Commanded to Love

by Rev. L. John Gable

Commanded to Love by Rev. L. John Gable
May 15, 2017

Our lesson from John’s Gospel is part of the last, extended time and teaching that Jesus had with His disciples.  According to John’s telling, after the Last Supper but before His arrest, Jesus gave this final discourse, His parting words to His disciples.  If you have a “red letter” Bible you will notice that chapters 14 through 17 are all “red”, they are all Jesus speaking.  These are His last words and instructions to His closest followers, to those He entrusts to carry on His mission and ministry, and, we know, last words are important.  They seem to carry added weight and meaning.

In chapter 15 Jesus is talking about the believer’s relationship with Him and likening it to His relationship with the Father.  Bear in mind, the believers He is talking about here are not just the twelve seated at the table with Him, but us as well.  He uses the illustration of the vine and the branches, and His teaching is plain and true.  Just as it is essential for a branch to remain connected to the vine if it is to grow and bear fruit, so it is essential for us to remain connected to Christ if we are going to grow and bear fruit, spiritually.  If this relationship is severed or is not nurtured, then we begin to shrivel and die spiritually, just as does a branch that is cut off from its life source.

So, picking up at verse 9 we read, “As the Father has loved Me, so I have loved you; abide in My love.”  Friends, this is the great comfort and assurance of our faith – to be known and loved by God, a love He has shown us consistently and conclusively in Jesus Christ.  When everything else in life suddenly becomes uncertain, as it certainly will very soon for the disciples, as it has at times for each of us, we can be confident in this: God’s unconditional, never-ending love for us.  So Jesus says, abide in that love.  Live in that love.  Rest secure in that love.

This past week I was in Dallas for several days with a group of Presbyterian pastors.  We are in a prayer covenant group together that has been meeting annually for the past 24 years.  During our time together one of my covenant brothers asked me, “How are you staying grounded in your faith and alive in the Spirit?”  His question caught me off guard a bit, in as much that it was our first morning together over breakfast, so I had to pause and think for a moment before I answered.  It would have been easy to give him the “right” answer – hours of daily prayer and devotional reading, and a rigid practice of the spiritual disciplines, but that would not have been the “honest” answer.   So, I said, “I have walked with Jesus a long time, so I consider my spiritual life ‘a long obedience in the same direction’.  It is not so much something I have to think about or work at, as much as it is a way of living that gives meaning and structure to my life.  I think of my spiritual life and my relationship with Christ like I do my marriage.  I don’t wake up each day and ask myself, “What do I need to do today to be married?”  Of course there are many things I could do to improve or enrich my marriage, as there are many things I could do to improve or enrich my walk with Christ, but this is who I am, how I live my life.  It is not a burden, but a long obedience in the same direction that gives me joy and comfort and love.”

As I later reflected on my answer, I think this is what Jesus was getting at when He said, “Abide in My love”; a daily being in relationship with Christ which allows us to live “in to and out of” God’s love.

But then as Jesus goes on with this teaching He adds an interesting twist.  In verse 12 He says, “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  Jesus desires that we have the same kind of relationship with the Father that He has, that essential connectedness we call “faith”; but then He goes on in this teaching to say that the connectedness we have with the Father and the Son must find expression in our relationships with one another, and that He calls “love.”  Jesus COMMANDS us to love one another, and there I think is the twist.  He COMMANDS us to love.  It sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?  Is that even possible?  Can we be COMMANDED to love someone?

Maybe we can be commanded to be nice to someone, or kind, or obedient or cheerful or helpful, like customer service representatives are commanded to be at the complaint counter, but can we really be commanded to love them?  Can we really be commanded to love THEM: those we dislike; those with whom we disagree; those who have hurt or offended us; those who do not look or think or act or believe as we do?  Those who hold views which are socially, theologically, politically different than our own?  Are we really commanded, not just to endure them, to put up with them, to be social and nice to them, but to love them?

Apparently we are, but how is that even possible?  I thought love was a feeling, an emotion, something I fall in to or out of, a response over which I have no control.  How can that be commanded?  I thought love was a choice we make, an expression of our free will, that we get to choose who we love and who we don’t?  Apparently not, because Jesus very clearly says, “This is My commandment, not My advice, not My suggestion, not My encouragement, but My commandment, that you love one another.”

So, what does He mean by that?  What does Jesus mean when He says we must “love” them?  He doesn’t dance around with His answer.  He says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  He goes right to the extreme example, to the nuclear option.  To love in this way means a willingness to die for the sake of another which is exactly what Jesus has done for us.  Just as Jesus offered up His relationship with the Father as the model for our relationship with Him, here He offers up His relationship with us as the model for our relationships with others.  In love we are being commanded to “die” for them, perhaps in the extreme by making the ultimate sacrifice for them, but I believe there are also more practical, daily ways that we can “die” for the sake of another.

