5.21.2017

Simply, Keep My Commandments

Easter 6A

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”[1]  I’ve been reading this sentence over and over again this week.  Sometimes even saying it out loud in my office when no one is around to look at me funny.  “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  I keep reciting it, in part, because I want there to be more to the sentence.  For example, here are some versions that I like better. They are clearer:
1.     “If you love me, then you will keep my commandments” – simple cause and effect. If this, then that.
2.     Or, how about this version: “If you love me, you will want to keep my commandments” – an acknowledgement that my doing and my wanting are not always the same thing; an acknowledgement of my full humanity – foibles and all.
3.     Or, maybe this version: “If you love me, you won’t be able to help yourself – you will keep my commandments.”  I admit, this is my favorite.  There’s a sense of new love in it, right?  I fall in love with someone and I can’t help myself, I buy them flowers or a treat at the bakery.  I fall in love with someone and I want to be with them all the time.  I am infatuated.  If we love Jesus, we will keep his commandments because that’s what love drives us to do – to please the object of our love.
But we don’t get any of that. We simply get, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  And immediately after this we get the promise of Pentecost – that Jesus will send the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, an advocate to abide in and with us.[2] And too the promise of the second coming, that Jesus will not leave us orphaned but will come to us again.[3]  And then our passage ends where it began, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”[4]  And it all leaves me wanting something more. Because it makes me worry that Jesus’ love is too dependent on my actions and that is not at all comfortable.
Jesus’ love depending on my actions makes me really uncomfortable BUT, when it is Jesus’ love depending on someone else’s actions, then, suddenly, it’s not so bad.  A couple of weeks ago, for example, I was pretty upset by an executive order issued by the President and by Congress’ move to undo the Affordable Care Act and I stood here in this very spot and proclaimed “white evangelicals are practicing a Christianity that Jesus would not recognize as a reflection of his life and death witness to the gospel.”[5]
It felt good to say that. It felt good to acknowledge that when people do things that I think are really, really abominable that they are not demonstrating their love for Jesus and to use a passage like this morning’s, twist it around just a bit, and soon I’ve convinced myself – and maybe you as well – that it says: “They who have my commandments and do not keep them are those who do not love me; and those who do not love me will not be loved by my Father, and I will not love them and will not reveal myself to them.”  But, it doesn’t say that.  It doesn’t say that at all.  It simply says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” 
So, what to do – besides walking around reciting the words over and over again (which, by the way, is not a bad spiritual discipline in the great scheme of things)?  Most scholars assume that the gospel of John was written for an audience of believers – in other words, it was probably written for Jews who already were followers of Jesus.  The text was not written to convert people; rather, it was meant to uphold and strengthen those who already believed so that they would continue believing, so that they would have courage to believe, so that they would – now several decades after Jesus’ death – continue to keep the faith. 
So the ‘you’ in the “if you love me” sentence is us – it’s believers.  We cannot assume that the “you” applies to non-believers because they were not the author’s intended audience.  So, it is not a passage that we can use with any integrity to say that only Christians are saved.  But, and perhaps this is even more important, it is also not a passage that can be used for finger-wagging at other believers.  If that were the case it would read, “If they love me, they would keep my commandments.”
So what’s left?  It’s us.  It is a passage that is for believers.  It is an invitation for us to take an honest look at our own lives – individually and corporately.  And ask ourselves, “Are we loving Jesus?”  “Are we keeping Jesus’ commandments?”  And God knows there is no simple litmus test for that.  Oftentimes circumstances are so complex that it’s not a simple yes or no that will determine our next course of action.  We have to pray and discern and listen for God’s call to us. We need constantly to ask, “What is the next right thing to do?” “What’s the next right, loving thing to do?” And we need to remind ourselves that sometimes we might get it wrong.
And it’s that part – the possibly being wrong part – that I think those middle verses of today’s passage speak to.  Because if Jesus’ words, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” cause us to live in fear of doing the wrong thing rather than to rejoice in our love of Jesus, then we need those middle verses.  We need to hear that God has given us another Advocate, that God has sent the Spirit of truth to be with us forever.
And forever is not conditional, my friends.  Forever is not dependent on anything we do or do not do.  Forever is not dependent on our action or inaction.  Forever is dependent only on God and we are never abandoned by God.  For we are loved.  And because we are loved we are free to rejoice in our love of Jesus and keep Jesus’ commandments and know with certainty that “those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” Forever.
And because we are loved, we are also free to walk around with a single sentence repeating in our minds or maybe even being uttered by our lips: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” See what comes to you if you do.  Let me know what you discern.  Because I’m not done yet.



[1] John 14:15.
[2] John 14:16-17.
[3] John 14:18-20.
[4] John 14:21.
[5] Bullock, Debra, “Serving as Christ’s Mirror to the World: Sermon for May 7,2017”, Turtle on Wheels, May 8, 2017, accessed May 18, 2017. (Note: never cited myself before. . . now I have. Probably didn’t need to; but, there it is).

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