principles that underlie each are in deadly antagonism. In the measure in which you and I are Christians we are in direct opposition to all the maxims which rule the world and make it a world. What we believe to be precious it regards as of no account. What we believe to be fundamental truth it passes by as of little importance. Much which we feel to be wrong it regards as good. Our jewels are its tinsel, and its jewels are our tinsel. We and it stand in diametrical opposition of thought about God, about self, about duty, about life, about death, about the future; and that opposition goes right down to the bottom of things. However it may be covered over, there is a gulf, as in some of those American canons: the towering cliffs may be very near—only a yard or two seems to separate them; but they go down for thousands and thousands of feet, and never are any nearer each other, and between them at the bottom a black, sullen river flows. 'If ye were of the world, the world would love its own.' If it loves you, it is because ye are of it.