The Dance of Love | John 15:9-17
Brian Hedges | September 26, 2021
Let me invite you to turn in Scripture this morning to the John 15. While you’re turning there, let me tell you the story of the greatest hymn writer in the history of at least the English-speaking church. His name was Charles Wesley, brother to the more famous John Wesley. These were men who were very influential in the Great Awakening. John Wesley was really the architect, the organizer, the founder of Methodism; George Whitefield was the premier preacher during that time. But the poet of the Great Awakening, the hymn writer, was Charles Wesley.
He was converted after months and even years of agonizing religion, where he was trying to be a better person but had not really understood the gospel. Then one night he was reading Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians, and he said that he “labored and waited and prayed to feel him who loved me and gave himself for me.” It was that experience of the love of Christ that changed him.
One of his biographers says that his new relationship with the Lord “unlocked the treasury of poetic gifts within him. His soul constantly experienced the soaring emotions of the poet, and his mind instinctively invested words with harmony. Hymns began to flow from his pen in its rich abundance.”
Now, many of you will know some of the hymns of Charles Wesley. I wonder, if I were to ask you, “How many hymns did he write?” if you would have any idea. Think of a number in your mind right now. Most of you are probably thinking 500, 600, 1,000. The actual number was 8,989 hymns, ten times the number of hymns composed by Isaac Watts, the second runner-up for greatest hymn writer in the English language. Christianity Today says he averaged ten poetic lines a day for 50 years.
What led him to do that? It was this experience of the love of God through Jesus Christ in his heart and in his experience through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. It accounts for some of the main themes of Charles Wesley’s songs. Surely all of you will probably know these words:
Amazing love! and can it be
That thou, my God shouldst die for me?
He wrote other great hymns as well, including “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”
I think Charles Wesley was something like the author of the Gospel that we are now studying together, the apostle John. The apostle John is known as "the disciple whom Jesus loved." That’s how he describes himself—"the beloved disciple." He is the apostle of love. You read his letters, and they are just full of love. In fact, in the Gospel of John you have a concentration of the teaching of Jesus on love, and in the upper room discourse, which we’re studying together, John 13-17, there are no less than 34 references to love in these chapters. It’s right at the heart of Jesus’ teaching.
We get Jesus’ teaching on this in the Gospel of John as we get it nowhere else. John Calvin said that the other Gospels show us Jesus’ body (as we see his external works and his acts), but in the Gospel of John, Calvin said, we see his soul. Indeed, Jesus here in the upper room is unveiling his heart, he is baring his soul to his disciples on the night before his crucifixion, teaching them some of the most profound lessons we have anywhere in Scripture. This morning we’re looking once again at John 15:9-17, where the whole theme is love.
The central command of this passage is, “Abide in my love,” or, “Remain in my love.” It’s continuing with the language and the thought of abiding in the vine, as we looked at last week, but here Jesus pretty much drops the metaphor, except for in verse 16, and he’s really explaining now what it is to remain in his love. I want to begin by reading the passage, John 15:9-17, and then I want to point out three things in it. John 15, beginning in verse 9:
“‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.’”
This is God’s word.
I want you to see three things this morning, and I want to organize the message around the concept of a dance. I want you to see: the dance of love, the steps to the dance, and the music that keeps us dancing.
You might think, That’s an odd way to organize a sermon, to talk about a dance, but I think it will make sense in a minute. There’s a reason for it, and I think you’ll see it when we get into the first point.
1. The Dance of Love
I really just want us to meditate, think for a few minutes about verse 9. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide [or remain] in my love.” Jesus here is giving us a glimpse into the most profound reality in the universe. He’s giving us a glimpse into the inner relationship between him and his father. He’s letting us peer into the triune life of God.
Indeed, there have been many hints like this in the Gospel of John. All the way back in John 1, in the prologue, we read these profound words: “No one has ever seen God, the only God who is at the Father’s side; he has made him known.” Nobody’s seen God, but then there’s this other figure, the only God who is at the Father’s side. Who is this? It’s the Word; the Word who was with God, the Word who was God. The Word who is face to face with God, this divine, eternal person who has always existed, in relationship with the Father, at the Father’s side; he has made him known; he has revealed the Father.
Then Jesus goes on to say things like this: “I and my Father are one,” John 10. Or, “In that day you will know that I am in my Father and you in me and I in you,” John 14:20. Or when we get into John 17:24 there are some really profound words in Jesus’s high priestly prayer, prayed the night before his crucifixion. He says, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”
Have you ever wondered what God was doing before he created the universe? I mean, he existed from all eternity; God never had a beginning. God simply is. But the world had a beginning, the universe had a beginning; so what did the eternal God do for eternity before he created the world? He loved. He loved! He existed in an eternal relationship of mutual indwelling, triune love, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit; an eternal, loving fellowship with one another. That’s at the heart of reality.