It may mean nothing more, and nothing less, than noticing them and responding to their needs.  By “them” I mean people we see or talk to or walk past or perhaps even live with, who have very particular needs that we are totally oblivious to, perhaps their greatest need being the need to be noticed and loved.  The greatest diseases in the world today are not cancer and diabetes and the like, but the need to be loved.  If by “love” we mean genuinely caring about and seeking “the good” of another, then opportunities abound, but it may mean taking our eyes off of ourselves and our own needs long enough to notice the needs of the other.  We have neighbors who do not have adequate access to food, safe housing or employment opportunities that offer a living wage.  We have children in this community who go hungry to failing schools who think their only future is on the streets.  At the same time we also have neighbors who live in large houses with well-manicured lawns and ample incomes who have no peace, no joy, no sense of meaning or purpose in their lives because they do not know the love of God, so they do not “abide” in that love.

There are a countless number of ways that we can “die” to ourselves for the sake of others, every day.  By listening to their concerns whether we agree with them or not; by standing up for them on issues of advocacy, even when we are not impacted by the injustices they face; by speaking up for the one who has been falsely or unfairly accused; by taking the fall so that another can stand; suffering the hurt so that another can be healed; carrying the heavy end of the stick so that another can rest; by walking the second mile so that another can make it the first.

None of that sounds quite so pleasant as leaning back and abiding in God’s love, does it, but this is what Jesus commands of us.  Why?  Because we are His followers, His friends, those who are called by His name, His witnesses in the world.  “They will know we are Christians by our love”, which means if we are not acting in love, not actively trying to “do the loving thing in the loving way”, then we will not be known as being Christians, which means we are not making Christ known.  We are commanded to love because we may be the closest, or perhaps the only, example some people will ever get to knowing the love of Christ.

If this is a commandment, then it means it is not optional for us, not our choice, not a matter of our convenience.  Rather it is something that we must take on, or put on, out of our obedience to the command of Christ, our Master and Friend.  And when we do that, when we actually start loving others out of the love which Jesus has for us, the most remarkable thing happens.  We actually start loving the unloved; noticing the unnoticed; caring for the uncared for; seeking the good and well-being of the one who has hurt us or caused us harm.

There are two ways that this transformation takes place.  The first, to quote the great theologian Bob Dylan, is simply this: “Act the way you’d like to be and soon you’ll be the way you’d like to act.”  I know that kind of sounds like “fake it ‘til you make it”, but it actually works, and many through the ages have suggested the same.  In one of his writings on ethics, Aristotle suggested that a person who tries to lead a virtuous life does so by imitating or “wearing the mask of” a virtuous person.  As the years go by they actually become virtuous as they are conformed to the mask they are wearing.  Actors do this all the time.  They imitate the facial expressions of the characters they portray in order to experience their emotions and then re-project them on the stage.  They become the person they are portraying and we do the same when we aspire to “do what Jesus would do”, when we try to imitate Christ in the way we live our lives.

In his classic, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes, “Do not waste your time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did.  As soon as we do this, we find one of the great secrets.  When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love them.  If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking them more.  If you do them a good turn, you will find yourself disliking them less.”

I am not suggesting that we merely “pretend” to be loving toward others, but I am commending, not commanding only Jesus can do that, I am commending that if we consciously and consistently choose to be loving toward others, we will actually become loving toward them.  We will be shaped by the “mask” we put on, the “mask” of Christ.  And as we do, over time, our hearts will be softened, our attitudes changed, and we will actually become the loving, patient, caring, generous persons we desire to be.  It is hard, nearly impossible, to remain angry at one for whom you pray daily, to remain uncaring for someone after you have really listened to their story or walked a mile in their shoes, to remain unforgiving toward the one you genuinely pray to forgive or to be forgiven by.  It may start off feeling “put on” and pretend, but I assure you, it will change you.  Just try acting the part of being “loving”.

That is the first way we can be transformed and the second is not so much something we do as that God does in us.  We are changed and transformed by the love of Christ when we come to the realization that what Jesus is asking us to do for others is exactly what He has done for us.  He has loved the unlovable; forgiven the unforgiveable; redeemed the seemingly unredeemable, and He did it out of His great love for the likes of you and me.

So, I will confess that I think it is a crazy thought that we are being “commanded” to love, just crazy enough to make it worth giving it a try.