We have been spending a lot more time together as a family since this pandemic began. All that together time has meant moments of joy and laughter; but that time together has also meant a lot of correcting of behavior. One would think by now, we have figured out how to perfectly love one another. Instead, we have been working on perfecting apologies. I never knew how much of our apologizing could show so little remorse. There have been the angry, shouted, “I’m sorry!”s, there have been the resistant, mumbled, “I’m sorry”s, there have been the sarcastic, eye-rolling, “I’m sorry.”s And parental requests for our children to “mean it” when they say, “I’m sorry,” are almost comical. How can anyone expect anyone else to apologize by force, command, or as a condition for something else?
I think that is what is so strange about today’s lesson from John’s gospel. Jesus says “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” and “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me.” The commandments Jesus is talking about are those instructions to love God, love self, love neighbor. In John’s gospel, they are the only commandments Jesus gives.[i] And who would protest such commandments? Of course we should all want to love God, love self, and love neighbor. But there is something strange about the way Jesus presents his command to us – if you love me, you must do these things. If you love me, you must obey my way. As lovely as love sounds, there is something that harkens to those forced apologies about our text today. I am pretty sure Jesus is not asking us to love others with a sense of bitterness, resentment, or obligation – and certainly without shouts, mumbling, and eye-rolling.
I realize many of you may be thinking, “What’s so hard about loving others? Why would I resist that?” One of the things I appreciated about the beginning of this pandemic was the way we all pulled together. People immediately worried about our elders being able to safely procure food and supplies; we pitched in to make sure the hungry were fed with free school lunches and restocked food banks; we sewed face masks and donated to charities to help protect the vulnerable. Our collaboration, care, and support of one another was a breath of fresh air. But we have not taken long to remember our demons. As hard decisions have arisen about reopening businesses to buttress the economy, making cuts to make ends meet, or laying off employees to help businesses survive, we have reverted to our divided, vitriolic ways from before the pandemic, not only disagreeing, but attacking the character, intelligence, and dignity of one another. So when we ask, “What’s so hard about loving others?” my response is, “This. This is what is hard about loving others.” As one scholar puts it, “It is NOT sufficient (or even meaningful) to profess love for Jesus while we hold ourselves apart from our fellow human beings. To love Jesus is to love others. All others. The lover, the friend, the neighbor, the companion. But also the alien, the stranger, the misfit, and the enemy. The ones with whom we agree, and the ones with whom we emphatically disagree. The ones we naturally like, and the ones we don’t.”[ii] Our love of Jesus is only as authentic as our love of all others.
So how can we possibly love that way? The good news is Jesus says we will have help. Just as Jesus has been an advocate for his disciples – “guiding, teaching, reminding, abiding, witnessing, interceding, comforting,” so they will have the Holy Spirit. “What they have known in Jesus, and fear losing in Jesus’ impending absence, they will always know in the promise of the [Holy Spirit].”[iii] What Jesus promises today is big. Now, I know some of us get a little uncomfortable talking about the Holy Spirit – either the Spirit’s presence just seems too amorphous to be of any value, or the Spirit seems to do weird, dramatic things that scare us more than comfort us. But Jesus is not simply saying the Holy Spirit will be ambiguously hanging around when Jesus is gone. The Holy Spirit will be, and is, accompanying us. As scholar Karoline Lewis says, “Accompaniment is not simply having someone beside you. Accompaniment is not a mere ministry of presence. Accompaniment means active and assertive abiding—an abiding that enters into places of fear and discomfort, uncertainty, and troubled hearts, and speaks the truth freely.”[iv]
Now I don’t know about you, but that sounds like some really good news. On those days when loving seems hard, when obeying Jesus’ command to love feels impossible, the Holy Spirit is here to accompany us, to walk with us in fear, discomfort, uncertainty, trouble, and guide us into lives of love. The Spirit is with us to enable us to be agents of love even when we doubt we can. That promise today makes the invitation to love as Christ has loved us not only doable, but desirable. That promise today helps us loosen our grip on resentment, anger, and fear, and open our hands to love and collaboration. That promise today makes obedience to love feel like a gift. Thanks be to God.
[i] Debie Thomas, “Love and Obedience,” May 10, 2020, https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2640, as found on May 15, 2020.
[iii] Karoline Lewis, “A Time for Accompaniment,” May 10, 2020, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5433, as found on May 15, 2020.