Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B, 2015 – Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17
“If you really loved me, you would…”
How would you fill that in?
It depends, of course, if it is our spouse, or a child, or a friend, or a co-worker, or a neighbor, or a homeless person, or an Iraqi survivor of the war who’s speaking to us. Maybe we wouldn’t like the question in the first place. But we would probably assume there’s a concrete answer to it – which is precisely why the question feels like manipulation, like trying “to get” something out of us. “If you loved me, you would accept me as I am.” “If you really loved me, you would give me your money.” “If you loved me, you would let me do what I want.” “If you really loved me, you would help me get ahead.”
“If you loved me, you would…”
“Well, maybe I don’t love you at all. Because I don’t have anything to ‘give’ you.” I’ve heard that too; with a kind of tired and despairing disinterest in others altogether. Love, as the response to a demand, I don’t need to tell you, is exhausting.
Can I give you some good news this Easter season? You are free to love another person, sheerly, purely, wonderfully, unselfishly, and humbly by simply taking hold of the one true gift you have been given in your life: your faith in and your lively relationship with God Himself.
You are free to love through your faith and the simple obedient living of your faith.
“By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey His commandments” (1 John 5:2).
What an astonishing, liberating and focusing statement! John writes that one of the greatest forms of love we can have for another person is for us to have faith in God, to love God and follow His teaching and leading. We love others most when we love God obediently. There it is: all responsibility for others wrapped up in a single, clear object of life: love God and obey Him.
There are lots of ways that this truth is freeing. One is simply that it breaks down the terrible set of dynamics that afflicts us as we live out our love for others by trying to change them. “I will love you, if….” if you’re less bad tempered, if you make your bed, if you say thank you, if you spend more time with me, if you do this or that. Love God and keep his commandments: that is all that is that is needed, that is all I need from myself and for myself, in order to love you- — whoever you are, however you act, whatever you say.
Another liberating feature of simply loving God in obedience as a way of loving others, is that it frees us from having constantly to examine our own motives and feelings in our connections with others. Relationships, compatibilities, affections. Do I really like her? What do I do with my ambivalence? I’m feeling very uncomfortable with this…. Why am I so irritated? And on it goes: the stuff that so complicates, drains, and finally cuts us off from our friends and spouses, so that we come to a point when we say, “I don’t really feel like I love you anymore; goodbye”. Love God and keep his commandments – and literally, forget how you feel. Feelings come later.
Finally, to grasp how loving God obediently is such a marvellous gift will free our energies to where they can be properly fruitful. Relationships need work; friendships; marriage. You have to work at them, there is no doubt about it. But what kind of work? They need our prayer; they need our worship; our study of Scripture; our self-ordering in obedience.
If your marriage is in trouble, go to church; if your friendships are dissolving, read the Bible; if your children will not speak to you, get on your knees before the Lord of Heaven and Earth.
I’m giving but limited examples. Still, these are the things that actually allow God to change us, in such a way that we are capable of engaging the deepest parts of other people’s selves, in their beauty and in their need. We always go at it the wrong order: others first, then God. Fix my friend or child, then take a moment with God. But in fact, we serve and love others most deeply as we know God most fully and are God’s creatures most wholly.
God hath made known his salvation: his righteousness hath he openly shown in the sight of the heathen (Ps. 98:2). I don’t want to claim that God is obvious, and people are complicated. But there is some truth to the comparison in this light. Human beings, with whom we live, are impossibly hard to figure out. Some of this has to do with the wonderful character of our unique createdness; something that each person cannot penetrate, simply because I am who I am, and you are who you are, and each of us sees the world only from within the very specific realm of perception, feeling and consciousness, that is unsharable with anyone else, no matter how much we talk or touch or sing. But it is also the case that each of us is perverse: I am, and you are. Our interior perceptions, and feelings and consciousness are twisted, dented, and constrained by hurts and angers and unrequited needs that make our loves for each other always impossible fits in many ways. I will never satisfy my closest friend, or my child, or the colleague next to my office, or my neighbor or spouse, because both of us are caught in our own webs of emotion and desire that pin us down and back.
But to love God is to love someone who, however mysterious, is not at all set awry against the world and others. There is nothing distorted about God. However mysterious, God is simple, and that means that God is self-giving. He is all there, before us. [1Jo 1:1-2 RSV] “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life– the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us”. To repeat from the Psalm: “God has shown himself openly in the sight of the heathen”. Or again, Jesus to the High Priest, says: “[Jhn 18:20 RSV] “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together; I have said nothing secretly.”
Love God and obey his commandments. That is given straightforwardly to us in the person of Jesus Christ. I am the way, the truth, and the life. I am the light of the world. Over and over again, there is this insistence Jesus makes on presence, availability and clarity.
And, “in thy light, do we see light” (Ps. 36:9), which means that, as we turn to God, and seek to follow him in His son Jesus, we are changed, and become people of love. Again, not in some mysterious way, but simply by assuming the form of Christ that is itself the love we seek to offer others. To take one example: “let your yes be yes, and your no be no” (Mt. 5:37), says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. What does it mean to “obey” a commandment like this? It begins with our relationship with God: I am who I am before you, O God – nothing is hidden, you know my thoughts, my words before I speak them (cf. Ps. 139:2-18).
I can learn to say “yes” and to say it truly with God because of this fact that I am always all His, all exposed to him; and because without the walls that protect me from others, God’s own grace comes straight to me. Yes and No, with God, become not only possible and natural, but necessary. This is not a matter of being “honest”, but of standing in the light before our Maker.
And standing in the light before our Maker is precisely what allows us to be true to other people. My unadulterated “yes” or “no” to God necessarily becomes my “yes” or “no” to others. We discover this in our obedience to straightforwardness with God.Those who are ‘without guile” towards others are those who have learned to live openly with God. And it works that way all down the line of relational acts and habits: those who are faithful to their spouses are those who have first learned faithfulness in their Christian callings; those who are generous to the needy, are those who have first let go of self-possession before their Lord; those who are forgiving are just those who have first been forgiven. She loves much, Jesus says of the woman who bathes his feet with her tears, “because she has been forgiven much”; “he who has been forgiven little, loves little” (Lk. 7:47).
“By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey His commandments” (1 John 5:2). Listen, my friends: our greatest gift of love for another person is that we should love God before their eyes, just as it is God’s greatest gift to us that he show himself righteous before our eyes. As his boat is about to come to wreck in a storm, Paul turns to his companions, recounts to them a dream of safety, and says to them, “Take heart, my companions: for I have faith in God!” (Acts 27:25). That is true for parents’ love for their children. It is true for our love of friends; of colleagues; of family members; of those far away and in need: your greatest gift is your faith and the integrity of your faith, embodied not out of duty, but out of the very truth of God’s life in you. Your responsibility to your own faith, your own cultivation of it, your own openness to its vigour and truth, your life with God, is your greatest gift of love to another person, to any person, to all those around you.