"If You Love Me..."
“If You Love Me…”
During my many summers at camp, both as camper and counselor, we often played a game called, “Honey, if you love me, please, please smile.” The object was to get someone to smile, but you could only do it by saying those words. No jokes, no tickling or other touching, just things like making faces or saying the words with a silly accent.
As a shy thirteen year-old, I would melt into the wall at the mere mention of those words. I’d find any excuse to get away. For me, hearing those words brings back a flood of negative emotions, mostly “Oh my God, I might have to talk to a boy, a cute boy, while everyone else is staring at me.” That’s the stuff of nightmares right there folks. I’ve been forced to play it a few times in my life, but I’m not sure I ever got anyone to smile. Of course, I was so petrified, I’m not sure anyone got me to smile either. I still hate that game to this day.
Of course, those words aren’t merely a game. “If you love me…” It’s almost always said in a coercive manner. “If you really loved me, you’d… fill in the blank.” Every father warns his little girl about that line. Teenagers turn it back on their parents to get what they want. Partners hurl it back and forth like stinging darts. The unspoken but under-lying meaning of the statement being, since you’re not doing whatever it was in that blank, you apparently don’t love me, and if you don’t love me, I’ll be angry and I won’t love you. In essence, it’s a lightly veiled threat. The person making the threat is usually trying to gain the upper hand, get something for him- or herself.
So what was Jesus after, throwing out that kind of statement?! Well, let’s go back for a minute. In the passage we read from John, the disciples are scared. They are scared because Jesus has told them that he will soon leave them, that soon he will no longer be among them to lead them, inspire them, guide them, teach them. And the disciples are wondering just what they are going to do without him. They have given up three years of their lives to follow Jesus; they love Jesus, and they know that EVERYTHING is going to change when he is gone.
Jesus is trying to allay their fears, so he says to the disciples, “Just because I am not here in person doesn’t mean that I won’t be with you. You think EVERYTHING is going to change, but I say, NOTHING is going to change. Your goals for life and discipleship should be absolutely the same. Just because you can’t reach out and touch me doesn’t mean that you can’t love me. Even when I am not with you, continue to love me! Love me, show your love for me by following my commandments. Love me by preaching what I have preached. Love me by living as I have lived. You will never be orphans. You are children of God! You will never be alone, the Holy Spirit will always be with you. Keep doing what God wants you to do.”
“If you love me, follow my commandments.” It’s not coercive; it’s simple. Rather than trying to gain something for himself with this statement, he is giving them a gift. The gift of his presence in the Holy Spirit. Keep Jesus’ commandments and the disciples will know his love by loving others.
It might help to remind you what Jesus’ commandments are. He first revealed them when the Pharisees were trying one of their many theological traps on him. They wanted him to reveal which of the ten commandments was the greatest. Of course they intended to trick him so they could make a fool of him and get rid of him in disgrace. But Jesus counters with something totally unexpected. “The greatest commandment is this,” he says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” But he goes on, saying, “And the second is like it, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The Pharisees are stunned, rather than quoting one of the familiar laws, he has boiled down the entire Torah, the whole of Jewish law, into two rules.
A few months ago I got an e-mail with a very simple joke of the bumper-sticker variety included. “If you love Jesus, tithe. Anyone can honk.” It’s a good joke because it is absolutely true. And it is the crux of what Jesus is saying here: “If you love me, obey. Anyone can honk. If you love me, if you get what I’m talking about, do something special. Believe. Obey.”
I don't use that "O" word lightly. It is a word heavy with all kinds of baggage. But it is, with God, a Good word. We are free to obey. We get the choice. We obey not because we are coerced, not because we are forced, but because we are loved and forgiven and therefore we obey in gratitude. It’s a different kind of freedom than we are used to thinking about. We usually think about freedom in terms of being free from this or that. Free from oppression, free from prison, free from slavery, free from fear. This a certainly a good kind of freedom, but it is not what God has given us. We are given freedom for. For telling the good news, for showing God’s love to others, for being faithful, obedient disciples. And that’s why we obey, because we have been given that freedom.
Obey is one of those unpopular concepts because it has been used to belittle and limit others. I think though, that Jesus is talking about obey in the sense of a sonnet. A sonnet with its fourteen lines of iambic pentameter and rhyme scheme has rules. Within these rules is the greatest freedom imaginable to create image and emotion that can only be created when you commit to the rules. That’s the kind of obey Jesus is talking about here.
Believe it or not, this is Jesus way of saying goodbye to his disciples. This is his farewell speech. It’s a little wordy for what it is. But he’s trying to make sure they’ve gotten the important points of his ministry before he has to leave. Namely, that they won’t be alone once he’s no longer visible to their earthly eyes. They will be united with him in heaven through the Spirit, the one he calls their Advocate. The Spirit will stay with them forever, uniting them to Father and Son for all time.
Keeping Jesus’ commandments will be something of a sign for those who want Jesus to be revealed to them when he comes again. He says to them, “you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” Those who keep his commandments will see Jesus revealed.
In John’s time, secret societies were everywhere. In fact, some groups of Christians had to keep themselves in secret in order to remain safe. So if the language here sounds like something from an exclusive club, it’s a product of its time. Remember, John is talking to an audience who has been excluded from the Jewish temple for their beliefs. He is reminding them that they have their own place to be included, in the heavenly kingdom where Jesus will reign with the Father. In order to be a part of the kingdom, John wants them to understand that they have to believe and obey the commandments that Jesus put in place. “Those who keep my commandment are those who love me.”
Love is the order of the day here. Jesus says that only those who love him will be loved by his Father. Those who are loved by the Father will see Jesus revealed and he will live in them through the Spirit. But the secret handshake, the outward sign of this love is to keep Jesus’ commandments. That’s what this love is all about.
Jesus is about to leave and in order for more people to know him and know about him, someone has to continue his works, continue showing his love for others and for God. That’s why he tells them to keep his commandments, so that others may know him and live in him and perpetuate the cycle until Christ has been revealed to all and in all.
If we did not love Christ, we could not obey his commandments. We would be unable to do so. I think that is where the exclusivity comes from. It’s not a shutting out of others, as Christ invites all to his table. But if we do not come to the table with love, we cannot find what we need for fulfillment. So not everyone comes, or they may not come with love. That is why I think Jesus is telling them that keeping his commandments for love are so necessary to be believers.
It is so important that he is even sending the one he calls the Advocate, whom we call the Holy Spirit. He says, “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” John tells his readers that Jesus realizes that not everyone accepts the way they believe; they are not ready for the spirit of truth. But they already have this Spirit within them. The truth has already been revealed to them and so they are asked to carry out Jesus’ commandments so that others might see the truth revealed in them.
Jesus might not be there to lead them in the flesh, but the Spirit will show them the way if they only remember to follow his commandments to love God and love others. We too, have the Spirit with us and within us. We only have to follow the commandments to love God and love others and Christ will be revealed through us and to us.
We may not be a secret society, but we are set apart. Just as we read last week, we are a chosen race, a holy nation, a royal priesthood of believers. God has chosen us to reveal Christ in our love for him. Not just anybody can do that, only the ones who obey the commandments to love. We obey because we know we are loved even when we don’t obey. That is how we show that we are set apart. As the old hymn says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” When we love with the Spirit that Christ has given us, we reveal his presence with us and in us. And we will not be alone, for Christ has promised that he will be in us, and we will be in him. Glory be to God! Amen.