Easter 5 2018
Rev. Doug Floyd
Deuteronomy 4:32-40, Psalm 66, 1 John 3:11-24, John 14:15-21
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is comforting His disciples even as He prepares them for the change in their lives as He goes to the cross. He reassures them of his love and His presence. I always loved reading John 13 through 17, but as I would read these words of encouragement, I would almost always stop at “If you love me, keep my commandments.” Somehow when I would hear these words, I would hear them in the voice of a mom to her adult children, “If you loved me, you’d come around more. But alas, I’m left all alone.”
Or I might hear in the voice of the preacher telling his congregation, “If you really love God, you should be praying at least one to two hours a day. It’s amazing how many churches think they can serve God without prayer.” And again, “If you loved God, you’d be memorizing Scriptures and reading through the Bible every day.” I might think of the Evangelist who says, “Everywhere I go, I’m winning souls for the kingdom. If you’re not winning souls, you must be ashamed of the faith.” Or maybe, “Why aren’t you on the front lines of the fight for life?” “You should be writing your congressman on behalf of the persecuted church.”
When I heard the phrase, “If you love me, keep my commandments,” I felt guilt about that at any given moment, I am failing to obey some command, some where. I may be reading the Bible at this moment, but at the same I am failing to protest at the abortion clinic. There is always something I am disobeying. Then sometimes, I would hear, “At the point where you disobeyed God, you must retrace your life steps and go back and obey. You’re stuck going in circles until you do. Like the children of Israel, you’re taking one more trip around the mountain before you enter the promise land.
Even though I worked in the church, I started feeling like the church was the main source of this guilt on God’s people. In fact when I talk to many Christians, they always feel like they were never doing enough. They were always falling short. I can remember talking to a friend, and I went to actually see him at the hospital. His son had been in a car wreck, and we were in the emergency, and he said, “Well, I know this happened because we haven’t been praying enough.”
I attended or served in at least four different churches where guilt was a primary means of motivating people to serve. The very people who led the church, preached a dangerous mix obedience and guilt and while also modeling a life of division and anger. They themselves failed to love and led us away from love. When the church where I served fell apart in 1991, I decided I was done with the institutional church. It seemed to stand in the way of teaching people how to really love God and one another.
Kelly and I moved away in the early 90s, and I went graduate school and eventually started studying ministry classes again. The first semester, I railed about how poorly the church had modeled love. I was very angry and frustrated, and often wrong in my assessments. I often said things that harsh, but the professors were gracious to me. During that time, I began to be healed and changed. I began to see the church across the ages with new eyes. My professors were from all different church backgrounds including Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Quaker, Congregational, Episcopalian, and more.
This began a new part of my faith journey where the Lord led me back to the simplicity of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Through the Good News, he helped me to rediscover the church, His church and His saints across the ages who bore witness to His faithful love in word and deed. One of the people, who played an instrumental role in re-introducing me to the Gospel was GK Chesterton. His writing made me laugh out loud, and while I was laughing I heard the wonder of God’s goodness and good creation afresh.
Chesterton helped me to see the world around me as God’s good gift. He wrote poems and essays in praise of fairy tales, flowers, wine, laughter, childhood, and even dust. Here is a delightful Chesterton poem in praise of dust.
The Praise Of Dust
by G. K. Chesterton
‘What of vile dust?’ the preacher said.
Methought the whole world woke,
The dead stone lived beneath my foot,
And my whole body spoke.
‘You, that play tyrant to the dust,
And stamp its wrinkled face,
This patient star that flings you not
Far into homeless space.
‘Come down out of your dusty shrine
The living dust to see,
The flowers that at your sermon’s end
Stand blazing silently.
‘Rich white and blood-red blossom; stones,
Lichens like fire encrust;
A gleam of blue, a glare of gold,
The vision of the dust.
‘Pass them all by: till, as you come
Where, at a city’s edge,
Under a tree–I know it well–
Under a lattice ledge,
‘The sunshine falls on one brown head.
You, too, O cold of clay,
Eater of stones, may haply hear
The trumpets of that day
‘When God to all his paladins
By his own splendour swore
To make a fairer face than heaven,
Of dust and nothing more.’
He reminds of us that we are made of dust and at the same time, we are God’s good delight. Encountering the glory of God’s creation is a step toward hearing afresh the story God’s redeeming grace. For creation and redemption both tell the wondrous story of God’s relentless love for his world and particularly His people that He created in His image.
