A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.
May 25, 2014.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” This is what Jesus said to his disciples in our Gospel lesson today. It seems to me that in our current culture, the word “obedience” is not often associated with the word “love.” In my years as a minister, I’ve married a lot of couples, and I don’t remember a bride choosing to say the traditional vows in which she pledges “to love and obey” her husband. Of course, it doesn’t help that, in the traditional vows, the bridegroom does not have to pledge the same to his wife. In our more “enlightened” times, the notion that obedience is tied to love seems out-of-date at best and chauvinistic at worst. For many, it conjures up painful images of an abusive husband demanding from his wife obedience to unreasonable commands and submission to his every whim.
So what are we to do with Jesus’ words to his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”? What does it mean to have this kind of loving obedience to our Lord?
If we just look at just these verses from John, there’s not much in this passage by itself that can give us a satisfactory answer. But if we look at the Bible as a whole, we may gain some insight into what Jesus was saying to his disciples here in John 14. First of all, in the Bible, there is a strong affirmation of the unconditional love of God. The Biblical witness is clear in testifying that before God ever commanded “obedience” from human beings, God first initiated his love for human beings. 1 John 4:19 says, We love because God first loved us. As St. Augustine has said, “It is God’s love that makes us loveable, not our own efforts.” An awareness of this fact can set us free to love God in return.
When a person feels fully loved, it opens the door to loving obedience. I once heard a story of a six-year-old boy who had lost both his parents to an accident. Subsequently he was adopted and raised by his aunt. But in his own pain and grief and self-pity as an orphan, he often would often lash out against his aunt, especially when she would try to tell him to take a bath, eat his vegetables, or do his homework. His favorite reply was, “You can’t make me, because you’re not my mom!” Furthermore, the boy was embarrassed by his aunt’s hands, because they were blotchy, knarled and deformed. He never invited his school friends over to the house, because he was afraid of what they might think if they ever saw his aunt’s hands. One day, his grandfather came to visit, and the boy let it slip that it wasn’t fair that he didn’t feel he could have friends over because of his aunt’s ugly hands. His grandfather looked at the boy with compassion and asked: “Do you know how your aunt got those hands?” The boy shook his head. “Well,” replied his grandfather, “when your mom and dad died in the house fire, it was your aunt who rescued you in her arms and shielded your head from the fire with her bare hands. Instead of your face getting burned, it was her hands that got burned. That’s why she has those hands.”
When a person feels fully loved, it opens the door to loving obedience. Furthermore, Jesus said “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” not as a way to tell us how to earn his love. Remember, Jesus already loves us and the scars on his hands are proof of his love. God demonstrated His own love for us in this, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. We demonstrate our love for God by obeying God’s commands and following the way of Jesus.
So, how do we follow Jesus? What has Jesus commanded us to obey? In Matthew 22:37-39, a lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” One chapter before today’s Gospel lesson, in John 13:34, Jesus tells his disciples: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Indeed, Jesus said to his disciples: “You will love one another, as I have loved you – fully, sacrificially, transparently, voluntarily laying down your life for each other – because you are no longer my servants; rather, you are now my friends.”
All of us know that when we want to honor or do something nice for a friend, we have to think of the friend’s personality, values, likes and dislikes. When Beth and I first dated, I sent her roses. I bought her presents and mailed her cards. She liked those things, and she said thank you for those things, but one day she finally told me, “Don’t do that anymore.” Now maybe that sounds a little crazy or a little ungrateful, but over the years, I’ve learned that Beth doesn’t wear all that much jewelry. Flowers are OK, but for her, she’d rather have me cook dinner. So over the years of our marriage, I’ve learned that helping with laundry, setting up her computer for her (and her parents!), cooking a couple of nights a week, helping with the kids – those are tangible things that I can do to show that I love her.
Conversely, Beth has voluntarily found plenty of reciprocal ways to show that she loves me – mowing the lawn, cooking her share of the dinners, paying bills and doing taxes, etc. Again, we don’t do these things out of sense of obligation or coercion, but out of an understanding of the other person’s character and a desire to honor the other. Now men, if your wife likes jewelry and flowers, then buy her jewelry and flowers! Just saying, “But remember that time I cooked dinner?” isn’t going to cut it! We have to seek to know and honor the spirit of our beloved.
Now, how are we able to know and honor the spirit of our Lord? We must remember that though we no longer have Jesus with us on earth, Jesus promised his disciples that they will not be left as orphans. Before Jesus returned to His Father, He promised that the Spirit of Truth will be with them forever to advocate for them. Jesus promised his spirit to be with his disciples. We love Jesus when we act in the spirit of Jesus, guided by the spirit of Truth.
When Rita and Ken Jerabek of Hobart, Wisconsin saw the men in uniform at their door one April morning in 2004, they knew their lives had changed forever. They were told that their son Ryan, not long out of high school and a Marine Corps private first class serving in Ramadi, Iraq, had been killed in an ambush. In the wake of that awful loss, Ryan’s mom wanted to honor her son’s memory while also helping others. Ryan ran track in high school, so Ryan’s parents organized the “Private First Class Ryan Jerabek, USMC Memorial Challenge” – a four-mile footrace retracing Ryan’s training route. She started this in 2006, with 600 people participating. Five years later, over 1,200 runners and walkers – children as well as adults – participated in the event, including 18 marines from across the United States who had been in Ryan’s platoon.
Proceeds from the event go to two causes Ryan and his family valued: the Injured Marine Fund, which provides financial assistance to those of all uniformed services injured in post-9/11 combat and training, and the Pulaski Community School Education Foundation Inc., which makes small grants to local teachers for books and other equipment or special projects.
“It’s such an exciting day to see everybody gather in support of our troops, to remember the fallen, and to say ‘thank you’ to our military,” says Jerabek. Has the Jerabek Challenge helped ease the loss of Ryan? Pausing, Jerabek says, “Yes, it has.” “Sometimes it’s overwhelming,” she goes on. “But then I remember that it’s helping other people, so it is healing for me. And for me, it was important to do something that I think Ryan would be really proud of.”
Tomorrow is Memorial Day, the day we have set aside to honor and remember all those who have died defending the thing we like the most about America: our freedom. For Christians, every Sunday is a Memorial Day, the day that is set aside to honor and remember the One who died fighting to set us free from our sin, and to celebrate the same One who was resurrected to set us free from death. Baptism is a powerful re-enactment of the death and resurrection of Jesus in the lives of believers, and this morning, we witnessed the baptism of two of our own, Leah Miller and Zach Martindale. Leah and Zach, our hearts are filled with joy because you have decided to follow Jesus, who loved you and who saved you. On this day, and every day, may you and all other baptized believers honor and love God by acting in loving obedience through the Spirit of Jesus.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” said Jesus. Let’s find a way to do something today that Jesus would be really proud of! May our obedience to God and love for each other bring honor and glory to our risen Christ during this Memorial Day weekend. Amen.
 William Dych, S.J., Introduction to Anthony de Mello: Writings Selected, pp. 9-10.