I call it "the dance of love" because this is what the church fathers referred to. I’m going to give you a technical term here: perichoresis. It was a technical term that talked about (that described, really) the mutual indwelling, the co-inherence, the eternal love relationships, of the triune God. It’s the Greek word, perichoresis, that comes from two words, “around” and “dance.” Our word “choreography” comes from the same basic root. It’s a word that describes for us these eternal relationships.
C.S. Lewis capitalized on this idea in Mere Christianity when he said these words; he said, “In Christianity, God is not a static thing, not even a person, but a dynamic, pulsating activity; a life; almost a kind of drama; almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance. The whole dance or drama or pattern of this three-personal life is to be played out in each one of us. There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made. Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm, you must stand near the fire. If you want to get wet, you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to or even into the thing that has them. They are not a sort of prize which God could, if he chose, just hand out to anyone; they are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very center of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you; if you are not, you will remain dry.”
A fountain of love; the dance, the drama of love. Lewis is saying you have to be close in order to experience the joy, the beauty of this love.
What Jesus is saying here when he says, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love,” he is telling us to remain in the consciousness of his love, and he tells us that the measure of his love for us is his Father’s love for him. That’s an amazing thought. The Father loved his Son eternally, and God through his Son, Jesus, has loved you with an everlasting love. He loved his Son infinitely, and there is no measure to God’s love for his people, to Christ’s love for his people. God the Father loved the Son unchangeably, and nothing can separate you from the love of Christ. The Father loved the Son eternally, and in fact, the upper room discourse begins in John 13:1 with these words: “Jesus, knowing that the hour had come for him to depart from the world, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” He loves you to the end, and we are called to remain in his love, to enter into this dance of love, to be a part of this relationship of love, to know the God who is love.
2. The Steps to the Dance
How do you do that? That leads to the second point, the steps to the dance. There is this dance, there is this fountain of love at the center of reality, but how do you participate in it? Jesus wants us to remain in his love; how do we do that? The passage, I think, gives us three very concrete, practical steps. So if we do these things, these are the ways that if you live in this way, you experience God’s love to the fullest.
(1) The first step is obedience. Look at verse 10. “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”
We see here that there’s a very strong connection between love and obedience. To love God means to obey him. Jesus has said this several times. We saw in John 14:15: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Verse 21: “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me.”
I think when we read things like that there’s a part of us that kind of hesitates, and we find it somewhat problematic, because we think of obedience and love as strange bedfellows. You obey the law, you obey a king, maybe you begrudgingly obey your boss or a teacher; but love? Doesn’t love give freedom? Isn’t love the opposite of feeling any kind of obligation of obedience?
I would suggest to you that if that is your default reaction, it’s probably because (I think all of us have it to some degree) we still have a somewhat adolescent view of what love is. Any parent knows that love is compatible with obedience, because a parent, when they’re raising their children, they love their children; they require obedience, why? Because the very things they’re asking their children to do, if they’re good and wise parents, is intended for the maturity, for the joy, for the flourishing of their children. In the same way, when God and when Jesus require us to obey him, the reason they give those commands is for our good, it’s for our joy, it’s for our flourishing, it’s for our maturity. And, as every parent knows, there’s a big difference between the child who obeys merely out of fear of consequences and the child who obeys out of love, because he or she doesn’t want to disappoint or hurt or grieve the heart of mom or dad.
So these two things do go together, and the greatest example of the two things going together is in Jesus himself. Did you see what he said in verse 10? He said, “If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” Jesus is the ultimate model here of obedience out of love. He loved his Father and his will. He says, “My food is to do the will of my Father who is in heaven.” He lived in complete and full obedience to God, and he is the example.
This shows us that there is no inherent conflict between love and the law. In fact, Paul will say that love is the fulfillment of the law. In Jesus we see how love and obedience are not only compatible but fully integrated into his loving relationship with the Father. The same must be true in our lives. If you want to abide in his love, if you want to remain in his love, that will happen as you obey him out of love. You keep his commandments.
(2) That leads to the second step, which is joy. Verse 11: “These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.”
We looked at this briefly last week in relationship to fruit, right? It’s one of the fruits of the Spirit; it’s a fruit of abiding in the vine. We experience joy. But notice here that Jesus actually gives these commands and gives this teaching for this very purpose. He says, “These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.” He wants us to experience fullness of joy, abundant joy. He wants us to experience his joy in us, “that my joy may be in you.”
That could mean one of two things. It could be either qualitative, that the joy with which we are full is the kind of joy that Jesus has; it is Jesus’s joy in us. Or it could mean that Jesus himself experiences joy as we obey him. He sees our obedience, he sees our love, and it brings joy and delight to his heart. Either way, joy in Christ as a result of loving obedience is one of the steps here to remaining in his love.
