We don’t come to our relationships as blank slates, open to anything and everything that comes our way. We have expectations about how things should go, and often, the closer the relationship, the stronger the expectations.
But things don’t always go as we had hoped. We get disappointed. We think to ourselves, “If s/he really loved me…” then s/he would act or think in a particular way. The fact that they don’t is proof of their lack of love, or stubbornness, or some other deficit.
We might even go beyond just thinking it, and say it out loud: “If you really love me…” It’s like throwing down a relational gauntlet: You need to prove yourself to me. Suffice it to say that this can be a dangerous game to play, if it means assigning a one-sided kind of blame for the health of the relationship.
But then we read this: on his final night with his disciples, in the midst of a long farewell, Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15, NRSV).
Ummmm…that’s not the same thing.
Jesus is not speaking out of insecurity. He knows that the disciples love him in their own way; that’s why they’re distraught over his leaving. But he needs them to shift how that love is expressed, because he has something for them to do.
That “something” is to keep his commandments, to hold fast to what he has taught them. And lest we think that Jesus is changing subjects here, trying to leverage their emotions to get them to comply with some other program, we need to remember two things. First, he has already taught them that the two greatest commandments are to love God and love one’s neighbor (e.g., Matt 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-31; cf. also Luke 10:25-28). Second, earlier in the same conversation, he already gave them a new commandment: they are to love one another as he has loved them, so that others will know that they are in fact his disciples (John 13:34-35).
Indeed, just a few sentences later, Jesus will circle back to the theme of love and obedience: “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them” (vs. 21).
His disciples demonstrate their devotion to Jesus by obeying his commandments, which themselves can be summed up by the commandments to love. And more than this: the consequence of loving obedience is not a gold star on some chart of spiritual progress, but being taken up into the intimate and loving relationship between the Father and the Son.
Let that sink in for a second; heck, let it sink in for a lifetime. Maybe you have a hard time believing that God loves you, even though you believe that the Father and Son love each other. But read what Jesus says: if we follow Jesus in loving devotion, both Jesus and the Father will love us in turn.
That does not mean, “When you finally get it right and obey all my rules perfectly, then the Father and I will love you.” As we will see throughout the remainder of the Farewell Discourse, it means, You know that I love the Father and that I have loved you. Don’t let fear and uncertainty knock you off course. Remain in that love. Count on the fact that the Father and I will continue to love you even after I’m gone.
How can they know this? Well, there’s that little matter of the gift of the Holy Spirit. More on that in the next post.