Love in Obedience
1 John 5:1-6
The love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.
Of all the Biblical authors John, both in the gospel and in the epistles (for whether or not they were written by the same person, they are certainly very closely related, both in style and theological outlook) is the one who gives the greatest emphasis, the greatest prominence, to the preeminent position of love in the way of God. Not that other authors speak against it – all the other gospel writers record Jesus naming love of God and love of neighbour as the fulfilment of the law – but it is John who really hones in on love as the heart and soul of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
So at first glance, there is something a little jarring in the words we read today, which seem to take the pre-eminence of love and turn in back into obedience to some set of rules.
The love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.
In these words, though, John is simply repeating the words of Jesus that he himself recorded (or, probably, would record – the letter most likely predated the gospel), in John 14, where Jesus says “if you love me, you will keep my commandments,” and, “those who love me will keep my word,” and, “those who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me”.
So this connection between love and obedience, which seems, as I said, somewhat jarring (at least to me) is clear and consistent in John’s writing and in his record of Jesus’ words.
Which means that we need to ask; what is this connection. What joins together love and obedience? How is it that love (which is so often characterised by the desire to give freedom to the beloved) can be so closely connected to the expectation of obedience (which at least appears to do the opposite).
And one critical observation, I think, is that each time that John speaks of love as being demonstrated by obedience, he then adds a comment along the lines of that which we have in verse 3 – “his commands are not burdensome”.
John knows, when people hear the words “obey my commands”, where their minds will go. “Obey my commands” summons up the image of lists of rules, of tablets of stone with “thou shalt not”, of people with power and authority giving orders, of (in the time of the writing) military officers throwing their weight around. Burdens of compliance laid upon the shoulders, bearing people down, grinding the life out of them.
So when he echoes Jesus’ words, telling his readers that in love they will obey, he immediately wants to reassure them: the commandments that you are being called to are not a burden upon you.
You are not, whatever this word might mean, being called back into that world of rules and laws and commandments.
And why not? Well, one way to look at it is to hear the words that Jesus spoke in a similar context: “and this is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you”.
The commandment that we will obey, if we love God, is this: “love one another”. Or, as Jesus also said, the law and the prophets are fulfilled in the two great commands – love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind (and I hope you now have the kids song stuck in your head), and love your neighbour as yourself.
And of course, this all fits beautifully with the rest of John’s talk about love: we love because God loved us, let us love one another because love is from God.
But before we relax too quickly, and congratulate ourselves on having made sense of love and obedience, perhaps we should dwell for just a moment on those last words for Jesus’ saying:
Love one another as I have loved you.
Obedience to God ultimately cannot be able following a set of rules, or even following an abstract command, like the command to love. Because love is a word that we can too easily fill with the meanings that are convenient for us. We speak of love as being seeking the best for another, but that still leaves us with the option to decide what we think is best, and ‘lovingly’ impose it upon them, especially when they have less power than us.
It’s not hard to find examples. Separating indigenous children from their parents and saying it’s in their best interests. Or, forbidding teachers or councillors from acknowledging the existence of transgender people, in the strange belief that a politician might know better than an educational or medical professional what is in the best interests of a child.
Or a Church, ‘out of love’ taking upon itself the right to decide who can marry who – whether those restrictions be based on race, or class, or caste, or gender.
And of course, how much evil has been done through the generation and justified in the name of love of country?
Obedience to God cannot be defined by laws, but it also can’t be simply shaped by the word ‘love’.
Jesus’ call to obedience, his ‘new commandment’ is ultimately a call not just to love, but ‘as I have loved you’. It is a call to follow Jesus, to imitate his way, his life, his character; because that is actually what it means to love.
God is love; Jesus’ life was shaped, defined, by love; so to live like Jesus lived is what it means to live in love. When Jesus says “if you love me you will obey my commandments”, it’s almost a tautology; for his command is to imitate his life, and his life is the very embodiment of love.
The Christian way of love, the obedience of love, is, in many ways, like an apprenticeship. There are things to learn, rules and skills and processes; but at the heart lies learning by example, by imitation, of the teacher.
That, surely, is why when Jesus called his disciples, he didn’t call them to a study class, but to follow him, share his life with him, and see first-hand how a person who only did what they saw God doing, would live.
It is not enough to simply declare that, as followers of Jesus, we will allow our lives to be shaped and guided by love. We need to give those words meaning, to give them substance.
We are called to love in obedience to the command that Jesus gave us; the command that, yes, is to love, but to love as he loved, to live and to love in imitation of him.
Living like Jesus is the obedience of love.