A renowned theologian made a confession to a group of people who were celebrating his career. “For forty years,” he said, “I’ve told people, ‘You’ve got to love.’ Now I realize that I’ve had it wrong. The message of Jesus is, ‘You get to love.’”
It’s so easy for us to get the message of Jesus wrong.
It’s so easy to become Christian Pharisees, turning Jesus into a law-giver, and boiling our faith down to being obedient to His command (and the entire Bible’s command) that we love God and love neighbor.
But how confident are we of our ability to be perfectly obedient to God’s law of love? I hope not very confident.
Otherwise, the confession of sin we offered to God together at the beginning of worship today was a meaningless exercise.
Even more seriously, if you and I are confident in our ability to obey God’s law of love, we’re placing our trust in ourselves and not in God.
“Wait a minute,” you might say, “I’m not such a bad person. I do a fair job of loving God and loving my neighbor...to a point.”
To those who may be inclined to offer such a hedged defense, may I remind you of what’s involved in God’s law of love, as summarized in the Ten Commandments?
- You shall have no other gods before God.
- You shall not take the name of God in vain.
- Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.
- Honor your father and your mother.
- You shall not murder.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
- You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
- You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his workers, his livestock, or anything that else that is your neighbor’s.
But James reminds us: “...whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10).
And Jesus tells us that even to think of committing these sins is the same as committing them. “The things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart,” Jesus says in Matthew 15:18-20, “and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person…”
Considering these facts, the conclusion reached by the apostle Paul is unavoidable: “...all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:23).
And since “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), Paul’s question for himself in Romans 7:24 is one that every member of the human race should be asking themselves: “Wretched man [or woman] that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (ESV)
This, of course, is where Jesus comes in.
God looks on the children He created in His image with compassion, even though we are sinners who fail to abide by His law of love. It saddens Him because He doesn’t want us to condemn ourselves by remaining enslaved to sin, putting our trust in our own “pretty good” behavior. Every baby born into the world today is destined for death and condemnation for sin unless God acts to saves them.
That’s why He sent Jesus to bear the condemnation for sin we deserve and to rise to become our trailblazer to eternity.
And that’s why He sends the Holy Spirit to teach us and to remind us to turn to Christ and be forgiven, turn to Him and live, turn to Him and be given new, eternal lives.
Today’s gospel lesson finds Jesus not laying down laws that will earn us salvation. No such laws exist.
You and I can never be good enough to be saved.
Instead, Jesus describes the life that He, by His death and resurrection, makes possible for those who trust in Him.
He isn’t telling us, “You have to love,” but, “You get to love.”
And, He tells us that we get so much more by the power of His grace and deity.
Let’s take a look at what He says this morning in John 14:15-21.
Verse 15: “If you love me, keep my commands.” Already, Jesus has promised the disciples (including you and me):
- that all who follow Him have an eternal place in His kingdom prepared by Him (John 14:1-4);
- that He is the way to life with God (John 14:6-7); and
- answers to prayers to the Father offered in Jesus’ name (John 4:13-14),
Now, let me ask you something: Knowing that God has loved you so much that He does all of this for you as a gift to the one with faith in Jesus, what is the only appropriate response from you (or me)?
Love. Trusting, grateful love!
We love God, as the apostle John writes elsewhere, because God loved us first (1 John 4:19).
Once trust in Christ and gratitude for God’s grace infects a soul, love is the response.
And so, Jesus offers here not so much a command, but an observation. When, by faith, you have come to love God and God resides in you, you will do what God commands.
Not perfectly. Our old sinful selves get in the way.
But as we live in daily repentance and renewal, daily surrender to Jesus, the great arc of our lives will bend increasingly toward Jesus and His loving way of life.
You’ll do that as an almost automatic, involuntary response to the relationship of love with God into which Christ brings you.
After my mother died, I thanked my dad for all the many years he spent caring for her. He said, matter-of-factly, “Well, what else was I going to do?”
What else was I going to do? That’s the question of love.
