What’s love got to do with…obedience?

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter — John 14:15-21


If you love me, you will keep my commandments.


This juxtaposition of love and commandments repeated in Jesus’ teachings seems less like a paradox than a non sequitur.  It doesn’t follow.

Love? / Commandments?

Some would say, if Jesus was truly loving he wouldn’t have made so many demands of us – and he certainly would not bring up “commandments” in the same breath as love.  Still others would see these words as an example of Jesus establishing a holiness-code for his followers.  The true disciples of Jesus meet a strict test of purity, right living and adherence to the law, and those who fail the test are second-class Christians, at best.  And they certainly shouldn’t be a bishop!

So the fray ensues.  One group shouts, “Jesus came to free us from the Law!  It’s all about love!”  Others shout back, “Love doesn’t equal license – what we need is some old-fashioned rule-keeping!”

My, how very Anglican – a family fight!  Clearly what Jesus meant by loving one another.  It would behoove us to heed the words of that great theologian of our time, Burt Bacharach, as he observed, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.”  In the late 1980s, toward the end of the Cold War, another great theologian, Sting, released a song called, “The Russians Love their Children Too,” leading to one of my college professors annoyed retort, “Hmmm.  Yes, I do suppose the Russians do love their children.  So did the Nazis!  What’s your point?” 

So then others get out their dictionaries in an effort to define love.  What do we mean by love?  Truly love is one of the most often cited but least clarified words in the English language.  As I am wont say in wedding sermons, love is a word we throw around pretty easily these days.  You love your dog, you love your country, you love pizza.  Love, love, love.  We try to dress “love” up in degrees:  ranging from “I like you” to “I really, really, really, really, like you a lot.”  But is anybody really sure what they mean by love.  We love God, we love NY, we love a rainy night. 

Ultimately it seems these days love means what it does in tennis – absolutely nothing.

Did the early church, those who first heard these gospel accounts, suffer from this same confusion?  It would seem not nearly to the same extent.  You see the original language of these documents, Koine Greek, has no fewer than four verbs for love.  It’s still true today in modern Greek.  I asked a good friend of mine from Cyprus if this were still true, and though it took us a minute or two to get the pronunciation straight, the vocabulary is intact.  Greeks speak of AGAPE, describing the ultimate love, divine and transcendent, best exemplified in Jesus’ self-sacrificial death.  Then there’s PHILEO – closely related to agape, describing the affection between friends and family members, also known as “brotherly love”.  Of all these terms the one that needs the least explanation to today’s world is EROS, describing both emotional and sexual intimacy. And finally STORGE – which describes the nurturing, protective love of a parent for a child.

So while we English speakers today still understand these varied kinds and conditions of love, we lack the language to succinctly express them.  Instead use the same word for both divine love and romantic affection, parental nurturing with gastronomical preference.  I love my mother, and I love the Hokies.  It’s all “love” to us.

In the gospel reading today, Jesus actually begins to define love on his terms.  When he tells the disciples, love one another, he goes on to tell them what that means.

Jesus doesn’t define his terms with a list of rules.  Nor does he say, “Just love each other and it will all work out ok.”  Instead Jesus lived his life as an example of this love.  This particular passage is part of the Upper Room Discourse, which stretches for chapters in John’s Gospel. 

It begins with Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, giving them an object lesson in love.  He says to them, “See what I am doing?  Do this to each other.  Just as the father has loved me, so I have loved you, now go and love each other in the same way.  There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  Jesus would give himself as the ultimate example of love in his death, an example that continues to speak to today’s world, whatever words we use to describe it. 

Perhaps we can begin to understand a bit what Jesus means by love in this passage.  But we have to go back to the original dilemma – Jesus links love with commandments.  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.

What exactly does he mean, when Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments?”  He really means “behave yourselves,” right? 

Well, just earlier in this lengthy discourse on love and commandments, Jesus said these words, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

In the other three Gospels, we hear Jesus being challenged to name the greatest commandment.  Surely it would be one of the Ten Commandments, right?  We hear Jesus’ answer every time we use Holy Eucharist Rite I, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

Jesus is actually quoting Deuteronomy here – the original commentary on the Law.  The essence of the Law is this – Love God and love one another.  In the Law and the commandments of the Old Testament, God provided a commentary on love. How do we best love God?  – by worshipping God first and foremost, not taking God’s name in vain, following God’s example by setting aside the Sabbath day.  How do we love our neighbors? – by not coveting, by honoring our parents, by truth telling, by being faithful in our relationships.

At the core of these laws is love.  They weren’t meant to become the controls based on God’s love, as if God’s love ends where our sin begins.  Tony Campolo put it this way, "I want my children to obey me, not because I have the power to beat them up, but because they love me."  This is the love that Christ modeled for us, a love marked by obedience, not fear.  This isn’t a master/slave relationship.

In the new covenant, this commentary on love would be fulfilled by Jesus, who would become for us the very lesson of love.  Jesus’ life was characterized by love, but like the peace God gives, the love Jesus lived is not like the world lives.  Jesus’ love was perfect and it was revolutionary.

Jesus’ call to obey his commandment of love is not obedience tied to a threat, but obedience laced with a promise.  The beatitudes were Christ’s list of the promises that would accompany those who love God and who keep God’s commandments.    Lack of love has its consequences.  Love born in obedience has its blessings.

But the love Christ modeled was not the transient love of a child for a new toy, soon forgotten.  It wasn’t the warm and fuzzy “love” of an adolescent crush.  Christ’s love was marked by obedience and self-sacrifice.

God’s love for the world is this agape, this ultimate transcendent love.  The love Jesus is describing to his disciples.  There is not greater love than to lay down your life for your friends.

This is the love that casts out fear.  This is the love that transcends emotion and circumstance.  This is love marked by obedience and sustained by commitment.

And so we are called to love.  If we are fully to obey Jesus’ commandments, we must love God, we must love our neighbors, and we must love our selves with this ultimate transcending love.

When it comes to love, most of us are still struggling to get it right.  In a world that opts for hate and discrimination so readily, it’s hard to always answer with love.  Love is not the first reaction for most of us when we are faced with violence or betrayal.  It takes time to love.  It takes a commitment born in obedience.  We must choose to love.

Working out love in our lives – the love for God, the love for others and especially the true love for ourselves is the messiest, most time-consuming, most heart-wrenching and yet the most rewarding part of life’s journey.

We get bruised and battered along the way trying to love each other.  But this is God’s call to us.  Jesus has set the example and called us to follow him in it.

If you keep love me, you will keep my commandments.  And what commandments are those, Jesus?  To love.  How do we love?  What does it mean to love God with your whole being?  What would it look like if we truly loved our neighbors, the neighbors Jesus meant like the poor, the marginalized, Samaritans?  You fill in the blank.  What would it look like if we truly loved those neighbors and not just the people we are comfortable with? 

Figuring out every day what it means to love—that is what living the Christian life is all about.  May God forgive us the times we fail to love, and may God give us the grace to keep pursuing love.  It is, after all, the best way we can obey.  Amen.

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