Love and Obedience
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Brothers and sisters in Christ: may grace and peace be multiplied to you! Amen.
A comedian I used to watch once described how people remembered their wedding vows:
“Males don’t pay attention to their wedding vows…if you ask the male what he remembers, he will say: ‘I promise to cherish” (the male can remember cherish), the male can remember honor, love…and then you say ‘what else?’ and they say ‘till death do us part.’ Now when you ask the female and you say ‘do you remember the vows?’ she says ‘yes’. ‘Well, what do you remember?’ She will say ‘obey.’ You ask her ‘what about it?’ She will say ‘he’s obeying…and he BETTER obey.’” (Bill Cosby “Himself”)
All humor aside, there’s something to be said for the role that obedience plays in a relationship. When there is love between two people, there will be voluntary obedience. “Honey, will you please open this jar for me?” “Sure!” “Darling, would you make me a cup of coffee?” “Sure!” Love responds with obedience. Of course, love also shapes those requests, too…but we’ll save that for another discussion.
Let’s take a moment and talk about that other word in this equation: love. The Greeks had several different words for love. There is philos, or brotherly love…this is love for neighbor and friends. There is storge, which is love of family - between parents and children. There is eros, or romantic love - love between husband and wife. But these are not the words that Jesus uses in the Gospel lesson today. Jesus is using the word agape. This is the word we use to describe God’s unconditional love for his children. It is a self-emptying love. It holds nothing back. It is the love we see in the body of our Lord nailed to the cross. That is agape love.
But agape is something else. Do you remember the rich young man who asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life? Jesus told him “go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21, ESV) But just before that, it says that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him...” that word there is “agape”. Jesus loves the rich young ruler with the love of God which summons men to the very highest. But the one who is called starts back. [Gottfried Quell and Ethelbert Stauffer, “Ἀγαπάω, Ἀγάπη, Ἀγαπητός,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 48.]
The love of God which summons all of us to the very highest. THAT is some powerful love! Do you remember what the rich young man did? He went away sorrowful, because he didn’t want to give up what he had - all those great possessions. He didn’t love God as much as he loved his wealth.
So here is Jesus on the night of what we call Maundy Thursday - he has just shared the Passover Meal with his friends, and has re-defined what that meal means for those who love him. After the meal, he then washed their feet. And now he is speaking to them about his departure. He knows that he is about to be arrested, tried, and executed. He is saying goodbye. This part of John’s Gospel account is called “the Farewell discourse.” He is trying to prepare them for what is going to happen.
But no matter what happens, Jesus is assuring them that God will not abandon them. Even when Jesus is not with them, God will send a “Helper” to be with them. And this “Helper” from God is His Holy Spirit. This word “helper” that we find here in the ESV is translated in many different ways in different English versions. The Greek word is Paraclete, but we find it in English as counselor, comforter, advocate, and even intercessor. But all of these different translations describe different things that the Holy Spirit will do and does do for us. First and foremost, however, is that the Holy Spirit has been sent to be with us, to assure us that God will never leave us on our own. And this is one more of God’s promises that He has kept.
Of the many things that the Holy Spirit does with us and for us, He is also, as Jesus describes him, the Spirit of Truth. That is, it is the Holy Spirit who reveals Christ to us. And the truth of Jesus Christ is that, above all other things, God is gracious to us in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the best truth there is. We see this grace of God in the agape love shown to us in the cross.
Jesus said to his disciples on that night “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.” If you “agape” me… If you love me and hold nothing back, if you love me the same way that I have loved you, you will keep my commandments. You will obey the things that I have told you to do. If you love me in the same way that I love you, you will live a holy life.” This is what Jesus means in that statement. Like the rich young man, we are called to the very highest life there is - a holy life. What does that look like? It looks like the life of Jesus Christ. His life is our example to follow.
One of my favorite scholars explained this passage beautifully: “First, Jesus calls them to holy living, which always comes as a result of loving Christ… which always comes as a result of knowing how Christ has loved us first. When we realize that Christ has given his life for us, we DO love him! And the result of that is living out, in a holy way, the commandments that He has given us.” Because Christ first loved us, it makes it possible for us to love him back! Christ’s love always comes first. And that is why our love is a response to His agape love for us.
Think back to when you were a child in your parent’s house. When your parents did something spectacular to show you how much they loved you, how did you respond? Did you immediately go and do something bad and misbehave? Or did you feel a desire to do something nice back for them? Or if you’re married, what about your spouse? When they do something amazing to show you how much they love you, how do you respond? Do you feel inspired to do something nice for them in return? At the very least, the next time they ask you for something, don’t you feel like you WANT to do that for them, to show love in return?
This is the cycle of love that Jesus has started. When we are confronted with the truth of Jesus’ love for us, and that he loved us so much that he would willingly die for us, it’s hard not to love him in return. His love is powerful, and it is amazing. And it is that very powerful love that we learn about in the Scriptures that is able to turn the hearts of sinners back to God. Some people are just waiting to be told about it. It’s not that they don’t want to love and trust God that they don’t believe; it’s that they’ve never been given the chance, because no one has ever told them this Good News.
This is why one of Jesus’ last commands to us is to share His Good News. So that those who have never heard it will finally get that chance. This is what Peter mentions in his letter that we read today. That we should always be ready to explain what it is that gives us hope. We never know when we’re going to have that opportunity to show that agape love to someone else. All we have to do is offer it. The Holy Spirit, the Helper who has been sent to be with us, will do the work of softening their heart. We only have to offer God’s Word for that to start.
How do we want to live our lives then, knowing how much God loves us? Knowing that God loves us even though we sin and offend Him daily? Yes, He knows that we sin. And He loves us anyway. All we need to do is ask Him to forgive us, and He will. That is the beauty of His grace. And when we ask Him to forgive us, it’s good to also ask for help in doing better. That’s also part of what the Holy Spirit does. He “dwells with you and will be in you” - and that means He will be there to help us resist temptation, too. The Holy Spirit will help us to seek this holy living that we have been called to.
If you’ve ever thought “Jesus died for me; what can I do for him now?” This is how we answer that question. We were created with free will - that is, the will to choose whether or not to love God. Of course, we messed it up in the beginning. But now, because of Christ, his death on the cross, and his resurrection on the third day, we are free to choose something other than the sinful, selfish choice. We are now free to show God that we DO love him. We are free to choose the path that He has called us to. No, we still won’t get it right every day, but thanks be to God we get a clean slate with every new day.
And each day that tomb is STILL empty, and Jesus is STILL risen, and that means He still loves us and is hoping that we will choose to love him back. It won’t ever be truly easy, but with the help of the Holy Spirit (and our brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ), it will get easier as we grow closer to God. And THAT is what God has always wanted - for us to choose to love Him and grow close to Him.
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.