Jesus says, if you love me you will keep my commandments
You are my friends if you do what I command you
If I had to make a list of my ten favorite words obedience and dependence would not make the cut. They’re important words, but for me they have a little negative edge to them. To be dependent is to rely heavily upon something or someone else. We don’t want to be dependent on foreign oil; and our economy is heavily dependent upon the labor of undocumented workers. Facing chronic illness or just growing old we fear we will become dependent on the care of others. As good paying jobs become harder to find children depend on their parents for longer periods of time. To be obedient is to follow another’s wishes or commands. We don’t value blind obedience and yet the early days of a soldier’s life are spent un-learning independent thinking so they will obey their superior’s commands dutifully. We tend to think of obedience as confining, restraining or burdensome. We want our children to obey our wishes but bristle at the idea of submitting to another’s commands. Obedience and dependence are not behaviors we are all together comfortable practicing. Rather, we prefer freedom and independence.
In the above passages from John’s gospel the writer tells us we must think differently and behave otherwise. In the writer’s understanding dependence, obedience and love are intertwined. Every culture has its own take on love, what it is and what it does. We often think of love as capricious, something that takes hold of us and is out of our control. Our literature is full of this notion. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet didn’t just fall in love. They were star-crossed lovers. It was fate that brought them together. Their love and their demise were preordained. The Romantic period of the late 18th and 19th centuries have shaped the ways we think. Love is understood as a feeling and an attraction. The heart melts. Our stomachs flutter. To love or not is beyond our control. We don’t step into love, we fall in it. And because our feelings fluctuate so does our love. People just fall in and out of love. The idea that love is capricious, based on attraction, powered by passion and emotion narrows our thinking about love mainly to romantic relationships.
However, Jesus commands us to love. We don’t love because we feel like it. We love because God commands us to do so. Jesus is not talking about what we think of as romantic love or love only for family and friends. Jesus is talking about a love that is God-like, a love that is not dependent on others. My first response is, “How is this possible?” I know my failures at love. I know my own inability or unwillingness to love and serve others.
We are commanded to love by the One who first loved us. And our love is shown by obeying the commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves; not only our family, friends and those we like, but all our neighbors. How else can we love those whom we dislike or even our enemies? If love is solely a feeling or an attraction this is impossible. Jesus tells us by his words and the way he lived that love is an action, a behavior. Love is a disposition, a way of being in the world and treating others. The love Jesus is talking about is not dependent upon the whims of our emotions or the response of others. Our ability to love is entirely dependent upon the grace of God. Love is what we do as Jesus’ disciples. We love because we are commanded to do so. And we can only do so if we are dependent upon God’s help.
Jesus is clear. God doesn’t leave us to our own devices. God sends us a helper, an advocate, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit guides us in the ways of love; giving us courage and hope and the gift of love itself. It also confronts us and comforts us when our love fails.
It’s counterintuitive. In our utter dependence upon God to obey and fulfill God’s command to love we find our freedom and independence. Free to love others: friends, family, neighbors and strangers – and yes, even those whom we deem our enemies.
In the middle of divorce believing there is still something more than the anger and disappointment and grief – We are commanded to love.
The vet returning to Vietnam with his family seeking forgiveness – We are commanded to love.
Shackled to our enemies by fear and loathing, to those who do us harm – We are commanded to love.
To share what we have with the homeless woman on the corner, to be embraced by the stranger – We are commanded to love. And God fills us with the Holy Spirit so we don’t have to do it alone.
Years ago I was walking with my mom. I was struggling over a relationship that was in its final days. At one point I asked, “How is it that you and dad have been married for all these years?” She stopped and turned to me, “Shep, I have not always liked your father, but I have always loved him.”
I’m sure in the days ahead we’ll have many opportunities to practice love. Thanks be to God upon whom we depend to fulfill the command to love!
In joyful expectation of God’s coming realm of love and justice,
Just a reminder that I will be away on vacation for the month of August.