Monday, May 6, 2013

Keep My Word: Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

When Jesus repeats himself, we should probably pay attention.  He repeats himself quite a bit in his Farewell Discourse in John’s Gospel, which takes up more than four chapters.   We hear a lot about keeping his commandments, loving him and one another, abiding or dwelling with him, and this business about the Advocate who is coming.  Jesus is working hard to find different ways to communicate his message.

We hear echoes of other biblical passages as well when we listen to the repetitive cadences of the Farewell Discourse.   In particular, notice the echoes of Exodus chapter twenty when Jesus says, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.  Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.”[1]

“Words” and “commandments” are synonymous in biblical usage.  The pronouncement of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 is prefaced with “Then God spoke all these words,”[2] and God describes Himself as “showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”[3]

Jesus’ word is consistent with God’s word in the Torah, where the keeping of commandments is an expression of love:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”[4] “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself:  I am the Lord.”[5]  And lest you think you are off the hook when it comes to the stranger who is not of your people: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt:  I am the Lord your God.”[6]   (As an aside, here we find the biblical starting point for immigration reform.)

Jesus famously quoted these words from Deuteronomy and Leviticus when asked to identify the most important commandment, adding, “There is no other commandment greater than these.”[7]  Jesus’ words are God’s words, his works are God’s works; if we see Jesus, we see God; if we love Jesus, we love God.  If we love Jesus, we will keep his word and do his works.

Forgive me for belaboring this point, but, well, Jesus does.   He is reminding us of the ethical basis of religion.   If there is a tendency among conservatives to reduce religion to keeping the commandments as if we could thereby earn God’s love, there is also a tendency among liberals to forget that keeping the commandments is one of the ways that we respond to God’s love freely given.  It is the form that love takes in the well-ordered soul and the well-ordered society, as we grow more fully into the image of God, in which we are created.

The commandments are not an external law imposed upon us as a condition of God’s love.  They are our intrinsic response to God’s love, the necessary precondition for the realization of our identity as children of God.   Recall the word God spoke in Exodus as summarized in the Book of Common Prayer:[8]

·      I am the Lord your God who brought you out of bondage. You shall have no other gods but me.

·      You shall not make for yourself any idol.
·      You shall not invoke with malice the Name of the Lord your God. 

·      Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

·      Honor your father and your mother.

·      You shall not commit murder.

·      You shall not commit adultery.

·      You shall not steal.

·      You shall not be a false witness.

·      You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.

What we have here is the ethical base common to all the world religions, without which no spiritual progress can be made.  Love does not exempt us from the keeping of the law, but rather is the lure that entices us to become so much more than we are for love’s sake.  “Those who love me will keep my word,” says Jesus. 

Think of it this way.  When the lover looks into the eyes of the beloved what is reflected there is the ideal image of the lover.  How often has the lover said to the beloved, “You make me want to be a better man.”  “You make me want to realize the full potential that you see in me.”  That is what it is like when see ourselves reflected in the eyes of Jesus.  We want to keep his word, not out of fear, but to satiate our desire to become the person Jesus sees in us; to become like him.

Observing the commandments is not an end in itself.   It is simply a preparatory stage for something much more:  God making His home in us.  It is the means whereby we clear out the baggage of our ego so that we can make room for God to abide in us.  Keeping the commandments prepares us to pray.  

If we are preoccupied with the drama resulting from decisions rooted in envy, resentment, greed, and entitlement, there will be little time or energy remaining for intentional communion with God.  We will not even be aware of our desire for God, or else will subordinate that desire to our attempts to bend reality to our self-centered ends.  God will be, at best, one more object for us to possess and manipulate.

God, however, is not an object among other objects “out there.”  God is not another rival “out there” that we have to avoid or manipulate to fulfill our desires. As we acquire the serenity of a life of integrity, we discover that the desires we have internalized in imitation of the world around us begin to pale in comparison to our desire to imitate God.  We experience ourselves as objects of His desire for us, which is absolutely benevolent, gracious, and joyful.  As we are drawn to imitate this desire, we realize that God has made His home in us all along.

Moreover, God is entirely for us.  He gives us His Spirit in Jesus’ name to be our Advocate, teaching us everything and reminding us of Jesus’ words.   The Spirit advocates for us within our own hearts, defending us against the voices that we have internalized and that lead us astray.  You know those voices, “You will never be good enough.” “You need more of X to fill the hole in your sole.”  “You don’t deserve him, or her, or this, or that.”  “You are entitled to whatever you want.”  “It is all their fault.” 

This is the voice of the Evil One, from whom we pray to be delivered.  The Advocate, the Spirit of Jesus, reminds us that we are God’s beloved and that only our desire for God can satisfy our deepest longing.  The Advocate also gives us the wisdom and the courage to become advocates for others, advocates of God’s project of healing of the world. 

This is the peace that Jesus leaves with us.  It is the peace that comes from living in the Truth, rooted and grounded in God’s love.  It is the peace that comes from knowing that our choices and our actions are an expression of that love, even when our choices entail risk and our actions require us to suffer for the sake of Truth. 

Jesus does not give us the kind of peace that the world gives.  The peace on offer from the world is a false peace.  As Robert Hamerton-Kelly notes,[9] this false peace is usually based on domination:  violent force exercised in the name of security.  Even in Jesus’ day, the motto found on coins in the Roman Empire read, “Pax et Securitas.”  Conflict is resolved temporarily by the expulsion of the “enemy” to restore unity.

This false peace is simultaneously rooted in denial.  We simply choose not to see what we do not wish to see, as when the U.S. government banned the filming of the coffins of military personnel returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.  “War?  What war?  Just keep shopping and you won’t even notice.”   While the need for security and denial is an understandable emotional accommodation to evil, it comes at the price of Truth.  It comes at the price of peace.

Peace is not the absence of conflict.  It comes from entrusting ourselves to the Advocate, the Spirit of God abiding in us.  Peace is the result of engaging conflict creatively and nonviolently so that the “enemy” is converted into a friend.  Peace comes from taking up our cross and following Jesus.  That is the peace that Jesus gives us.  It is the peace that comes when we live no longer for ourselves alone, but have become entirely an expression of God’s self-giving love in the world.

What I have outlined here are the traditional stages of spiritual development in the Christian tradition:  purgation, illumination, and union with God.  The stage of purgation is about getting our moral house in order and cleansing the lens of perception so that we can realize that God dwells in us.  This moves us into the stage of illumination, as the Advocate begins to do Her work and teaches us everything we need to deepen our communion with God.  Finally, in the stage of union our lives become transparent to God’s word and work in the world.  The Truth abides in us and we do the Truth.  We become a symptom of God’s desire, God’s love for all that She has made.

“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them . . . Do not let your hearts me troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”[10]   Amen.

[1] John 14:23-24
[2] Exodus 20:1
[3] Exodus 20:6
[4] Deuteronomy 6:5
[5] Leviticus 19:18
[6] Leviticus 19:34
[7] Mark 12:28-34 (cf. Matthew 22:34-40; Luke 10:25-28)
[8] The Decalogue: Contemporary, Book of Common Prayer, p. 350.
[9] Robert Hamerton-Kelly, “. . . Not as the World . . .” at
[10] John 14:23, 27c

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