(3) The third thing is community, verses 12 and 17. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. . . . These things I command you, so that you will love one another.”
So the very essence of the commandments of Jesus is love, and it is to love one another. This is the baseline Christian ethic. This is what Christianity looks like in practice. It is loving one another.
One of the great “one another” commands of Scripture—there are maybe two dozen of these—but this one is the one that embraces all the others. To love one another means that we will also serve one another and forgive one another and be kind to one another and tenderhearted to one another. It means that we will bear with one another and pray for and serve one another, and so on. Loving one another.
Once again, Jesus is the pattern. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” How does he love us? He loves us as the Father has loved him. Again, it’s setting the high standard here of this full-hearted commitment of love to others.
This echoes, of course, Jesus’s new commandment in John 13:34-35. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
It’s a new commandment. Why is it new? Well, perhaps because Jesus is the new and the fullest and the best expression of what it is to love, and his love for us is the standard by which we are to love one another. Perhaps also because this is the essence of new covenant living. We live in love for one another, in the newness of the new covenant, as God’s Spirit indwells us and his laws are written in our hearts, and through love we fulfill the law.
One other thing we see about this is that it’s the key to our witness. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Love is the greatest Christian apologetic. People know that we belong to Christ when we live in love for one another.
Obedience, joy, and community—a commitment to others. One of the things that means for us is this, that in the Christian life, if we are to remain in Christ’s love, we cannot do it by ourselves. As John Wesley (Charles’s brother) once said, “The Bible knows nothing of solitary Christianity.” You can’t be a Christian by yourself; did you know that? You have to be in relationship with others in order to really obey Jesus, in order to live out the commands of Christ. We are branches in the same vine, we are members in the same body, we are brothers and sisters in the same family. That means more than just coming to church on Sunday morning; it means that you are building and investing in deep Christian friendships. It means that you are living life with other people; it means connection to a small group. It means that you are imitating Christ in his love for you, building your life after his pattern, as you seek to love others.
These are the steps; this is how we abide in his love.
3. The Music That Keeps Us Dancing
What’s the motivation for this? That leads us to the last point, the music that keeps us dancing. Have you ever tried to dance without music? It’s just awkward movements, right, if there’s no music. But when there’s music, dancing is more natural, and we need the music of the gospel to motivate us and to empower us in order for us to live this life of love. That’s what we have in verses 13-16. I want you to see three things.
(1) First of all, the depth of his sacrifice. Look at verse 13. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
We know this, but perhaps we’re so familiar with it that we lose some of the wonder of it. This is the very apex, the climax of God’s love for us, expressed through his Son, Jesus Christ, that Jesus would go all the way to the cross, that he would die for us; that he would become the atoning sacrifice for our sins; that he would take the punishment that we deserved; that he would take the death that we deserved in order to set us free and to bring us forgiveness and to reconcile us and bring us into a relationship with God.
John the apostle grasped this, and that’s why he said, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us.”
One of the greatest illustrations, perhaps, is from Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities. Anyone ever read A Tale of Two Cities, or at least maybe seen the movie? It’s about these two men, Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, and they both happen to fall in love with the same woman, Lucie Manette. Charles Darnay actually wins her heart and they get married, but Sydney Carton maintains this affection for Lucie and for her family. All of this takes place with the background of the French Revolution, this bloody revolution where the aristocracy was being overthrown and people were being executed right and left. And Charles Darnay happens to be connected to the French aristocracy, so he is captured, he is taken to this horrible prison, the Bastille, and an execution date is set.
Sydney Carton, because he loves this family so much, does the unimaginable: he smuggles himself into the Bastille, he takes the place of Charles Darnay so that Darnay goes free, and Sydney Carton is executed by guillotine in his place. It’s there that he utters those famous words: “It is a far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far better place that I go to than I have ever known.”
That’s just a feeble, faint representation, illustration of the kind of love that Christ had for us, to be our substitute, to be our representative, to be our friend, and a friend who went all the way to the sacrifice of the cross for us.
Wesley had it right:
He left his Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite his grace,
Emptied himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race.
You have to remember the depth of a sacrifice. That’s part of the music that keeps us dancing.
(2) Here’s a second thing: enjoy the intimacy of his friendship. Look at verses 14-15. “You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”
A friend is more intimate than a servant or a slave. There’s a sense, of course, in which we are still servants of God; but Jesus is saying to his disciples that, “I’ve let you in deeper! You’re not merely a servant to me, but you are my friends, because I have revealed the heart of the Father to you.” That’s what friendship is. Friendship is characterized by transparency, by opening your heart, by letting people into your life, and Jesus does that with us.
