We feel distant from God, even abandoned. Jesus has something to tell us about staying connected with God.
If you love me, keep my commandments.
Let’s talk about love – well, loving obedience! The gospel of John moves us from a focus on the nature of the believing community to how to live out who we are. What we are to do, how we act, moves out of who we are – out of our relationship with Jesus. AS we love Jesus, we do the things he has told us to do. Love and obedience go together.
FAMILY. Our understanding of this idea starts with our families of origin. We learn to obey our parents, hopefully out of our love and respect for them. As children, we understand that our parents know more than we do about life and so we follow their instruction. “Look both ways before you cross the street. Wash your hands before you eat. Sharing will help you make friends.” As we get to our pre-teen and teen years, we may question their instruction, but hopefully, we are still listening. “Come to a complete stop at a stop sign and look carefully before proceeding into the intersection. Focus more on school than hanging out with friends. Save your money for something important instead of blowing it on something that won’t last.” Even as adults we still look for voices that offer us wisdom in instruction. “Keep the end goal in mind and your way to get there flexible. Spend time every day building the relationships that matter to you. Don’t sweat the small stuff.” We listen and obey the voices that we value.
Jesus says, if you love me keep my commandments. This is part of the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John – kind of “famous last words” where Jesus, who knows he won’t be with the disciples much longer, shares what is on his heart – what matters most. “Commandments” as used here is similar to word or words – the totality of what Jesus has revealed about God through his ministry. They are at the Last Supper, where Jesus is giving them instruction about living in a covenant relationship with God and each other.
Love for Jesus isn’t purely emotional, or something we can simply state, “I love you – I love you—I LOVE YOU!” It is shown through action -- by fulfilling the commandments Jesus shared on how to live. Love for Jesus is shown by living a life grounded in Jesus’ own love. THIS Love is an action, not a feeling. And if we love Christ, we will do his will – live as he wants. And if we DON’T obey Jesus’ commandments, we cut ourselves off from the HELP of the Spirit and find ourselves a lot more on our own. We would miss out on the help of the Spirit isn’t LIVING inside us. This help of the Holy Spirit is how Christ abides in us. The Spirit is ANOTHER Advocate or Paraclete – just as Jesus is one.
Coming to faith, or relationship, in Jesus is analogous to falling in love. We can’t fall in love in an abstract sense – it requires an encounter with a specific person. And this is also true of faith. Faith is a relationship with the living person of Christ, and the living God who sent him to the world. Faith comes through an encounter with them. And after we love Jesus – we may find it easier to live life his way because of respect and affection. But there is more help --
Immediately after Jesus tells his followers to keep the commandments, he tells them that divine help is on the way to enable them to do that.
PARACLETE. In Greek, the verb parakaleo literally means “call beside.” The noun “paraclete” has many meanings: Comforter, Helper, Advocate. It occurs four times in the Gospel of John. Here is refers to presence. (Here in 14:16 – also in 14:26 (teacher), 15:26 (witness), 16:7 (guide to truth).)
Why is this direction to LOVE Jesus by keeping his commandments so significant? The answer isn’t an easy or comfortable one. Jesus challenges the common worldview of his time – and maybe ours as well. It means a different way of living. Jesus declared that there is a coming new age, which implies the end of the present age and its norms. And in this new age, Jesus suggests that the “sacred certainties of his world will be swept away: national identity, religious purity, exclusive righteousness.” The new age of the Spirit of God will displace the previous age of power and authority. With love and obedience to what Jesus taught us is the way to live. Loving Jesus and obedience to his model of living go together.
The next part of the discourse may be more challenging for us. It’s not meant to be – its meant to be comforting. It’s a promise that we will experience the presence of the risen Christ, the presence of God, through the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise assures us that God isn’t just “Somewhere out there,” but is also here and now, even within us.
DISCIPLES. For those first followers, Jesus was trying to prepare them for the inevitable separation anxiety they would feel as his life drew to a close. We don’t know how much they understood about his foretelling of what would happen. But Jesus is trying to prepare them – like a parent who is going on a trip, or a friend whose life is drawing to a close. They WILL feel like orphans. Jesus is trying to prepare them, not only for a time of separation but also for reunion after the resurrection and the presence of the Spirit to comfort and guide them. Those words are meant to help us as well – we are the next generation of followers.