When, in the words of a great song by B.B. King and U2, “love comes to town,” when it comes to save you and when it comes to take residence in your life, what else are you going to do? Love becomes not a command, but a way of life.
Jesus shows this in His great parable about the last judgment when He says He will say to His sheep: "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me..." And the sheep will ask Jesus, "When did we do any of that? We don't remember doing any of that!" Jesus says that His sheep are the ones who respond to His love with love for God and love for neighbor, simply living without a thought of getting credit or keeping score! (Matthew 25:31-46)
But how will we love? After all, “love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
These verses from the Bible's "love chapter," of course, are often read at weddings. When I read them at weddings, I will often look up at the couples standing before me as they smile smugly, their expressions saying, "Yes, that's our love. That's how we love each other." Really?
How is it possible for us to perfectly keep Christ’s law by loving in the style of the love chapter?
Jesus tells us. Verse 16: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.”
To baptized believers in Jesus, Jesus comes to live. Through His Holy Spirit, Jesus comes to us. He speaks Jesus’ word of truth to us, in us, for us.
- He does this at the Baptismal font, where we are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then “marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit forever.”
- He does it in His Word, where we read and hear God’s life-giving truth.
- He does it in the bread and wine, where He says, “Take and eat; this is My body...Take and drink; this is My blood,” offered to bring us forgiveness and effecting the miracle of re-membering us to Christ--breaking down the walls of separation, the walls of sin and death. By this, I mean that when Jesus gives us His body and blood at Holy Communion and says, "Do this in remembrance of Me," He is not saying, "Bring memories of Me to mind." He isn't saying, "Recollect Me." He's saying, "Be remembered to Me. Be reconnected to Me. Be the branches to My vine and take My life into your very body, soul, spirit, and will."
When you’ve never dared to open yourself to Christ and His love, talk of the Holy Spirit seems like foolishness.
But we know better.
When Jesus knocks on the doors of our hearts and we let Him in (Revelation 3:20), we know what it is to have life-giving communion with the God revealed in Jesus.
The Holy Spirit lives in believers in Jesus.
- When we sin, He calls us to repent.
- When we love, He tells us, “good and faithful servant.”
- When we don’t know what to pray, He forms our longing into groaning prayers too deep for words.
The Holy Spirit brings Jesus’ love into the centers of our souls and we know that we’re not orphans and, fortified by His love, He makes it possible for us to love when we can’t.
I’ve told you that one prayer I’ve offered through the years is, “Lord, I find myself incapable of loving so-and-so. Please love them through me.” I find that God not only loves those people through me, over time, He creates within me genuine love for them.
I’m sure that others have offered similar prayers regarding Mark Daniels.
A woman heard me share this years ago and told me months later that she had tried this on her husband. “I’d gotten to where I couldn’t stand him,” she told me, “but after awhile, I began to see him differently and his behavior seemed to change as I loved Him.”
When Christ’s love and the Holy Spirit come to town, when we let Christ and the Spirit lodge within us and we surrender, we will love.
We will keep Christ’s commands without thinking of it. That’s how grace works.
Jesus continues: “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”
Here’s an incredible thought: The Creator of the universe ushers with faith in Jesus into the same relationship of intimacy, trust, and love He has enjoyed within the Trinity--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--for all eternity. He wants you beside Him now and in eternity.
When we surrender to the grace that accepts us as we are and works to make us all that we can be, our relationship with God is totally transformed. We are transformed.
“You shall have no other gods before me,” for example, is changed from a command to a promise.
Through Jesus, we know we have no need of other gods.
We don’t look for love, affirmation, success, peace, or hope anywhere else.
We have it all in Jesus!
No other gods will bother us, entice us, or drag us down.
We’ll have the God we meet in Jesus and, through Him, we have life.
The message of Jesus then is that you don’t have to love, you get to love, just like the Lord Who made you, Who died and rose for you, Who speaks His truth to you again this morning.
Through Jesus, you get to be a free, redeemed child of God, now and forever. Hallelujah!
Now live in His love!
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This was the message for today's Sunday worship services.]