Most of the time, my blog posts are largely “extemporaneous” musings I have had on a specific subjects and passages of Scripture, but I sometimes don’t give a lot of the backstory to them. However, as is so readily the case, most everything we say or write is to some degree autobiographical, even if the exact relationship between the person and what is said doesn’t follow a strict formula. One thing may be representative of the person’s own feelings, another may be representative of what they heard or saw, and another may be something they imagined. For this blog post, a bit of a biographical prolegomena is helpful to make sense of why I am saying what I am saying about John 15.
Firstly, John 15 had a significant impact on my spiritual understanding during the college years of my journey of faith. Alongside Hebrews, John 15 address a real prominent theme that I hashed out throughout my college hears: can someone lose their salvation? While in college, I had once heard a talk given to high school students in a Southern Baptist setting that the meaning of the word often translated “remove” in John 15.2 (αἴρει) really means that Jesus lifts up the branches that doesn’t bear fruit, not take them away, all in the name of maintain consistency with the idea of eternal security. This approach, I would later come to discover, amounted to selected whatever meaning of a word we wanted to make the point, without further evidence in support of that conclusion. If one reads vs. 6, one sees a strong reason to continue to render αἴρει as remove, whereas the idea that it simply means to “lift up” is wholly lacking in the context. While I didn’t understand these exegetical principles at the time, I could just sense there was something off by what this person was saying.
So, for a while, John 15 became a passage that I went through time and time again, trying to understand what Jesus meant there about the Himself being the vine and we being the branches. I continued to interpret it through the college years against the frame of eternal judgment: you can lose your salvation, so you better do what is good. However, as I began to get into the theology of John Wesley, I began to comprehend the message of God’s love and grace against the theological backdrop of the possibility of falling from grace. Eventually, I moved on from a persistent focus on John 15, and also Hebrews, and began to explore the New Testament with a wider scope.
However, before even that journey of wrestling through questions of salvation even emerged, there was the period during my freshman year of college that I just started reading the Scriptures voraciously. Not necessarily understanding it, but I read and then there came a point of time that what seemed hidden in meaning had simply became obscure, as if I had picked up on something, even if I really didn’t understand and couldn’t tell you what that something I had picked up was. It was around this time, though I can not tell you for sure if it was before or after I noticed my way of reading the Scripture changed though I think it was afterwards, I had prayed to God to give me the spirit of Paul. Since I spent a significant portion of time reading Paul’s letters, it was almost as if Paul had planted a seed of faith in Christ, that he had laid the foundation of Christ in my heart.
However, as I now look back on my college years, my theological and spiritual journey was taking two different directions. The theological questions about salvation had begun to overshadow the seed of faith that had been planted in freshman year. To be sure, my theology was driven by my faith, but the rational reflection I had about theology was not addressing the personal journey of faith I had, but rather the theological contentions I had with my Southern Baptist background. I had been so clearly mistaught, so I desired to find the right and correct and true teaching from the Scriptures, but I never really had a lot of watering the seed that Paul had planted in my heart. In the end, I was trying to address 18th century questions with 20th century lens, while my own faith has been spurred by something written in the 1st century. However, at the time, however, I never saw the difference between the two; they seemed one and the same to me.
Then, life would through me a fire that would burn down all the theological and exegetical frameworks I had built up, first bringing down the building and then the slowly burning fires taking up all that was left. Everything I thought I had known was burning away over the course of a few years. To some onlookers, it might have looked like I lost faith, but yet there still remained that seed of faith that was protected underground, but now free to get sunlight and rain now that the covering of the building I had constructed was long gone.
Paul said in 1 Corinthians 3 that he planted and Apollos watered to the Corinthians, recognizing that the ministry of bring people to Christ and training them is a tag-team effort of people enabled and empowered by the Spirit. For my life, Paul planted and a friend named Laura watered.
Laura was a friend from many years back, who although we never got very close at the time I had actually begun to fall in love over the course of a few months, without me ever truly realizing it. There were circumstances would prevent me from ever acting on or expressing that to her, while also making me somewhat resistant to dating. Instead, dealing with some unscrupulous characters who had caused me much pain and had even interfered with my attempts to date in the past inluding even potential intimidation, I chose to do whatever I could to protect her from it, even as it mean hiding it from her and even myself at times. The attempt I made to try to be able to simultaenously protect her from it while also making space to see if there was any potential there actually catalyzed a fall into madness and trauma, as the final wounds of a death by a thousand cuts were administered afterwards. I had all but died for my friend to make sure she didn’t go through what I was going through.
