May 21, 2017 – The 6th Sunday of Easter
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
The hardest part about unconditional love is the unconditional part. As an absolute, unconditional love crumbles into dust as soon as we put any limits or restrictions on it. You can’t love someone unconditionally as long as he loves you back. You can’t pledge someone your unconditional love if there’s ever a chance that she’ll do something to make you change your mind. You can’t tell your children that you love them unconditionally and then show them with your actions that your love is something that disappears as soon as they screw up. Well, you can tell them that you love them unconditionally, but they’ll know better.
I believe that God loves us and the whole world unconditionally. I believe that there is nothing that we can do to make God love us any more and that there’s nothing we can do to make God love us any less. God doesn’t love us because of the prayers we say, because the good deeds we do, or because of the faith we hold in our heart. God loves us because that’s who God is. And Jesus Christ, the one whom humanity crucified yet whom God raised from the dead for our sakes, is the ultimate expression of that unconditional love. Even when we actively refuse God’s love and do our very best to thwart it, God still loves us exactly the same.
Because I believe in God’s unconditional love, I have had a hard time this week with the opening line of today’s gospel lesson: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Even a single “if” has the power to eviscerate unconditional love. As a fragile, anxious, ego-centered human being, I crave unconditional love, yet I spend most of my time inventing ifs that threaten to undo it. If I were a better husband, my wife would be happier. If I were a better father, my children would be more likely to reach their full potential. If I were a better priest, think of how great this church could be! If I were a better friend… If I were a better boss… If I were a better son… When I hear Jesus say, “If…,” I go into a panic. Not him, too! What if this truly unlosable love somehow depends on me and my faithfulness? I’ve spent the whole week reading and rereading these words, continually reminding myself to pay attention to what Jesus actually says and not what my fears have invented. Jesus doesn’t say, “If you keep my commandments, I will love you.” He says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. For what it’s worth, I think we should take Jesus at his word. Not only does the conditional part of that statement have nothing to do with whether Jesus will love us, it also doesn’t have anything to do with whether we do the kinds of things that would make Jesus smile. The keeping of the commandments is the conclusion. It’s the part that is always true as long as the condition is met. And, in this case, the condition is as simple as love. If we love Jesus, we will keep his commandments. And that sounds to me like we’d be better off spending less time worrying about whether we’re doing what Jesus wants us to do and more time focused on whether we’re loving him the way he invites us to. If we love Jesus, we will keep his commandments.
But can it really be as simple as that? What about the parent whose last words to her teenage daughter when she drops her off at college are, “If you really love me, you’ll behave yourself?” Is that really a no-strings-attached kind of offer? Does that mother really mean that if her daughter loves her then she’ll stay out of trouble? Well, I think it depends on whether that mom is inviting her daughter into the kind of mutual, self-giving love that Jesus has for the world or merely using love as a poor disguise for her parental expectations for “lady-like” conduct. With Jesus, however, the offer is genuine. He knows that if we love him—and the word here for “love” is “ἀγαπᾶτέ”—we will have given ourselves over to the kind of transformative, selfless love that has the power to change us and the world.
Maybe it’s worth stopping for a moment to review just what those commandments are anyway. What are those commandments that Jesus has given to his disciples—the commandments the completion of which seems automatic for anyone who truly loves Jesus? In John’s gospel, there is really only one commandment that Jesus gives to his disciples, though in chapters 13, 14, and 15, he gives it to them several different times in a few different ways. We hear of this commandment when he is sharing his final meal with his closest friends. After he washes their feet, he says to them, “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you…I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” That’s it. Even the commandment itself is an invitation to love. (Yes, it’s worth noting that Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again, but that seems like the kind of new, Spirit-led life that he envisions when he tells his disciples to love each other just as he has loved them.)
If we love Jesus, we will love others just as Jesus himself has loved us. And why? Because that kind of love automatically begets more of itself. It’s as automatic as the if-then statements that tell our computers and smartphones how to operate. Jesus has loved us, and he has invited us to share in that love. And we cannot participate in that love without reflecting it back to everyone else in our lives. You can’t encounter unconditional, no-strings-attached, self-giving love without feeling the pull to enter into that love, and, once you’ve shared that love with the one who first gave it to you, it changes you. Love without limits is the single most powerful force in the universe. Once it grabs a hold of your heart and mind and soul, it sets you free to love other people recklessly, vulnerably, without conditions, and without limits. If you learn to love Jesus, you will learn to love others with that same love. It always happens.
Most relationships in this world are built upon the logic of quid pro quo. If you do this for me, I will give you that in return. But that’s not how unconditional love works. Unconditional love says I have something to give you no matter what you will give me in return. Think about that. Think about how powerful that is. Think of all the ills in this world that are ripe for the precise transformation that only unconditional love can give. That is the work that Jesus has given us to do. But we’ll never get any of it done if we place our emphasis on the wrong side of the equation. If we spend all our energy trying to do the thing that Jesus has commanded us to do, we’ll always come up short. That’s because unconditional love can’t start with an agenda. It always starts as a response to love. Our job is simply to love Jesus. We must love him as much as he has loved us. We must let his love awaken in us a reciprocal love that spills out in ways that change the world. Unconditional love is the only thing that has the power to make that possible, and that is exactly what we have been given by God in Jesus Christ. May his love shape us into the love-filled, love-sharing people whom God has made us to be.