May 10, 2015
There’s a scene in the classic Disney cartoon Cinderella where Cinderella asks if she can go to the ball with her step-sisters and step-mother. Her step-mother says she can go if she can get all her chores done. Her step-sisters object until they realize the possibility that she won’t get her chores done…and the intention of their mother that Cinderella indeed NOT get her chores done. Her one step-sister says, “OH…IF.” Now, I’m not making any claim about step-mothers generally, but clearly in that story, the step-mother had no intention of letting Cinderella go to the ball. The promise of the ball was conditional with an expectation of failure—if you can get your chores done (and you probably won’t), you can go to the ball.
I think a lot of people hear Jesus’ words today in a similar way, “If you obey my commandments, you will abide in my love.” Maybe we hear that to mean, “If you obey my commandments…and you probably won’t…THEN you might understand what it means that I love you…IF.
But that’s not what Jesus is saying. Throughout this passage and the passages that surround our text for today, it is clear that Jesus’ heart is FOR the disciples. Immediately after verse 10, where we read “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love,” in verse 11 Jesus says, “I have said these things so that my JOY may be in you, and your JOY may be complete.” A better translation of that word “if” is “since” or “as you.” So a better understanding of the phrase might be, “As you keep my commands, you will abide in my love.” Jesus isn’t making his love conditional on our obedience…he is simply stating a reality…as you obey, my love for you will become the thing within which you abide…or dwell. And don’t we know that to be true? “Love” is kind of an abstract concept, but the more we DO the stuff of love…the actions that feed into and express love…the more love becomes the thing within which we abide. So Jesus isn’t making a Cinderella’s Step-mother conditional statement…Jesus is inviting his disciples deeper into a genuine relationship that Jesus is first of all committed to. And that changes everything.
Throughout this section in John where Jesus is giving his final teaching to his disciples, Jesus repeatedly grounds obedience in relationship. Jesus says over and over—I wish for you the relationship I have with the Father. Anything that sounds like a command is deeply rooted in Jesus’ relationship with the Father and Jesus’ desire for relationship with his disciples. Jesus models that relationship first, and then invites the disciples to experience it as they grow in their obedience and love. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love.
Let’s go back to Cinderella for a minute. Can you imagine how that story would be different if Cindrella’s step-mother had modeled the love and obedience she was asking of Cinderella? Can you imagine how the story would be different if the step-mother embraced Cinderella with a love that motivated Cinderella to grow in obedience?
I remember a coach I had in basketball in junior high who said, “I will never ask you to do something I won’t do myself.” So when we did drills, he did drills. When we ran the mile, he ran the mile. Because he modeled his commitment to us during practice, we as his basketball team wanted to perform for him during games…we wanted to express our respect and affection for him by our obedience.
So are you getting a sense for what Jesus might be getting at as he talks about the connection between love and obedience? First of all, he speaks to the mutual love he shares with the Father. He loves the Father so he obeys the Father’s commandments. Then he speaks to the example he has set for his disciples—as the Father loved me, so I have loved you. Finally, he lays down an invitation for how he hopes his disciples will be with each other. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. In this passage specifically he talks about obeying commandments, which can sound like work…like the law. But what commandments is Jesus talking about? In the Gospel of John, the main “command” Jesus gives is to love one another. That’s what Jesus is asking of his followers—love one another.
In the story of Cinderella, Cinderella is a daughter who is treated like a servant. Her obedience is based on her attempt to reclaim her status as daughter or friend. But the underlying reality is that she will fail because her step-mother has no desire to call Cinderella daughter. And while it is just a fairy tale, I really think many people have a similar view of God. We see God as an oppressive parent who is never fully satisfied with our work and effort. So we keep working, but our underlying assumption is that God actually has no desire to see us as anything except servants. We say stuff like, “I’ll never be good enough.” I grew up in a Christian environment, but when I got to college I realized that I was trying to earn God’s approval of me. I genuinely thought that God didn’t really WANT to love me, but was doing me a favor by sending Jesus to die for me. In order to deserve this gift or pay God back, I had to do everything I could to obey the commandments…to get the chores done, so to speak. I had a Cinderella reality.