It isn’t only as we look back to the sacrifice of the cross that we hear the music of the gospel, it’s also as we learn to live in the daily enjoyment of intimacy with Jesus Christ. Hasn’t Jesus already hinted at this more than once in this gospel, and even in this series we’ve been looking at? You remember in John 14 where he says that “if someone loves me and keeps my commandments, my Father and I will love him, and we will come and make our home with him.”
There is a kind of relationship you can have with Jesus Christ in the here and now, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, that is characterized by intimacy, by friendship, by closeness. It’s part of the music of the gospel that helps us remain in his love.
(3) Then there’s a third thing here in verse 16, and that is the graciousness of his electing love for us. Verse 16 says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.”
“You did not choose me, but I chose you.” Now, with the disciples perhaps that’s a reference to their calling to be apostles. They didn’t seek him out, he sought them out. But the principle holds true, doesn’t it, for all believers. If you this morning are a believer in Christ, it’s not because you first sought him, it’s because he first sought you. You know and you realize—and some of you need to take encouragement from this this morning—that every least inclination of your heart towards God is the result of his grace in your life! You wouldn’t love him, you wouldn’t desire him, you wouldn’t want him if he had not first sought you out.
That’s why Paul says in Ephesians 1: “In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the beloved.”
Take heart, brothers and sisters, from God’s grace to you. If you are seeking him, it’s because he has sought you first.
One hymn writer put it like this:
’Tis not that I did choose thee,
For Lord, that could not be;
This heart would still refuse thee
Hadst thou not chosen me.
Thou from the sin that stained me
Hath cleansed and set me free.
Of old thou hast ordained me,
That I should live to thee.
My heart owns none before thee;
For thy rich grace I thirst,
This knowing, if I love thee,
Thou must have loved me first.
However you handle the theological debate about predestination, I think everybody would have to acknowledge that when you look at the origins of your love and your pursuit of God, behind it all was God’s grace, prevenient, coming before, enabling us, drawing us, choosing us, bringing us to himself. Understanding that will set your feet to dancing, freedom in the heart, when you know that God’s love for you is not dependent on your love for him, your love for him is dependent on his love for you.
We’ve seen the dance of love, the steps to the dance, the music to the dance.
About 15 years ago, my youngest brother, Andy, got married. His wedding was somewhat different than my wedding had been or my brother Jason’s wedding. We were raised Baptist, folks, so we didn’t grow up dancing! But at Andy’s wedding, it was the first wedding where there was a dance, and I was the best man (the only wedding I’ve been a best man in). I was the best man for the wedding, but never been to a dance.
So when it came time for the wedding party to be called to the dance floor, I was shaking in my loafers, and literally made myself scarce. I just kind of found a corner of the building and hid out for a while, because I didn’t know how to dance, and I felt nervous about joining in with the dance. I’ve come a little ways since, so now when Holly and I go to weddings we’re happy to dance together, and I know enough that I can get around with her. But that was my experience 15 years ago, and I think that parallels what a lot of people feel when they hear this call, the call to embrace this powerful, life-transforming love of God in Jesus Christ and to enter into this dance with obedience and love for him.
Here’s the deal: if you don’t enter into the dance, you don’t experience the joy. The only way we experience the joy of his love is as we submit to him, obey him, love him in return.
I want to end with these words from Charles Wesley. This hymn is not as well-known, but I think beautifully put, so receive it as one of the great poems of the Christian faith.
Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down,
Fix in us thy humble dwelling;
All thy tender mercies crown.
Jesus, thou art all compassion;
Pure, unbounded love thou art;
Visit us with thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.
Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit
Into every troubled breast.
Let us all in thee inherit;
Let us find the promised rest.
Take away the love of sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.
Come almighty to deliver;
Let us all thy life receive.
Suddenly return, and never,
Never more thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve thee as thy host above,
Pray and praise thee without ceasing,
Glory in thy perfect love.
Finish, then, thy new creation;
True and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in thee.
Changed from glory into glory,
’Til in heaven we take our place,
’Til we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.
Our gracious, heavenly Father, how we thank you this morning for your amazing, astounding love, that you should love sinners such as we are and welcome us into your family, and do so through the loving sacrifice of your son, Jesus. So we thank you, and we want this morning the response, the return of our hearts to your love to be our love for you, expressed in our obedience and in our worship and in our love for one another. So Father, I pray that you would take these words and apply them deeply to our hearts and our lives this morning. Help us, Lord, hear this transforming music of the gospel that draws us into the dance of your eternal love. May we be changed, may we learn to live in imitation of Christ, loving one another as he has loved us.
As we come to the Lord’s table this morning, may we come seeing in the emblems of the bread and the juice the loving sacrifice of our Lord, his body broken for us, his blood poured out for our redemption; and may we experience the intimacy of his fellowship as we gather together around the table. So draw near to us as we worship, we pray this in Jesus’ name and for his sake, amen.