I had mentioned her to an acquintance of mine, wanting to just make sure she never got what I had to deal with, but I had said that with the idea that I would never see or talk to her again. However, as I was getting ready to move to Scotland, I decided to check and see what Laura was up to. Somehow, I happened upon a sermon she gave one day that was put online on Psalm 139. The sermon seemed to be so resonant with so much of what I had deal with and struggled with over the years, almost as if she knew. However, what she could not have known at the time was that Psalm 139.13 was particuarly relevant for me, given that my name came to my mom from a dream while she was pregnant with me. I continued to listen to her sermons over the two years I lived in Scotland. While my mind for theological critique was never silenced, her sermons were able to water the seed of my faith from my freshman year of college that had remained, even as the fires of life had turned to ash all that I had built.
My memories of her, spotty as they were due to trauma from the time period, and watching her sermons served to become an intellectual seed for my research while at the University of St. Andrews. I had been fascinated with NT Wright’s discussion on the hermeneutics and epistemology of love because I was a person who was fascinated with the idea of knowledge, questions of certainty, etc. She became intellectual inspiration for my own reflections of what happens when one loves and how our knowledge is impacted by love. This springboarded other projects, including both directly and indirectly, my interest in the idea of Trinitarian epistemology and research in 1 Corinthians 2. In what some might label a coincidence, I, who am not to apt to just see signs from God anywhere and everywhere, one day came upon a series of words on my tablet that read “Koinonia Kimbre Via Trinity.” For those who know Laura, they would know why “Kimbre” might be applicable to her.1 Regardless of whatever relationship might have come in the future if any, at that point I was confident we shared a fellowship with each other through the Triune God, a type of fellowship that I would come to research to some degree in 1 Corinthians. One might go so far as to say that my research could be considered one large agape love letter to her.
So, John 15 is a fitting Scripture that weaves together significant parts of my life story, as it is both a passage that informed my theological reflections in the past from John 15.1-11 while at the same time I am reminded of John 15.12-14 through my memories of her. To that end, I can say there are good reasons that my theological “building” of the past with John 15.1-11 in mind was burned up, as it was part of a building that was built over the seed of faith, but not on the foundation of faith.
You see… my focus on John 15 was about human effort and striving, what is it was that we do to remain and abide with God. That itself isn’t the problem, however, as Jesus clearly give the disciples something they must do to abide in His love, to obey His commandments. Rather, the problem is a matter of focus. My focus was on the HOW but not the WHO. How is it that I can be a faithful disciple? How is it that I can remain?
In a similar way in my research on 1 Corinthians 2, there is a sharp predilection to focus on how Paul as a person teaches about Jesus and wisdom. However, my research in that chapter came to the conclusion that we should read 1 Corinthians 2 with a theocentric frame, where Paul’s purpose is to explicate the God who teaches, not so much how Paul himself teaches. The signifcance of 1 Corinthians 2 is the “who” of the Triune God, now the “how” of Paul, even as there is a hint of a “how” for Paul.
In a similar manner, I and many of us today might read John 15 with attention to the “how” and not the “who.” Addressing questions from the 16th century onward about questons of divine and human agency, particuarly in reference to salvation, I and many of my fellow Wesleyans are inclined to read Jesus statements about abiding in Him through the lens of a synergestic soteriology, to which we then try to answer the questions of “how” How is it that we can be faithful to God? To this question, we are tempted to try to give explanations for how we abide in Christ.
This reading, however, undercuts the very purpose of the Gospel of John. John, or whoever the author of the Gospel is, is not trying to give us a manual of how we can live our best life before God. He wants people to know Jesus as Savior, as the Word made flesh, the one who makes Gods known. He isn’t trying to teach people how they can be saved, but rather about who it is that can save them.
John 15 comes in the midst of Jesus’ farewell sermon. Jesus was going to leave them, but He was going to send the Spirit as a helper/comforter/advocate in His absence, who would remind them of evetything Jesus taught them (John 14.26). One of the things Jesus’ speech pragmatical seeks to accomplish is to continue to maintain the disciple’s loyality to Him as their teacher in His absence. They are going to face pressures from other religious authorities. In the midst of that, they might be tempted to leave behind Jesus’ teachings, if not even transfer their loyalty to some other teacher. So, the metaphor of the vine and the branches is primarily about casting an image as to why it is important that the disciples remain loyal to Jesus and His teachings.
Jesus’ metaphor explains why their loyality to Jesus is important in 15.1: “I am the true vine, and my Father in the vinegrower.” One of the key themes throughout the Gospel of John is that it is only in Jesus that one comes into a direct knowledge and relationship to God the Father. John 15.1 reinforces that idea here, as it is only by participation in Christ is one going to be a part of God’s vineyard. Many Jews would have been familiar with such an image of the people Israel as a God’s vineyard from the prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah. This image was used primary to cast judgment upon Israel for their faithless, as they were not producing the grapes they were expected to create. So, Jesus usage of the vineyard metaphor points to Himself as the one who makes the vineyard bear the fruit that the Father has planted them to create.