But that’s so different than what Jesus is saying here. And I don’t know how I missed it growing up. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Isn’t that what Jesus did? I do not call you servants any longer, but I have called you friends. And You did not choose me, but I chose you. That’s a RADICALLY different reality than a Cinderella reality. In a Cinderella reality, your relationship to God depends on your ability to complete your chores. But in Jesus’ reality, your identity as a son or daughter of the king…your spiritual identity…is TOTALLY a result of God’s commitment and love for you, and God’s action on your behalf.
When I could shift my perspective about my relationship with God away from my need to do everything on the list of chores, and could instead receive the gift of love and friendship that God first of all offered me through Jesus, my desire to obey was totally transformed. When I could first of all trust in Jesus’ love for me, I found myself free to embrace others. Because I wasn’t worried about proving my love to God, I could actually obey Jesus’ command to love others…not because I was earning God’s love, but because I was responding to God’s love.
This is the domino effect of love. When I can trust completely someone’s love for me, I can more fully be free to love other people. You see this with young children on the playground. A child who is able to trust their parent’s love and protection of them will be the child who is more willing to engage in play with other kids. A child who’s not sure if their parent will still be there, or who has a need to validate their parents’ attention, will be so focused on getting their parents’ attention and affection that they’ll miss the chance to play with other kids. In adults, when the relationships closest to us are not stable, we get tripped up trying to earn or deserve love—and that makes it very hard to genuinely love other people.
So what does that mean for us today? Most of us are blessed to not be in oppressive living situations where our shot at meeting prince Charming is controlled by someone who has no desire to see us happy. (Thank God for that!) But when we think about embracing people outside our community, do we hold up an “IF” that creates an obstacle to genuine Christ-centered love? When we think about inviting others to the Banquet of love and grace to which we know we’ve been invited, do we say, “Oh sure you can come…if you find a way to get out of poverty.” Or “sure you can come…if you find a way to use the same language for God that we do.” Or “sure you can come…if your sense of right and wrong is the same as mine.” Or “Sure you can come…if you stop those bad habits and change your lifestyle.” Intentionally or not, are we putting up a list of chores necessary for others to be part of the Royal Ball?
The good news this Sunday is that unlike Cinderella, we don’t have a list of chores we need to finish before we get to meet the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings. The master of the Universe, the King of Kings, took on human form, lived, died and was raised so that all of us could receive our Royal Invitation. Not as servants…but as friends.
Secondly, the good news is that Jesus has modeled for us what love and obedience look like, and through the power of the Spirit we are recreated into a community that can love each other in radical ways…because we are safe in the love of our Lord and Savior. Jesus isn’t shouting orders and forcing us through drills while taking pleasure in our discomfort. Jesus is in the thick of it with us, working out this love and obedience with us. That’s good news.
And finally, this love that Jesus shows us frees us to radically love those outside our walls. This love sends us out to love those who feel unloved or unloveable. This love compels us to stand with those who are suffering. Many of you know that last summer I went to South Sudan to visit a missionary friend of mine. South Sudan is a country that has been in civil war for decades, and where peace talks seem to be going nowhere. The World Council of Churches has called for a global day of prayer for South Sudan and has identified today as that day. So today we can stand with Christians all over the world and pray for peace in South Sudan. And I don’t know what this might look like, but we can learn from the example of Jesus and pray and ponder together about what it means to lay down our lives for the people of South Sudan, of Baltimore, of Turkey and so many places around the world that are suffering. Because we’ve received and been changed by God’s love–and hopefully by the love of the people around us–…we can boldly and radically love others.
Today is Mother’s Day. Regardless of whether you are a mother or not, and regardless of what your relationship with your mother is or was, today is a great day for all of us—men and women—to appreciate and lift up a Mothering God, who nourishes us, who selflessly gave Herself for us, who models for us all that we can be and do together.
Thank God we don’t live in a Cinderella world. Thank God when it comes to our invitation to the Ball, there’s no IF.