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Do Jesus’ words at the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson make you uncomfortable? He says “If you love me, keep my commands.” (John 14:15)
Does Jesus seem to be contradicting Himself and the rest of the Bible?
Elsewhere, He famously says, for example, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
And also: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:29)
The apostle Paul summarizes all this teaching from Jesus by saying, “For we maintain that a person is justified [that is, declared innocent of their sins] by faith [in Christ] apart from the works of the law.” (Romans 3:28)
The distillation of these passages of Scripture and many more is that we who are born sinners cannot and are not saved from death, the condemnation for our sin, by anything we do; we are saved solely by Christ Who died and rose for all sinners through the faith in Christ we receive through the Gospel Word about Jesus.
So, what is up with Jesus’ words at the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson: “If you love me, keep my commands”? It sounds as if Jesus is saying that our relationship with Him and our eternal salvation from Him depend on how much we love Him and on our obedience to His commands.
There are schools of thought within Christianity that teach this is exactly what Jesus is saying here. They think their salvation depends on what they do and the depths of their love for Jesus. People taught this way are constantly turned in on themselves, trying to police themselves of doubt or sin.
But, friends, this kind of thinking can only lead us to one of two endpoints: Either false pride when we think that we really are obeying and loving Jesus perfectly or despair, even unbelief, at the realization that we cannot obey or love Jesus perfectly.
Jesus and the whole Bible are clear though that we won’t find life with God by diving more deeply into our personal sewers of sin and self-obsession.
Freedom from sin and death only come from outside ourselves through Jesus Christ!
So, what is Jesus telling us in the first verse of our Gospel lesson? There are two words in the verse that say much more than we might realize and will help us understand what Jesus is saying.
The first word is if, “If you love Me,” Jesus says.
The word in the Greek in which John wrote his gospel is ἐάν, a conjunction that usually means if. But there is an irregular use of the word and almost every time it appears in John’s writings, this irregular use is meant. Let me give you a few examples of this use.
In John 12:32, Jesus says, “And I, when [that’s our word, ean] I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
Another example, 1 John 2:28 : “And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when [there’s our word again] he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.” (1 John 2:28)
One more, 1 John 3:2: “...we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
So, Jesus isn’t telling us, “If you get yourself convinced that you love Me.” He’s saying, “When, by the power of my Word, given in Scripture, preaching, teaching, and the Sacraments, that all your sins are forgiven and that you have been justified by grace through faith in Me…”
Jesus is assuring you: “When you have been told, ‘I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,’ you will love Jesus.”
That’s the power of His forgiving, loving Word; it incites love for Him within us.
“This is love,” the apostle John writes elsewhere, “not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)
We love Jesus when His Gospel Word allows us to experience the love He has given to us from the cross. It was this very love that the disciples who betrayed Jesus would experience after His resurrection: forgiveness and love despite their sin.
The second word is keep. “If you love me,” Jesus says, “keep my commands.” The word here in the original Greek is τηρέω. It means to watch over, to guard, to observe. To keep the commands of Jesus, of God, is to acknowledge their authority over us. It doesn’t mean perfect obedience to God’s Law, which God’s Word tells us no sinful human being can muster.
Jesus, you’ll remember, used words from the Old Testament to summarize God’s commandments for the human race.
He summarized commandments one through three–that we have no other gods, that we not take His name in vain, that we hold His Word at the center of our lives–by telling us to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37).
He summarized commandments four through ten–that we honor our parents, not murder, not commit adultery, not steal, not bear false witness, and not covet–by commanding us, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:39)
Honesty compels each of us to acknowledge that we do not obey God’s law of love. We are worthy of condemnation.
But, friends, we keep these commands of Jesus every time we come to Him and acknowledge, formally or informally, together or on our own, “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” We keep His commands whenever we respond to His Word and take up our crosses daily and follow Him. (Luke 9:23)
We love Jesus and we keep His commands, acknowledging His grace and authority, whenever He comes to us with His Word assuring us that through Him, all our sins are forgiven. This is what Jesus explains to us in the rest of today’s gospel lesson. Jesus sends His Holy Spirit Who comes to us in the word of forgiveness and rebirth we receive at Holy Baptism, in the preaching of His Gospel Word, and in the forgiveness and power for living we receive in Holy Communion.
When Jesus tells us today, “If you love me, keep my commands,” Jesus isn’t turning us in on ourselves to engage in a morbid inventory of our sinful selves. He’s freeing us from both the sewers of self-congratulation and self-condemnation.
He calls us to look to Him, the One Who died and rose to set us free from sin and death.
It’s good and right for us to confess our sins to God. But when Jesus’ words of forgiveness come to us, our old sinful self is crucified and, with the words of absolution, we rise to newness of life!
Pastor David Schmitt talks about a friend who, as she puts on a coat to go outside, says with a smile of her deceased dad, “My father always told me to wear a coat.” These are the words of a woman who knew how deeply her earthly father loved her, that his “command” wasn’t arbitrary but came from love, and so, even now, out of his immediate presence–even when she forgets to put on her coat, she “keeps” her father’s “command.”
When the Holy Spirit–the Spirit of truth–turns our attention to Jesus and we know that He has already paid the price for our sin and already given eternal life to all who believe in Him, we are filled with the love of children who know they are deeply loved by God and, from love, reverence, and respect, will always gladly acknowledge His authority over us.
Receive the forgiving love of Jesus and you will love.
That is Jesus’ Word for us today.