The other day I was at the task of paying the end of the month bills, which is always a pleasure, when I was, and this was greatly unexpected, pleasantly surprised. It seems that, at some point, I overpaid my cable bill, and this past month’s bill was much less than expected. As I was happily, or at least less grumpily, paying the reduced cable bill, I thought of all the times people have told me that they or someone they knew wasn’t a Christian, but they did lots of good deeds, and that those good deeds had them covered. Much like overpaying your cable bill, to these people doing lots of good things somehow reduced the sin-debt they owed to God. It’s not that these people don’t believe that there is a God, it’s just that they believe that God is like the cable company, the armies of angels really nothing more than the celestial division of accounts payable.
“The German thinker Heinrich Heine is often credited with the line, “I like to sin, God likes to forgive. Really, the world is admirably arranged.””1 We might think we’d all be better off if the world was arranged like that, but it isn’t, which is probably for the better. Imagine a world in which people commit sins against one another just so the victim has the blessed opportunity to forgive the transgressor. Doesn’t sound all that appealing for either party, really. So how is the world ordered? What does God’s economy, so to speak, look like?
“If you love Me, keep My commandments.” If you love me, keep my commandments. Notice first what Jesus is not saying here, “notice that Jesus did not say, “If you keep my commandments, I will love you.” True, in verse 21 Jesus seems to say that loving him opens up the love of the Father but nowhere does he say that Jesus himself will not love you unless you’re really morally pristine to begin with. Yet this is how we often read this. This is how we often teach this. Jesus loves those who are good. You have to be good first for the love of Jesus to come. But that’s not the gospel and it’s not what he says in John 14. In fact, the assumption seems to be that Jesus does already love his disciples—and his future disciples—by grace. Jesus doesn’t put any provisos on his love for others…Jesus loves us while we are yet sinners and he keeps on loving us even when we don’t obey his commandments as well as we should.”2
So “if you love me, keep my commandments,” somehow means something like Jesus loves us so much that He bothered to give us commandments, commandments that make our lives better, commandments that please His Father, commandments that keep us from everlasting death.
The lynchpin here, of course, is love. But we aren’t that good at describing love, at defining it precisely. Like the old saying that Eskimos have over a hundred words for snow (which is not true, by the way; its the Sami, the only indigenous Nordic people – think of those pictures of reindeer hunters in traditional dress in Life magazine, and chances are those were Sami – they have over a hundred words for snow), the Greeks had several, but only four, words for love. They are “Storge – affection between family members; Philia – virtuous love between friends; Eros – passionate love between intimate partners; and Agape – unconditional, self-giving, sacrificial love as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13.” Like my friend Father Pankey wrote, we modern Christians have lost the meaning of the love that Jesus is talking about here: “Somewhere, lost in translation, guilt, fear, and self-esteem issues, love became something of an “I’m OK, you’re OK” philosophical construct based in “if you haven’t got anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.” We gave up accountability and turned sacrificial love into becoming a door mat for the other. Because of this erosion of love..when we hear “God is love,”3 we fail to grasp the depth of love, agape,” that Jesus has for us and that we are called to emulate in following His commandments.
Today (this weekend), three of Christ’s young followers will fulfill a remarkably important commandment Christ gave them: they will receive their first Holy Communion. They will partake, with us, that mystical Body and Blood that will sustain them for the rest of their lives, that will strengthen them and make following the commandments of Christ something possible to do. They are called, with each of us, to love one another as Christ loves us, to give up their lives for each other, to be living sacrifices, worthy and acceptable to God. Let us pray for them and for each other, that we find the love of Christ in this place, and make that love known to all the world.
1Scott Hoezee, This Week
3Fr. Steve Pankey, Theos agape estin, Draughting Theology, May 2, 2012