In other words, loyal love to Jesus and His teachings is how His disciples would bear fruit. Jesus teachings, and not the teaching of the Pharisees and that which is in the synagogues, would enable God’s people to realize and fulfill the purpose that God had planted them for. Just as Jesus fulfilled the purpose that He had as the uniquely begotten and beloved Son of God by obedience to the Father, so too would the disciples realize the purpose that God has lovingly given to them through obedience to Jesus’s instruction (John 15.10). No other teacher would be able to accomplish this: only God in His Son through the sustained loyalty of the disciples made possibly by the Spirit could makes God’s people fulfill their vocation and purpose.
It is at this point we need to pause and point out how the triumph of the therapeutic has potentially colonized our readings about love here. In trying to develop a sense of secure attachemnt to the world, we are apt to think about love as a persistent ‘force’ that relates two people together. Given the toxic effects that come when significant relationships are highly unstable, we have emphasized the important of “unconditional love” for very good and important reasons. Yet, at the same time, the concept of “unconditional love” is so vacuuous as to make people feel they have an entitlement to some specific outcome or action from another person or even God, despite whatever they might do.
On the one hand, I experience a healthy type of “unconditional love” from my parents, who though they were not perfect as our house was a bit Stoic at times and we did not always see to eye on things, they listen to me, cared for me, and supported me. They had a fundamental benevolence, despite their flaws and mine, that provided a stable base for me to care for other people, even as I had difficulty trusting people because of how my peers frequently treated me. I remember one time in the midst of my struggles with trauma beign tempted to blame it all on my parents, but then I remember the words from James “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” So, I resisted the thought and then I returned back to peace, because I have parents who I can legitimately honor, even with our differences, according the God’s Word, and anyone who who at this point would hint at my need to do otherwise needs to resist the devil to tempt me to illegimately break the fifth commandmenth, as simplified attachment theories without legitimate knowledge of the story at hand can provide seeds for lies and falsehood.
On the other hand, I am reminded of another female (not Laura) who I was friends with and had shown dating interest, but through a serious of events, we ended up hurting each other very deeply. While I had recognized my faults, the nature of my failures were grossly exaggerated and the consequence I received was far in excess of anything I had done. This person hurt me deeply a second time. So, when the time came for me to try to make peace with her after she had tried to intiative contact with me and offered a bit of forgiveness while also establishing some boundaries and expecting some admission to her problems, the response I recieved was as if I had acted in an egregious manner to her, as if she was entitled to a close relationship with me. It is my suspcion that the concept of “unconditional love” had been used to coopt own willingness to a relationship that I refused to give as I had been deeply hurt and discarded without so much as a word of restoration or even a willingness to acknowledge that pain along the way. It is my suspicion that through the vacuouness of “unconditional love,” it had become a toxic concept, creating feelings of entitlement under the title of “unconditional” and to a specific type of relationship that is labeled as “love”. Even though I parts of my continued to care about her, even in the midst of the conflict, my past feelings for her were for a preferred future that her actions entirely underminded.
In a similar manner, we need to be careful to import an ill-defined or vaccous sense of “unconditional love” when reading Jesus words about love here. Love in the Gospel of John is better understood teleologically, rather than as some sort of emotional force that binds two people together. Put simply, God’s love is about the preferred future for His people, what He has set about for their well-being and thriving. We see this concept of telelogical love in John 3.16, where God’s love for the world is pointing towards a specific telos, eternal life, that is brought to fruition through the sending of Jesus as the Son. We see this concept of a telos expressed in John 15.11, where Jesus explains the reason He is talking to them about obeying His commandments: so that they may have joy and a joy that is complete.
So, it against this backdrop of teleology, we can understand Jesus’ words about abiding in His love: only through obedience to Jesus teachings can the purposes that God has for His people and that Jesus has for His disciples become realized. Jesus connection of obedience to remaining/abiding in love is not casting Jesus or God as a fickle lover, who only loves when things are going well and perfect. However, the way we frame “unconditional love” would makes us have trouble accepting what Jesus says at face value, finding some form of theological rationalization that doesn’t necessarily find its launching point in the Gospel of John. Rather, the teleological purposes God has set out for us can only be realized through dilgence to keep what Jesus instructs, which the coming Spirit will allow the disciples to continue to do.
One other way that “unconditonal love” and the triumph of the therapeutic can colonize our John 15 and our undersatnding of Jesus is by treating the love of the Father for Jesus as a simply analogy for God’s love for us. Trying to ground our feelings of stability in the world in a theological manner, we are apt to hear the words of God to Jesus “This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” before Jesus has engaged in His ministry as a direct word that God offers to us as people via analogy with Jesus. So, when we see the analogy of Jesus’ love and God’s love in John 15.10, we are inclined to think that I am a direct recipient of God’s love.
