Thursday, May 09, 2013

Keeping Our Word

Keeping Our Word
Jn. 14:23-29[1]
  There was a day when “your word is your bond” was one of the primary codes of our culture.  I doubt anyone would say that these days.  I don’t believe that integrity has completely vanished from our society, but for most of us, these days the watchword is, “don’t believe everything you hear!”  Keeping our word sounds simple, but there are so many ways in which life in our world complicates things.  Sometimes keeping our word is relatively easy—you make a promise to do something and you do it.  But “keeping our word” goes beyond that, it seems to me.  Integrity means living a life that is the same in private as it is in public.  That’s a different matter altogether.  That kind of “keeping our word” isn’t so easy or straightforward.
  In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus gives us another of the characteristics that are to define those who follow him: they keep his words (Jn. 14:23).  Earlier in the chapter, he said it a little differently: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15).  That might sound strange to those of us who are used to the language of grace promising us freedom from the bondage of living by rules.  But in Jesus’ day and time, “keeping” the commandments was a perfectly normal way of expressing a life of faithfulness to God.[2]  “Keeping” God’s word meant internalizing the teachings of Torah to the extent that they shaped every aspect of one’s daily life.  It meant living in harmony with God’s truth and God’s justice, with God’s love and God’s mercy.[3]
  I think people get confused about all that these days.  We tend to fall into one of two extremes—we either obsess about every little detail of Scripture in an compulsive effort to obey God perfectly, or we ignore biblical teachings altogether and “fly by the seat of our pants.”  It seems like we have an “all-or-nothing approach” to “keeping” God’s word.  Unfortunately, life is rarely that cut-and-dried.  We are often placed in situations where the “correct” answer is far from clear.  That’s when the true test of “keeping” God’s word comes out.  If we’ve really internalized the central principles of Scripture—principles like doing justly, and loving mercy, and walking humbly with God—then we can follow them as guideposts when we are uncertain.  In our ever-changing world, we are going to be placed more and more into situations where we have to live somewhere between “all” or “nothing” when it comes to keeping God’s word. 
  One of the challenges this lesson presents us with is that Jesus doesn’t exactly say to “keep” God’s commands, he says those who love him will keep his commands.  I think many of us still think that Jesus’ commands are easier than God’s.  With Jesus, all we have to do is believe, love God, and love others, and we’re just fine.  But a quick overview of just a portion of Jesus’ teachings--the Sermon on the Mount--makes it clear that Jesus doesn’t make it easier for us to obey God, he makes it harder.  When it comes to the commandment, “You shall not kill,” Jesus said not only should you not kill another, you should also not give in to the hateful anger that devalues the life of others by the way you speak to them!  Time and again, Jesus didn’t make it easier to live a life of “keeping” God’s word, he made it harder. [4]  And for the record, there’s really no distinction at all between the essential commands of God in the Hebrew Bible and the teachings of Jesus. Throughout the Scriptures, the calling is to love God with everything we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  That’s infinitely harder than a checklist of “do’s and don’ts” that you can mark off.  I don’t think any of us will ever be able to mark off that we “loved our neighbor as ourselves” in every circumstance of life.  And when it comes to “loving God with all our being,” I don’t think we even have to go there. 
  And yet, Jesus said that one of the distinguishing marks of those who follow him, of those who love him, is whether or not we “keep” his word.[5]  This doesn’t mean that our relationship with God is something we have to earn by our obedience.  Rather, it’s like a relationship where two people love each other and want the best for each other—not because of some external rule or code of conduct, but because of the love they have for each other.  Jesus said that if we love him, we’ll follow his teachings, his way of life, his example—simply because the love we have for him compels us to do so.[6]  That’s how we practice the kind of integrity where our private lives match up with our public lives.
  Jesus said that one of the ways we can demonstrate the new life of the resurrection is through the way we put his teachings into practice.  When our love for God and for Jesus Christ truly define who we are, then our lives will be public display of what it means to keep God’s word.[7]  Fortunately, it’s not a do-it-yourself project.  Jesus promised the disciples that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (Jn. 14:26). [8]  With the Spirit’s help, we can live a life of keeping God’s ways, which means a life of fulfilling our promise to follow Jesus.  When we keep our word in that way, then we can truly demonstrate a new and different way of living to the world around us.

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX on 5/5/2013.
[2] Cf. Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, 638; cf. also Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible IX:746.
[3] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 127; Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 323.
[4] Cf. Ernst Haenchen, John: A commentary on the Gospel of John. , 127: “The ethic of the spirit is not ethical anarchy, but a true ethic with the highest requirements one can imagine: the unlimited sacrifice, like the love with which Jesus loved them in his entire human existence”
[5] Cf. Brown, Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, 646: “love and keeping the commandments are but two different facets of the same way of life.”  Cf. also O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” NIB IX:747: “the sign of faithfulness to Jesus’ commandments is to live a life of love grounded in Jesus’ own love.”
[6] Cf. the Heidelberg Catechism 4.090-091, which defines eternal life as “Complete joy in God through Christ and a strong desire to live according to the will of God in all good works.”  Cf. also Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 69: “faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience”; cf. also ibid., 76: “Only those who obey can believe, and only those who believe can obey.”
[7] Cf. Gerard S. Sloyan, John, 183: “Obedience is the hallmark of Jesus’ disciples, the proof that they love”; cf. also
[8] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 1.2:277–278, where he uses Paul’s teaching in 2 Cor. 3:12-18 about the Spirit of the Lord changing believers into Christ’s likeness as a means of understanding what it means in John’s Gospel to “keep” Jesus’ word and/or commandments (Jn. 8:51; 14:15, 21, 23; 15:10).

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