In our Old Testament reading today, we are told that the whole story of the Exodus is a love of God pursuing His people because He loved their forefathers. His redeeming action in Israel and in the work of the cross reveals an overwhelming, unfathomable love. As our New Testament lesson reminds us, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” The Lord reveals His love in creating us, redeeming us, sustaining us each moment. Whether we go to the left of the right, we are immersed in His love. Whether we go up or down, we are immersed in His love.
Even in the darkest night of our souls, His love is not absent, but sustaining us and actually leading us deeper into the width and breadth of His love. When Jesus calls His disciples, He calls them into a fellowship of love. In John 13 through 17, Jesus reveals that he is leading them into the same intimate love that He shares with the Father. “In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (Jn 14:20). In His life poured out on the cross, Jesus prepares a place for His followers in the Holy Communion of Father, Son, and Spirit.
When Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commandments,” He calling the disciples to live into the reality of this holy communion. The disciples and we ourselves are invited to live into the self-giving life of the Triune God. This life is rooted in love. It is the outward expression of love, and it is a love that flows in and through the Holy Spirit. He is sending them the Sprit of Truth who will lead them and us into the fullness of the love-shaped obedience.
Now that we have rehearsed afresh the love that precedes this command and the love the encircles this obedience by the Spirit, we can begin to talk about what it looks like to live into the fullness of this love. The commands to love God and one another are bound together as the great commandant. We might understand more about obeying and loving God by reflecting on what this looks like in human relationships.
I will briefly mention how this obediences takes shape in the relationship between child and parents, husbands and wives and finally siblings.
Think about a child and her parents. She grows into obedience, but she is loved long before she can obey. The parents teach the child how to obey by modeling a life of giving and serving the child. Gradually, the parents add verbal instruction to this modeling and some form of correction. This child is learning how to be the child. How to obey. Obedience looks different as the child grows.
The child begins with basic skills of speaking, eating, walking, using the restroom, and more. As she grows, she may learn games and sports, but she may also learn how to clean up her room, help cook the meal and so on. Thus, obedience in the relationship between a child and parent is not static but dynamic. Some phases of life and some skills are more difficult than others. There are usually seasons of extended stress for the parents and child in one or more areas as the child matures, learns respect, learns responsibility, and so on. The parent-child relationship will set a pattern for how the young adult responds to authority figures.
Think about the husband-wife relationship. We don’t usually use the word obey in this context, but we might speak of mutual submission. When a man and woman fall in love, they feel a strong emotional attachment and often a willingness to make drastic changes including moving away and even changing names. You might compare this initial passion to the same kind of intense feeling of love some people experience in conversion or renewed faith. There is an excitement in this relationship that all the world has become new again.
This feeling of love is not a substitute for a long walk of obedience. Once again, it takes time to grow up into this new relationship. A couple get married and starting living in the same house. Suddenly, they have to face challenges that may have never surfaced. Sharing the same bed can be a nightly conflict over sharing covers, sharing the mattress, and more. Marriage is about moving from an idealized love to a realized love in the dailyness of life.
Little things that seem inconsequential can ignite firestorms between the husband and wife. This does not mean they do not love one another, but it does mean they must learn how to love one another, how to respect one another, how to submit one to another, and so on. Much like the slow growth of a parent-child relationship, the husband-wife relationship takes years of learning how to grow up into love. Some couples simply don’t try and they never discover the depth of love possible in sharing life with another person. In the very relationship with battles that feel like hell on earth can one day become a place where heaven touches earth.
The obedience or submission of love is not simply a decision or an action, it is the reshaping of our lives. Becoming lovers is not about becoming people who feel deeply moved all the time, it is about become a people who grow up into Christ by His Spirit. Love-shaped obedience is a way of living out the reality of worship. Each day and sometimes each moment, I present my body as a living sacrifice the body might be offered in service for my spouse, my friends, the world around.
It is only Christ and by His Sprit that we truly grow up into this way of loving and serving and revealing the glory of God around us. Now Jesus’ command to keep His commands becomes a joy as we pursue Him in all our relationships. We want to be perfected. We want to shine like the stars in the heavens.
We want to be the dust, the clay, the flesh that is God breathed and shines out with His love in our thoughts, words, and actions.