On the sixth Sunday of Easter of the lectionary, the Gospel continues in the same passage as last week.
The scene is the upper room on Maundy Thursday. Jesus has already washed his disciples’ feet and given them the “new commandment” to love one another as he has loved them.
Now, and in the following chapters, Jesus sums up a number of teachings about himself and what it means to belong to him — things that were a bit inscrutable at the time and which we now look back on in light of the cross and the resurrection.
There are several things going on in John 14:15-20 that capture my attention. I’ll only say something substantive about one, with a couple quick notes about others.
Love and Obedience
First is the link between obedience and love for Christ. It opens and closes the passage, framing it and setting the subject clearly. At the outset, it is
If you love me,
you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15 NRSV)
It is stated as a fact. Notice that it stands there with one foot in the present and one in the future: If this is true right now, then that will be true as time rolls on.
Say you love me now? Then through the course of your life you will, in fact, keep my commandments.
It seems to be given to help us think clearly about ourselves and our living as disciples. Of course I want to love Jesus! How can I check if I’m on the right track? Well I should take a look at how my actions match up with his instructions.
At the end of the passage it is clearly a measuring stick:
They who have my commandments
and keep them
are those who love me; …” (John 14:21 NRSV)
Here it seems to be less about getting a sense of my own discipleship, and more an insight into how God views the question.
He’s looking at all the people, and wondering who really loves Jesus. Here are all those who say they are disciples, all those who claim to love him. But the question he’s looking at is which ones are actually doing what he said. Those are the ones who clearly do love him.
And, Jesus goes on to say, these are the ones that he and his Father will love.
This is, or has been in the past, a bit of a sore spot for Protestants. We hold steadfastly to Paul’s message that we are saved by grace alone, to which we cleave by faith alone. We think anything other than receiving a promise of a free gift sounds like “works righteousness.”
We do need Paul to clarify all kinds of things about the nature of salvation.
We also do need to take Jesus at his word.
That is, Paul is right to tell us not think that we are going to win Christ’s affection by our dogged obedience to his laws. We can’t earn salvation.
But we should not go to the extreme some do, and say that trust in God’s gift is everything, and that our obedience is nothing. (Some have spoken at times as if doing good works in obedience to the law as actually a problem — I’m looking at you Martin Luther.)
Best to avoid muddling our terms and categories.
Jesus, in this particular passage, is talking about love, not about a trusting faith. But the two things connect in the Christian life.
If we have the kind of radical trust that Luther saw in Paul’s teaching on faith, it will establish the kind of relationship in which love will grow.
And how do we know if we really are growing in the kind of love for Christ that matters? Jesus says it will change our behavior.
Does verse 21 indicate that having real love that changes our behavior earns God’s love? Is that how we get forgiveness?
Actually, I don’t think so. I don’t think this passage is about forgiveness — though for many a Christian, forgiveness is all we think about when it comes to God’s love.
Rather, as in a merely human relationship, when we have the kind of love that changes the way we live, channels are open for all kinds of love to flow. Whether we started out concerned with forgiveness or not, and whether we started out conscious of faith as trust or not, we find ourselves in a transformed and transforming kind of relationship with God.
Now we love the God we once fled in fear or shame.
Now our love for God is leading us to do the kinds of things God wants us to do.
(And that includes his command to love one another as he loved us.)
And when our inner orientation to God is love, so much so that our outer actions match the life God intends for us, then the relationship is powerfully real.
As Jesus put it,
…and those who love me
will be loved by my Father,
and I will love them
and reveal myself to them.” (John 14:21 NRSV)
This is not about earning salvation. This is about the kind of transformed and transforming relationship we have with the Triune God when trust brings love, and love brings obedience.
… As opposed to starting and staying with the kind of grudging, dogged obedience that was never very appealing to begin with.
This relationship of love is going to lead to something amazing, at least from Jesus’ perspective: the Holy Spirit is going to come.
Jesus uses a couple interesting defining terms for the Spirit — “the Spirit of truth” and “Advocate.”
This promise of the Spirit is comforting in light of Christ’s imminent departure. And these two roles assigned to the Spirit also point to two under-attended aspects of the Spirit’s core work.
As opposed to being solely the giver of gifts (especially the flashy ones like tongues, prophecy, and healing) the Spirit is the one who stands by us to help and support, speaking to authorities or accusers on our behalf. Very much like Paul’s statement in Romans that the Spirit prays in us and for us when we don’t know what to pray.
Also the Spirit is not the source of feelings and hunches, but “truth.”
Elsewhere in the larger context Jesus will promise that the Spirit will lead us into truth and remind us of things he taught.
This is, in part, the very Reformed idea that the Spirit comes to help us in the interpretation of Scripture.
Likewise, though, it can give the Spirit a role in prompting our conscience to see the truth. Though this is not to say that everything our neurotic consciences tells us (or what our narcissistic lack of conscience tells us) can be construed as truth from God’s Spirit.
I mentioned that this relationship we have is with the Triune God, because that’s one of the themes in this passage — as it is throughout Jesus’ lengthy conversation with the disciples in John 13-17.
So we love Jesus, and we receive love from Jesus and the Father, and we have with us the practical loving support of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus and the Spirit are both here promised to be not merely with us but in us.
Jesus compares the particular way he is to be in us to the way that he is in his Father .
The Spirit and Jesus are both said to be bringing God’s revelation to us.
In the way he is going to be alive, in the resurrection and in union with God, we are promised to live as well.
It is altogether a remarkable picture of mystical union, now and in eternity.
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