“If You Love Me…”
Text: John 14:15-21
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It was a bit awkward at the table. Everyone gathered there kept glancing at each other to gauge reactions. Jesus had just resumed His place at the table after washing their feet. He told them that one of them would betray Him. He told Peter that he would deny even knowing Jesus, and it would happen three times before the sun rose the next morning. And then Jesus said to them all, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Quite the thing to say to those gathered there: to Peter, who was about to deny Him. Judas was on already walking toward where the chief priests and elders were gathered, in order to betray Him. And the rest, well, they would in an hour’s time fall asleep when Jesus needed them the most, and then run away when He was arrested, then hide, trying to save their own skins. And yet Jesus says to them at this moment, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
He has said this to us too; we, His disciples gathering at His table here. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” But we know how poorly we have kept them. We covet the comforts and luxuries of those whose homes we drive past. We envy the husbands, wives, families, and friends of others. We willingly sacrifice our time hearing God’s Word, praying to Him in the service, for the sake of anything else that might arise on our calendars, any event at all. We casually misuse His name, muttering it or yelling it whenever something bad happens, rather than speaking it in the conversational tones of prayer. We question Him when He gives something to someone else and not to us. We think that we may know better than Him when it comes to any number of subjects. And still Jesus says to us, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
It’s not that we don’t love our Lord. We do. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here. Otherwise we would never have heard these challenging words from Him. We love Him, of course. The trouble is that we don’t love Him as His commandments say: with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, all our strength. We divide our love between Him and those other things; and when those things need to be ordered and arranged in our lives, He doesn’t win out; at least not all the time. And yet, this is what the exacting commandment requires. All means all. And we don’t do it all.
Jesus knew this. He knew it the night when He spoke those words, knowing full well what all the disciples at that table were about to do in the next couple hours. He knows it this morning, when He says these words to us anew. He knows our weaknesses, our frailty, our corruption, our addictions, our secret rages, our petty grudges, our silent moments of unbelief. He says it to us as we gather around His table for His Holy Supper, just as He said to those first disciples gathered around for that Holy Meal. It might seem like bad timing. It might seem like He’s rubbing salt in our wounds, pointing out our sins and flaws at a particularly bad time. But in reality, there’s no better time for Him to do this.
Jesus first said these words on the night when He was betrayed, when He was on His way to the cross to die for the sins of the world. Or, we might say, to die for all the times that His people, His disciples, we have not kept His commandments, have not loved Him as we know we ought. He’s on His way to pay for Peter’s denial, for Thomas’ doubt, for the cowardice and half-heartedness, the fear and self-centeredness of all the rest who would run from the Garden of Gethsemane, from the mere question of whether they believed in Him or not. He was on His way to pay for the cruelty of the Roman torturers, for the indifference of Pontius Pilate, the entertainment and pleasure addiction of Herod, the spitefulness of the crowds, even for the treachery of Judas. When He spoke those words, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” He knew full well that He was on His way to pay for all the times anyone did not keep His commandments, even us.
These words are not salt in a wound, nor are they spoken to terrify. Rather, they’re meant to point us to His cross. And it’s in that cross—continually, constantly, every day, even after His resurrection, even now—it’s in His cross that we are made clean. We’re washed and forgiven and purified not by our love for Him, but by His love for us. We see Him keep those commandments perfectly. And then, moved by His love, reclaimed by it, we ask Him to help us do the same. We ask Him to help us love Him in return.
So He continues: “And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth.” He will enable us to love our God, by sending us the Holy Spirit, the Helper. It’s a rich word there, “Helper,” that gets a little over-simplified. Those of you more familiar with older translations or hymns may recognize the word “Paraclete.” That’s the word Jesus uses here. It certainly includes the concept of helping, particularly helping us do what’s good and right, what His commandments instruct. He creates our faith and helps keep us in it. But tied up in this word is not only the sense of “helper”, but also that of “advocate.” The Holy Spirit is someone who speaks well of us before the judge. He’s our defender in the court of the Almighty God. He tells us what to say when we’re called on to be a witness. He teaches us that our only defense is what Jesus has accomplished in His life and death. The Holy Spirit, sent by our Lord, does two things at the same time: He asks for our forgiveness and He helps us do what is right. He purifies us and He puts us on the right path. He forgives our past and guides our future.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” That’s the mystery of being a Christian. We’re at the same time both a sinner who doesn’t keep the commandments, and a saint who’s forgiven and walks in that Word. We recognize our weakness, we readily admit our flaws, and we look to our God to guide us back into truth and holiness. That’s grace—knowing that Jesus knows, and that He still forgives. That’s love—God’s perfect love that looks at us and loves us before we’re loveable, and then that love transforms us into something pleasing to Him and helpful to those around us. That’s the peace and joy of the Christian life: knowing forgiveness and trusting that our Lord will lead us to whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is pure and just and good. Rest in that peace as you gather around His table, believers, and know that your Lord is fully loving and caring for you so that you may love Him in return. In the name of Jesus, our Righteousness. Amen.