Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Closing Reflection for December 20th

This is the fourth Sunday in Advent, a period when the Christian world anticipates the coming of our God in human flesh as a child. It is important to remember that if we claim to embrace this child, we must also prepare to embrace his cross.

The reading for today is John 15.9-14:

Even as the Father hath loved me, I also have loved you: abide ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love. These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full. This is my commandment, that ye love one another, even as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do the things which I command you.

This passage has been somewhat challenging for me as I am not sure that people can be commanded to love. We can command behaviors, and so I can command you take out the trash, or wash the car, or be nice to your sister. But I wonder if we can command character and worldview.

I know that we can say the words, "I command you to love" and we can make loving your neighbor a requirement. Indeed, Jesus in this passage does just that. It seems though that there must be more to this statement than we see on the page. If you act lovingly toward your neighbor because I have commanded you to do so, are you actually loving your neighbor? I suspect not. Rather, you are responding to command.

This becomes problematic when we read Paul and his explanation of why the Law didn't work for Israel. Among a couple other things, Paul makes it clear that Israel sought salvation – thought they could secure it – by abiding by the law's dictates. Paul says they were wasting their time because they failed to embody the expectations of the principles behind the Law. Israel had been commanded to do things – even to love their neighbor – and had attempted to do so by keeping the Law. According to Paul, Israel failed because their hearts weren't right even though they may have done the "right things." Israel didn't love God even though they accomplished the demands of the Law.

If folks comply with rules because they are commanded to do so, they do not live according to the real expectations of the command. In short, they aren't loving their neighbor, they are assuaging a god. That isn't what God is after.

Jesus in this passage says if we love him, we will keep his commands, and that we will know that we love him if we find ourselves keeping those commands. It is imperative that we understand the relationship here. While we can learn loving behavior by practicing, just as a child can learn not to run into the road because mom says not to, the goal is that our behaviors arise from the love we already have – that we have nurtured and have allowed God to nurture within us. This is mature behavior just as adults don't run into the street because they know the danger of so doing – not because they have been commanded not to.

Jesus' command here is less a command and more an urging or an invitation to live freely. Verse 11 tells us that Jesus wants us to have complete joy. Loving, and living as God would live, is the most freeing way to live, and will result in joy for the mature Christian. Mature Christians though don't love because they have been commanded to love. Rather, they love because they can do nothing else. They have experienced life in and with God, and they allow themselves to be transformed into the likeness in which they were made.

One last illustration. It is easy for me to tell a husband that he must love his wife, and even suggest ways of showing that love to his wife. But the suggested ways are not the goal – love is the goal. No matter how many times the husband performs a suggested behavior, if he doesn't love his wife first, she will know and the behavior becomes wasted. I can tell a husband he must love his wife, I can tell him that if he doesn't, she will leave, and I can assign tasks to demonstrate his love for her. But I cannot create or force that love by commanding it. That love must come from within the husband and the same is true for Christian love. We can be commanded to love, but we cannot be made to love, and that is an important distinction and is at the core of this passage.

We know that we love God because we do the things he has told us to do. It isn't that doing the specific things give rise to love, but rather that we do the specific things because we love. Our lives are evidence of the love that already exists. That love cannot be commanded in any effective sense because commanded love isn't love.

The challenge is to determine by ourselves for ourselves why we do things. If we do them because we have been commanded to do them, we either remain children or we misapprehend the will of God. Honest examination of our motivations is important to understanding where we are, and our real relationship with God.

Why do you do what you do? Because someone has commanded you to do them, or because you have been transformed?

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