13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house.16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
12“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I 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. 16You 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. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
A lot of the ways we talk about Jesus focus on big moments. If you read the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicean Creed, two landmark statements of faith not only for the Presbyterian Church, but for the church universal, all they say about Jesus’ life is that he was “conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.”
Those are all important things, but they are not the whole story. Jesus lived a whole life between those moments. His incarnation, his becoming human for us was not just his birth. His sacrifice for us was not just his suffering and death on a cross. His life also tells us about God’s priorities and it shows us what it means to live a life in sync with God. That whole life is our example, not just the highlights.
There’s a feeling about our lives too that can go along with the highlight reel Jesus. We can think of our life mostly in terms of big moments too: our birth, graduation, our wedding, the birth of our children, et cetera. We might think of our faith journey in moments too: memories of Sunday school, confirmation, when we first claimed our faith, the moment we were “saved.” The big moments are important, they provide the outlines of our lives and give shape to something that often feels pretty squishy, pretty nebulous, but they are not the whole story or even the most important part.
The biggest part of our lives, and Jesus’ life is the little stuff. While the major moments are easier to pick out, ultimately, the day to day direction of our life is more important. While we can call single episodes defining moments with some honesty, the day to day details are what make the definition true or false. If I say I’m a Christian, then not just the big moments, but also the small, even unnoticed details should say the same thing. Otherwise, I’m a hypocrite, not a Christian.
Jesus didn’t just appear to die, and he didn’t just come to free us from sin in a flash so we could have a ticket to heaven. He came to show us what a faithful life looks like, to show us how to live here and now in this troubled, but also sacred world. If we follow Jesus, our goal is for our lives to match his life, not perfectly, not exactly, but in general. If Jesus is light in the darkness for us, we are called to be light in the darkness for others. As the Father sent Jesus into the world, Jesus sends us into the world now.
One thing we see when we look at Jesus’ life is that the whole thing fits together. In other words, Jesus lived with integrity. His birth in a barn was strange, but it wasn’t disconnected from the rest of his life. His birth was about taking a step from heaven to earth, and choosing to step into human history in a particularly humble way.
The rest of his life showed the same concerns; he lived a humble life and focused his ministry on the poor. His teachings talked about putting God first, about the last becoming first, about the care of others in all our decisions. He died a humble death like a slave or a rebel, hung between two thieves, one of whom he was welcoming into God’s kingdom. The big moments and the consistent teaching in Jesus’ life speak the same message: love God and love others.
Our goal is the same: not only to speak the faith of Christ but to live it as well. Not only to live our faith in our worship, our “saving moment,” but in our everyday choices, at work, at the bar, taking our kids to activities, in our family relationships.
The point of everything we do in church is not a moment when someone says, “I believe, sign me up.” The point is to produce and nurture lives of faithfulness that will touch other people with God’s love and grace. The goal is the overall trajectory and integrity of our lives. The goal is day in and day out loving faithfulness.
Our passages don’t use those words, but they do share that idea. Jesus tells his disciples they are the salt of the earth, which means they have to stay salty; they can’t just be salty at the beginning. He says they are the light of the world. That means they need to shine their light so people can see their good deeds and give praise to God. That means they have to do good deeds regularly, not just when people are looking. They need to shine light for others all the time, not just when it’s convenient.
The key word in the passage from John is “Abide.” That means, stay or remain. Jesus tells his disciples to abide in his love by keeping his commandments. That means we’re not just supposed to feel Jesus’ love at Christmas and Easter; we’re invited to rest in Christ’s love all the time. Along with abide, we see the word commandment; in other words, resting in Christ’s love isn’t passive, we don’t just receive love, we also actively seek it out through a life of obedience.
The other key idea is matching Jesus’ life of love. Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I love you; love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus invites the disciples, he invites us, to take his life as an example for our lives. We see something special in Jesus. There’s something compelling, something inviting about his life; his story catches our attention. We’re called to be filled and transformed by his love, and to live that love for others in our own lives.
