27 May 2014

Sermon – “If you love me” (John 14:15-27)

For the past five weeks (since Easter) we have been reading from the First Letter of Peter in our Sunday morning services. Peter writes to Christian believers who are suffering for the sake of the gospel. He is writing from Rome, more or less mid-way through the reign of the Emperor Nero. While the first great persecution following the fire of Rome has not broken out yet, pockets of persecution against Christians are breaking out in parts of the empire, particularly on its fringes.

Peter writes to give those scattered believers encouragement in the face of suffering. “Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, although they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God…” “If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval … because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you and example.” And in this morning’s passage: “Even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.”

One of the most painful and awkward scenes to my mind in all of Scripture is the exchange between Jesus and Peter that takes place at the very end of John’s gospel. Many of you know the scene. It was some time after Jesus’ resurrection. Peter and six others of Jesus’ followers had headed back up north from Jerusalem to their home territory of Galilee. They had spent all night out on the water fishing but entirely without success. The sun was just peeking over the horizon when they heard a voice calling to them from the shore. “Fellows, you don’t have anything to eat, do you?” “No,” they shouted back. “Try letting down your net on the right side of your boat and you’ll catch some.” To their surprise they had scarcely dropped their net into the water before it was bursting with fish.

John was the first to realize what was happening. “It’s the Lord!” he exclaimed. Within an instant Peter was pulling on some clothes and diving into the water. It was after they had broiled some of the fish and had eaten them that the hard conversation began. Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Simon, son of John…” Jesus was addressing Peter by his formal name—the name he had before he had become one of Jesus’ followers—not by the name Jesus had given him: Peter, the Rock. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord,” Peter replied, “you know that I love you.” Then Jesus asked a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord,” Peter replied once again, “you know that I love you.” “Simon, Son of John, do you love me?” This time the question really stung, because all that Peter could think of was his cowardice of only a few days before—how three times he had denied even knowing Jesus. “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”

To me the scene is a foreshadowing of that day when I will stand before Jesus and he will ask me, “John, do you love me?” And I ask myself, how many times have I denied Jesus? How many times have I shrunk back from living out my faith? How many times have I allowed the fear or selfishness or rebellion or the thousand-and-one other lesser motivations that battle inside me to stand ahead of my love for Jesus? “John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Yet within my heart I know that my love is often weak and cold.

Keeping the commands of Jesus

Weeks before Peter’s painful encounter on the shores of Galilee, he had been with Jesus and the other disciples in the upper room. There he had heard Jesus say the words that opened our Gospel reading this morning: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And so loving Jesus is more than having nice thoughts or warm feelings about Jesus, more than loving the idea of Jesus. Fundamentally, our love for Jesus is going to be measured by our actions.

The Greek of the New Testament has two words for “obey”. One of them (peitho) has to do with an enforced obedience. James uses it when he writes about putting bits into the mouths of horses to force them to obey us. The other (hupakouo) is a more responsive, willing obedience. Thus by faith Abraham obeyed God’s call to go to a land he had never known. Children are encouraged to obey their parents, not because they will be punished, but because “this is right”. The wind and the sea obeyed Jesus because in him they recognized their creator.

However, neither of those is the word that we find in this passage. When Jesus speaks to his followers, he tells them not that they are to obey his commandments, but that they are to “keep” them. The difference may seem subtle at first, but it is an important one. And perhaps to drive the point home, Jesus repeats what he says twice more over the course of the next few verses: “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me” (verse 21). And, “Those who love me will keep my word” (verse 23). We find the same word in Jesus’ final words to his disciples at the end of Matthew’s gospel in the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to keep everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19,20).

What, then, does the Bible mean when it uses the word “keep”? Literally it means to guard, to protect, to preserve. When Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding celebration in Cana, the steward expressed his surprise because, he said, “you have kept the good wine until now” (John 2:10). And so we keep things because we recognize their value. This is what underlies the wisdom offered to young people in the Book of Proverbs:

My child, if you accept my words

and treasure up my commandments within you,

making your ear attentive to wisdom

and inclining your heart to understanding; 

if you indeed cry out for insight, 

and raise your voice for understanding; 

if you seek it like silver,

and search for it as for hidden treasures—
then you will understand the fear of the Lord

and find the knowledge of God. (Proverbs 2:1-5)

In the Psalms we read of the surpassing value of God’s word:

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes…;
the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. (Psalm 19:7-10)

So it was that from their earliest days as a nation the people of Israel were reminded,

Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:6-9)

“With my whole heart I seek you;” sang the psalmist, “do not let me stray from your commandments. I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you” (Psalm 119:10,11).

Empowered by the Spirit of Jesus

Loving Jesus, then, means having his word etched into our very hearts, finding in it our delight, our very life. Yet for how many of us is this true? Archbishop William Temple was a man of profound faith. At the same time he confessed, “Our love is cold. It is there, but it is feeble. It does not carry us to real obedience. Is there anything that I can do?” he asks. And here is his answer: “No; there never is, except to hold myself in his presence… But the Lord, who knows both the reality and the poverty of our love, will supply our need.”[1]

Jesus knows better than we do that, as much as we might want to, as hard as we might try, we cannot live the life of discipleship in our own power. And so he promises his disciples “another Advocate”, one who will be with them forever. Now if you look at that word “Advocate” in verse 16, you will see that it is accompanied by a footnote, which suggests that the word may also be translated “Helper”. And if you look at other versions of the Bible you will find that the same word is rendered “Counselor” or “Friend”. Indeed there are some translators who have simply thrown up their hands and used the word “Paraclete”, which is nothing more than an Anglicization of the original Greek word in the New Testament. My own preference is for “Helper”, as the word literally means someone who comes alongside you, to support and assist, to encourage and to guide.

So it is the Holy Spirit who takes Jesus’ words and makes them live for us. It is the Holy Spirit who gives us the will and the power to keep them on a daily basis. It is the Holy Spirit who makes the life of discipleship a possibility—and more than that, a joy and an adventure to which nothing else can compare.

Trusting in the love of Jesus

I have spoken about what it means to love Jesus: to keep his word, to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit. As we love Jesus in this way, we find ourselves being led more deeply into the mystery and the wonder of his love for us. “Those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them … and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

Karl Barth is regarded by many as the greatest theologian of the twentieth century. Perhaps you are familiar with the story of when he was at Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago during his lecture tour of the U.S. in 1962. After his lecture, during the Q & A time, a student asked Barth if he could summarize his whole life’s work in theology in a sentence. Here is what Barth said: “Yes, I can: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’ ”

As important as our love for Jesus may be, we need to put it into its far greater context—and that is the love of both the Father and the Son for you and for me. And that love is not limited. Nor is it conditional. It does not depend on our love for him. There will be times when we fail—even spectacularly—to keep Jesus’ words. There will be occasions when we grieve the Holy Spirit. Yet there will never be a time when God’s heart does not burn with love for us. As he was there for Peter on the shore of Lake Galilee, Jesus will be there with us; and, as he said to Peter, he says to you and to me once again, “Follow me.”

[1]     Readings in St John’s Gospel, 238,239

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