The problem here is that we are confusing the default beneveolence that God has for all creation with the teleological love that God has for us in Christ. God certainly loves the world and loves the world even in the midst of its sin. We try to express this love through appeal to God as the ideal prototype of “unconditional love.” If we were to highly define God’s love to God desire for human well-being and thriving in the midst of our sin to the point that He would always accept the repentance of a sinner, then I wouldn’t protest. This is doing theology from an understanding nature, recognizing that God created the world in love and thus seeks all of our thriving. Even as nature can not tell us definitively waht the full shape and purpose of God’s love is, I think we can legitimatley speak of God’s love in the act of creaton and call it an “unconditional love.”
However, a less well-defined picture of “unconditional love” has a couple theological problems. Firstly, various parts of the Old Testament do not fit with any concept that we would have of love, such as judgment, wrath, and at times in the Psalms explicitly attributed hatred to God. An ill-defined understanding of “unconditional love” leaves us as either practical Marcionites or casting a picture of love that is deeply troublesome. However, an ill defined definition of “unconditional love” can create the theological problem of treated Jesus as simply an example of God’s for humnaity; that just as God loved Jesus, so God loves the world. Yes, Jesus is human like us, but His status as the uniquely begotten Son of God is not like our status as children of God. John 1.12 connects our status as children of God to recieving Jesus. We are children of God by our reception and participation in the Son of God, not children of God alongside Christ. We are children of God by faith because Jesus is the Son of God.
While it is certainly theologically legitimate to draw from our own nature as humans that makes us children of God in a narrow, limited sense, such as we see implicit in Luke 3.38, to treat this as some widespread theological concept that we ground our theology upon is to essentially make us Stoics, treating natural theology as a confident ground for our theological inferences rarther than letting revelation provide light to nature. However, the temptation to theologically ground “unconditional love” in this narrow sense of nature has the effect of Stoicizing our theology. One implication of this line of thinking of drawing a simple analogy from Christ to us is that our theology would either necessitate an implicitly Arianism that regards Christ as simply a preeminent human among humans or implicitly Mormon in lifting up our own status as human to a divinized status. Orthodox theology must reject any sense of a direct analogy between God’s love for Jesus and God’s love for humanity. And so, an ill-defined sense of “unconditional love” can motivate us towards thinking that can be the seeds of heresy.
However, Jesus does not suggest there is a direct analogy between God’s love for Him and God’s love for His disciples in John 15.10. He doesn’t say “As God loved me, so God loves you.” Rather, Jesus words there can be understood as saying that God’s love for Jesus’ disciple, which is implicit because of hte vineyard metaphor, runs through Jesus as their Rabbi, not apart from Him. The type of love that Jesus is speaking about is only realized through Christ, and not apart from Christ, even if we can recognize a different sense of love in the form of a benevolence that God has for all creation.
Jesus summarizes His teachings in John 15.12-15 as pertaining to this very love that He speaks about: to love one another in imitation of Jesus’ love for them as friends. It is here we see that their loyalty to Jesus as their teacher is not reduced to mere cognitive status, but it is the actions of one person on behalf of another that takes Jesus as their inspiration and guide. It is here that we then do see a sense of equality alongside Jesus: not as children of God alongside the Son of God, but as friends. Those who do as Jesus teaches are Jesus’ friends.
Yes, there is a judgment for those who do not abide by Jesus and do not keep Jesus’ words, but it is not the judgment and loss of status that emerges from God’s overbearing wrath and hatred, but as one’s who did not realize God’s purposes for their lives by keeping Jesus’ words. They are excluded from Jesus’ love because they excluded themselves from Jesus’ love. In other words, they reap what they sow. Fortunately, though, God’s benevolence does not wish the destruction of anyone, and so repentance is open to all who are open to such.
All of this I can say I have learned because of the influence of a woman named Laura. Even thought she didn’t teach me all these things, she water the seed of faith in Christ that Paul had planted, which began to sprout through my research. And so, as a result, God’s love for me is being realizing in the word I had one day in chapel many years ago that I would be a servant of Asbury, to give them a Scripturally grounded synegergism based upon a pedagogy rooted in faith, hope, and love, to invite them to be servants with me so that we can be friends together with Jesus, to live in their blind spot by cetching bist of information that they do not see to help give them the eyes to see. Even if I were never to see Laura again as that is her choie to make, which I hope we do, she has helped me to fulfill the purpose God gave to me during that chapel serivces nearly a decade ago; she was a colaborer with the Apostle Paul to sprout the seed of faith that has always been present in me, even after the fires had taken all they did.