Monday, April 29, 2013

Sunday's Gospel of Grace

My eighth-grade teacher, Mr. Hawes, taught our class a phrase of which he seemed very proud: “Post hoc ergo propter hoc.” Looking back, I can’t tell for sure whether he taught us that because he wanted us to know about logical fallacies or because he wanted us to be impressed. Or maybe it’s because he wanted our class to impress the other classes. Either way, it’s a little phrase that has stuck with me ever since. It means “after this because of this.” An example of this fallacy at work is to say, “It’s raining because I forgot to bring my umbrella to work with me.” We make little isolated statements like that all the time, and we usually don’t mean them. But sometimes we do.

In Sunday’s gospel lesson (John 14:23-29), Jesus says something curious: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them…Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.” When you read that text, what do you hear Jesus saying? Is he saying, “People who keep my words are the ones who love me?” Or is he saying, “People who love me are the ones who keep my words?” The text as it is given to us is plainly the latter. But how many of us assume the opposite to be true?

People who love Jesus are the ones who keep his words. That is a gracious invitation. Jesus did not say that in order to love him you need to keep his words. That would be spiritual blackmail. Think of a parent who says to a child, “If you really love me, you’ll make you’re bed.” That’s the other way around. That’s telling someone that your love for him or her is dependent on their performance. And there’s nothing gracious about that. But imagine if instead that parent says to that child, “Thanks for making your bed. I know you love me.” That might not be a guaranteed way to get the chores done, but it does say a lot about building a relationship that is founded on love.

When I hear Jesus say, “Keep my commandments,” it makes me nervous. Because I can’t. And I don’t. I try, but I usually fail. Does that mean that I have failed to love Jesus or that he and the father have withheld their love from me? No, of course not. But, if I keep my focus on the first part—the loving—then the second part—the keeping will happen on its own. That’s true with God. That’s true with spouses and children. That’s true in just about any relationship. We start with love. The rest falls into place.

Real love cannot be conditioned on the performance of the other. One does not say, “to have and to hold as long as you do X, Y, and Z.” We do not say to a child, “You didn’t behave like I asked you to. I guess we don’t love each other.” That’s parental blaspheme. So why do so many parents and preachers hold it out to be that way? Guilt is a powerful motivator, but it has nothing to do with the gospel.  

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