Jesus lets the disciples know that the love he’s talking about isn’t a warm fuzzy feeling, but full of courageous and sacrificial action: “No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” He’s right up front with them that their love for others, like his love for them, is going to cost them dearly. The disciples at that table won’t all die for their faith, but they do all put love into action as the guiding commitment, the consuming passion of the rest of their lives.
That means we can expect hardship to be part of our life too. Our faith is going to cost us something. The life we live as Jesus’ disciples is not a spectator sport, but an active engagement with other people in a loving way. Different Christians live that out in different ways, but true discipleship can’t be just a small part of our life.
When I think about Christians laying down their lives for their friends I think about Christian Peacemaking teams. These are groups of Christians trained in non-violence, who go to unstable places in the world to support people there. Christian Peacemakers from the US travelled to Iraq before and after the US invasion to put themselves where US bombs were going and show that the church in the US cared.
Similar ministries happened in Columbia at the height of the violence there. Christian accompanists stood alongside Columbian peacemakers to show that they were not alone. These folks risked their lives to show the love of Jesus for those in harm’s way.
I think also about civil rights protestors in the American south who put their bodies on the line for freedom and dignity. I think about the women’s prayer movement that took to the streets to protest the Liberian civil war and to pray for peace. Through Christian and Muslim women praying, marching and working together, the Liberian dictator Charles Taylor was thrown out and hope for peace under a democratically elected president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is alive and well.
These are examples of Christians laying down their lives to put their faith into action. In many of these cases the ministries were not only moments of courage and risk, but also consistent commitment to a faithful struggle. The women of Liberia sang and prayed publically for peace for more than a year. Many of the civil rights leaders in the US put the rest of their lives on hold to commit to the movement. Accompanists in Columbia trained extensively and then moved to Columbia for months or even a year.
More to the point, these actions are the fruit of lives of committed discipleship. Even if they are highlights, they rise out of preparation and practice so that the Christians are ready to lay down their lives when the moment comes. The lives of true disciples are consistently about love; remarkable episodes of faithfulness are part of the wider story, not disconnected moments.
All that sounds very heavy, and discipleship is serious, life-changing business. It’s also joyful. Jesus says he’s giving his disciples this commandment to love so that their joy may be complete. Following Jesus is hard sometimes, but it’s also wonderful and freeing. When we decide to follow Jesus we are set free from chasing worldly success. We’re set free from the stress of measuring ourselves against other people in terms of wealth or accomplishments. We’re free to simply love other people, to serve other people, to listen, to care. We’re free to rest in the love of Jesus and to let that love shine through us to the world.
You and I have somehow been drawn to Jesus. Something about his story and his love attracts us, so here we are. In some way we have all decided to follow Jesus, but maybe we haven’t really committed to that yet. Maybe we’re still trying to follow with part of our life. If that’s the case for you, if you think of your faith as one small part of your life you probably feel stress and tension. You probably feel unsure about how your life fits together, and phrases like “complete joy,” don’t describe how you think about your faith and life.
Jesus calls us to follow, not as one activity we do, but as the core and meaning of our whole life. When we truly live as disciples that discipleship shapes everything else we do. Jesus tells us that’s going to demand sacrifice, but also that it’s going to bring us joy. So today I invite you to take another step in your commitment and choose to follow Jesus with your whole life. I invite you to bow your head and pray with me for a new birth of Christ within us, a new Christmas of commitment and discipleship and joy. Let’s pray:
Loving Jesus, you came to us as a baby born in a manger. Your whole life told the story of love and commitment, commitment to the world and love especially for the outcasts. You taught your disciples that love through your example and you invited them to follow. Help us follow you today and every day. Help us commit fully to your example of love, courage and sacrifice. Fill us with the joy of discipleship, the joy of community, the joy of an integrated life wholly dedicated to love. Guide our steps and claim our heart for your own. We pray these things in your precious name as we seek to truly make you our Lord, amen.