Keep my commandments
Chapter 15 of John’s gospel begins with the image of the vine – “I am the vine,” Jesus declares, you are the branches; abide in me and I will abide in you, and then you will bear much fruit.
Here, in the second half of that saying, Jesus takes that phrase, “abide in me”, and gives it meaning. He’s used the word ‘abide’ 8 times in the first few verses of the chapter; “abide in me, abide in my love” over and again, until finally, as if in answer to the unspoken question, he tells us what he means.
If you keep my commands, you will abide in my love
It’s perhaps not quite what we would have been expecting to hear.
It’s not “sit back and enjoy the fact that I love you”
It’s not “stop your struggles and enter into my unconditional love”
It’s not “don’t worry so much about doing, instead, just be”
If you keep my commands, you will abide in my love
Is God’s love, then, conditional upon keeping God’s commands? And if so, which ones? And how perfectly? And does that mean that when we fail – for surely we do – we are no longer loved by God?
After all we’ve heard, in the end, is God’s love conditional?
Now to the ears of those disciples who first heard these words, it was probably very simple, very reasonable: for this was a major thrust of teaching of the Old Testament scriptures: God loves those who are obedient to the commands of God. Now it’s not the whole of the story, it never was; through the Old Testament scriptures different voices sing different tunes, sometimes in harmony and sometime cacophony, but this was one of big ideas, the theme of much of the teaching.
God loves the covenant people, those who are obedient to the Torah, the way of life that shows that you are part of God’s people, but is set against those who are their enemies, those who would oppose the will of God in the world.
And this was the aspect of the Hebrew tradition that was most
prominent in the teaching of the Rabbi’s, in the synagogues, in the words of
the Pharisees – obedience to the law was the mark of the faithful, conformance
to God’s way of life was pleasing to God, keeping the commandments was the
defining mark of the faithful Jew.
But to hear these words in the voice of Jesus – in the voice of the one who taught us that we should love our enemies, and pray for those who curse us, precisely because by doing so we are children of our father in heaven, who sends the rain on the just and the unjust – in the voice of the one who forgave sinners, welcomed outcasts, strangers, foreigners, sinner – the one who included all those who did not (at least by the measures of the day) obey the commands of God – what’s with that?
So often in his teaching Jesus had hard words to say to those who prioritised the strict adherence to the law over other matters; who tithed even their herb gardens but neglected justice, who choose purity over inclusion, penalty over understanding.
This was not the voice from the story that Jesus seemed to hear, not the drum that he seemed to march to. But here it is – if you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.
But do you notice one small but crucial word there?
That Jesus did not say “if you keep the commandments you will abide in my love”. He said “if you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love”
And then he went on to explain.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you
Those few words completely change the meaning of everything that Jesus has been saying in this passage; turn them, perhaps not on their heads, but at least to face in a new direction. It’s a piece of rhetorical brilliance, one the Old Testament Prophets would have recognised, or, for that matter, a stage magician would have been proud of.
Everything is set up for a demand for obedience to the law: if you want to be loved by Christ, by God, obey the commandments: words the disciples had heard all their lives, words the pharisees would happily have echoed, but then, the sting in the tail “oh – but when I say commandments, what I mean is this: love one another as I have loved you”
You want to abide in my love? Then love one another.
You want to abide in me? Then love as I have loved.
You want my joy to be in you? Let my love be in you.
Or rather – let my love flow through you.
Because the truth is, there is something dynamic about love. It is, in grammatical terms, a transient verb. Love does not stop; when it stops, it stops being love. Love is not a possession or a resource to be accumulated. You can’t put it in the bank, you can’t store it up for a rainy day.
Love is a process, a dynamic, a relationship. It’s like water – if it stands still, it gets stale, stagnant. Only when it is allowed to flow out, can more flow in, and only then can it remain fresh, refreshing, life giving.
And once the commandment that Jesus is giving is understood, his statement that “if you keep my command you will remain in my love” is no longer a condition on God’s love; it’s a simple statement of fact: if you love others as Christ has loved you, you will be in God’s love. You will be, as it were, in the flow.
To paraphrase words St. Francis of Assisi probably didn’t actually pray: make me a channel of your love
And it’s all lovely and beautiful, and the sort of thing you
make inspirational posters out of, with pictures of babbling streams flowing
through green woods, with “love one another” printed in some flowery flowing
font or beautiful calligraphy.
And then Jesus has to go and throw another spanner into the works.
“Oh, and if you were wondering what love is? At it’s best, it is this: lay down your life for another”
The love that Jesus is speaking of; the love that he asks his friends to abide, to be channels of, is the love that he is about to show for them, the love that will not even be dissuaded by death.
It isn’t the love of the far-weather friend: it is the love that stands beside another even when everyone else turns their back.
It is the love that offers help not just when it is convenient and easy, but when it is hard, when it helping hurts, when helping costs.
The love that is willing to be seen with, to be associated with, those who don’t fit in, those who society rejects, those who reject society.
It is the love that welcomes the stranger into our midst not just when they are the sort of stranger who we understand, and who knows our ways and tries to fit in; but who welcomes the difficult, the annoying, the rude, the boring.
It is the love that Jesus has lived, and that he is soon to die.
And now, Jesus says, now I’ve told you this, now I’ve explained, now I’ve shown you what I am doing: now I can call you my friends. Now you know the secret, the very heart and soul of what I have been about, now you are no longer servants, obeying without understanding; now you are friends, obeying not out of fear or out of duty, but because you get it.
To be the people of Jesus Christ, to be the friends of Jesus, is really all about this: to know Jesus’ command, and to live it:
I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another
That is where we began, that is where we end.