The problem is that we may feel more a sense of God’s absence than God’s presence. We WANT to feel God’s presence – but in times of peril and uncertainty – and this pandemic certainly qualifies for those – it is hard to feel that God is close to us. Certainly, we experience this generally when we listen to the news and the number of cases, and deaths, continue to rise. We wonder where God is in the middle of this health crisis.
And when we hear the positive diagnosis of someone we love, as I did this week with my mom’s positive test and the presumption of my dad being positive too, it becomes personal. Even if we know intellectually that God isn‘t picking and choosing who gets this, we still wonder how we find the presence of God – when we feel God’s absence even stronger. We cry out with the Psalmists, “Where are you God? How long will we suffer?” The words meant to be the comfort of God with us just don’t connect very well. We may feel like the “orphaned” and abandoned people God is promising we WON’T be.
This promise is that the Holy Spirit will come and live INSIDE the followers of Jesus – WITHIN the people who are following Jesus’ commands and most especially the command to love. That promise of Immanuel, “God with us,” takes on a new meaning here. God WITHIN us means that as we love, we are enacting God’s love. As we serve, God is serving THROUGH us. And we can SEE things differently because of the Spirit’s presence within us.
YOU MAY have had this experience:
Where after you pray for someone, you find yourself treating them differently, more kindly. Even thinking of them with more compassion – because the Spirit WITHIN YOU is helping you.
Or when you are really tired, and something comes to mind as something you can do for someone else who is going through a hard time. As you do a loving thing, you have more energy and feel better. The Spirit WITHIN YOU is helping you.
Or perhaps after praying you see with different eyes. We often see and experience the presence of God in the world, the presence of Christ with us, after an extended time of prayer. The Spirit opens our eyes.
TRUTH. The Spirit that takes up residence in our hearts is the Spirit of Truth. What does that mean in a time when lies seem to be the norm in public discourse? We may have to speak truth into a hostile audience. Good thing we aren’t alone!
ACTION. The Spirit moves us to action too. Christians in general, and Methodists in particular, are not intended to be separate from the world. We are to be witnesses IN IT. And we see this clearly in those we might identify as most spiritual – they are actively engaged, very involved, in working to transform the world. Global figures – and local ones.
“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” ― Mother Teresa
But what does it mean to be on God's side? I believe it starts with focusing on the common good - not just in politics, but in all the decisions we make in our personal, family, vocational, financial, communal, and, public lives. That old but always new ethic simply says we must care for more than just ourselves or our own group. We must care for our neighbor as well, and for the health of the lives we share with one another. It echoes a very basic tenet of Christianity and other faiths - love your neighbor as yourself - still the most transformational ethic in history.
And locally – consider the people you admire as deeply spiritual. Are they engaged in caring for the needs of others? Probably so. Even those we consider as living apart – Catholic religious communities – are very engaged in action. As our faith grows, we live it out in ways that serve others. Love leads us into action. We can’t just sing “Oh, how I love Jesus,” without “I Have Decided I’m going to live like a believer…”
Yes, the task before us is a big one. But this is what it means to have a relationship with Jesus in his absence: to love as he loved and live out his values. And we are the community of the resurrection, the Easter people. We weren’t recruited for the easy or simple tasks. The promise of this passage is that we do not have to do this alone. We have each other and the presence of Christ and communion with God through the Holy Spirit.
This is the promise of this passage – that as we obey Jesus in loving others, in serving those in need, in attending to our spiritual needs – the Spirit, the Paraclete, the Helper, and Comforter is within us to help and guide us in the ways that lead to life – the life Jesus promised to those who fulfill his commandments.
If you love me, Jesus said, you will follow my instructions. But you don’t have to do it alone. I have not abandoned you – and the Spirit will be with you, within you. Now, go and change the world with love.
The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
1 David Buttrick, Preaching Jesus Christ, 40-41.
2 Amy Grant, “I’m Gonna Live Like a Believer.”