Acts 17:22-31; John 14:15-21
“If you love me you will keep my commandments.”
In this brief passage from John, Jesus repeats this admonition twice. The connection between love of Jesus and obedience to Jesus bookend these verses. Love and obedience go hand in hand. Why? I confess the idea of keeping commandments is not nearly as often in the forefront of my mind as love. We are all about love in this culture – perhaps not always (or often) the kind of agape love of Scripture, but love nonetheless.
We throw the word love around a lot. We “heart” chocolate and New York and NPR. We are relentlessly encouraged to “show” our love through gifts of flowers, jewelry, cars and all other manner of things on every holiday from Valentine’s Day to Easter. Popular music is infused with love and forever has been in every generation’s playlist. From “Love Is All You Need” to “I Will Always Love You” (Did you see Will Ferrell’s version to the University of Southern California grads?), it only takes minutes of listening to the radio to hear someone from some era crooning about love.
Love, in more or less biblical forms, is ubiquitous. Look in the index of our “Glory to God” hymnal. Under “love” there are three heading and columns of hymns to choose from. Under “obedience” there are seven. I would argue this is theologically and biblically sound. The emphasis on love is right, needed and scripturally supported. And yet, we are presented in John’s Gospel with Jesus saying that following his commandments is inseparable from love of him. What’s the connection?
Isn’t love all we need?
I saw a yard sign in my town that’s closing line was: Kindness is everything.
Is it? Or are we missing something?
I wonder if our emphasis on love alone or kindness alone isn’t unlike the Athenian’s monument to an unknown god. I wonder if our emphasis on love alone or kindness alone has resulted in the “moral therapeutic deism” uncovered in the National Study of Youth and Religion and explicated in books like Kenda Creasy Dean’s, “Almost Christian.” Here is a taste of what Dean writes: “Moral Therapeutic Deism, a tacit religious outlook that is quite distinct from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or any of the world’s majority religious, helps people be nice, feel good, and leaves God in the background.”
All you need is love?
Kindness is everything?
Or, monument to an unknown god?
Something important, life giving and life saving is absent. Could it be following commandments? Dare I use the word “obedience”? Does it have to do with keeping together those three admonitions in Micah: Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God?
Love and trust go together. We can’t trust those who fail to keep promises, and keeping promises entails following the commandments God has set before us. Of course, the greatest of which is loving God and neighbor. So, we are back to love. Now what?
Well, we look to the Holy Spirit for guidance. In John’s Gospel the Holy Spirit is also called the Spirit of truth, our Advocate, the One who teaches and guides, reminds, encourages, strengthens and testifies. Apparently, we require a lot of help if we are to follow Jesus’ commandments, especially the greatest of them. Love may be all we need, but if we are to love as Jesus commands, we need divine intervention to actually do it.
We can’t love as Jesus commands without divine help. Part of the help God gives comes in the form of commandments: the Ten Commandments found in Exodus and Deuteronomy and the greatest commandment explicated by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What has heretofore been unknown has been revealed; love and kindness have been made flesh and given a form and substance we are to follow.
We are to follow Jesus Christ, abide in his love and emulate his love, his boundary crossing love that interacted with a Samaritan woman. His healing love that broke Sabbath rules in order to stop the suffering of those long in pain. His feeding love that wouldn’t give in to expediency, but demanded the participation of his followers so that no one would be hungry. His teaching love that was patient, but demanding – so demanding that even his disciples wondered if anyone could accept it. His forgiving love that intervened on behalf of the woman caught in adultery and called out those who pronounced judgment. His confronting love that questioned religious and secular authority alike no matter the cost to his own safety. His humble love that washed his disciples’ feet. His sacrificial love that took him to the cross. This is the new commandment kind of love he requires of his followers: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Perhaps all we need is love, but this Jesus-love requires an obedience that we cannot begin to accomplish without divine intervention. Kindness, while critical, isn’t everything. For disciples of Jesus Christ, doing justice and walking humbly with our God and obeying God’s commandments enable us (however badly, and only with the help of the Holy Spirit) to enact the love that reveals the Son of God not just to us, but to others too.
This is no unknown god; this is the Word made flesh, visible through the gift of the Holy Spirit when we keep Jesus’ commandments.
In her book, “Sometimes Amazing Thing Happen,”psychiatrist Elizabeth Ford shares stories of her time working on the men’s unit on the psychiatric prison ward at Bellevue Hospital in New York. Needless to say, much of what she details is painful and heartbreaking. And yet, she and others remain steadfast even in the face of desperate odds for “success.” Why? Well, because sometimes amazing things happen as a result of remaining steadfast and dutifully showing up day after day with compassion and love.
She describes a group meeting of patients lead by a medical student who feels called to this incredibly hard work. A reticent member of the group named Manny shares his worry that he won’t stay sober after getting out of prison. He goes on to tell the painful story of how his addiction began, how his father whipped him until his back bled and how the abuse didn’t hurt as much when he was under the influence of alcohol. He concludes saying: “Thank you for letting me share. I know I’m not worth your time.”
Another patient responds:
“Manny,” says Jamel, leaning forward in his chair so he can see him clearly. “You are worth it, man. You got mad courage. You just hang on and keep going one day at a time. That’s all you got to do.”
Manny looks like he is about to cry, as though no one except this psychotic patient named Jamel has ever offered him kind words. …
“Yeah, Manny, you just take it one day at a time. Think about all those days you’ve survived already.”
… We are witnessing a pivotal moment for Manny, perhaps for the group itself. A collective responsibility to care for someone else.
Pivotal moments of collective care for another surprise us in the midst of daily faithfulness and dutiful obedience. In other words, the Holy Spirit comes along side us and we see and point to Jesus when we keep the commandments of the One whose amazing love demands our soul, our lives, our all. Love and obedience – for followers of Jesus Christ whose love lead to obedience even unto death – cannot be separated.
- What does the word “abide” mean to you? Do a word study of “abide” and see where and how it is used in the rest of Scripture.
- Have you thought about the connection between obedience and love? Why does “obedience” have such a negative connotation in our culture? Are there other words you would use instead?
- How is the love Jesus commands distinctive? How is loving as Jesus loves us the same or different than the love we often hear about in music, movies, etc.?
- Take a look at the hymns listed in the “Glory to God” index under “obedience.” What themes do you notice?
- What about all of the hymns with “love” in them? How do they depict the love of God for us and our love for God?
- Why do you think “truth” is intimately connected with the Holy Spirit and with the commandments to love? How do we “speak the truth in love”?
Want to receive Looking into the Lectionary content in your inbox on Mondays? Click here to join our email list!