15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate] to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. 18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” (John 14: 15-21)
My words this morning will focus on two sentences in the passage you just heard: “I will not leave you orphaned,” and, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” The first tells us much about how God shows love to us. The second, about how we show love to God.”
But first: Summers in Midwestern Corn Belt country can be drop-dead hot and humid. Fortunately for two middle-aged brothers, their family had a cabin on Kelly’s Island, in Lake Erie, where the breezes across the wide waters give the island a micro-climate about 10-15 degrees cooler than the Ohio mainland to the south. Throughout the summer months, members and friends of the brothers’ extended family would come and go to their cabin by ferry out of Port Clinton, Ohio. But there was one week reserved every summer for just these two brothers to have the cabin to themselves, to talk, catch up, and relive something of their childhood, fishing, waterskiing, sailing and watching the stars at night.
Each year, the brothers would arrive at the cabin to find a tin of their mother’s prized oatmeal chocolate chip cookies waiting for them in the freezer. She would bake them and then take them to the cabin when the ferry ran again, sometime after ice-out, and the cabin was opened for the season. But one year, the brothers came to the island expecting for the first time in their lives no oatmeal chocolate chip cookies in the freezer. Earlier that same year, Mom had died after a long battle with cancer, during which she had grown increasingly frail. Their Dad had died a few years before.
When the time comes that both of our parents have died and we are of the oldest generation in the family, we may find that, whatever our age, we are never too old to feel like orphans. It’s a feeling more empty and strange than that freezer without Mom’s cookies for the first summer in memory. Those feelings would be like those of Jesus’ disciples when Jesus told them, just before his arrest, “In a little while the world will no longer see me.” With those and other such strange, shocking words, Jesus was preparing his disciples for life without him present, physically, in the body, no longer in the way they had just spent three years with him, in Judea and Galilee.
But “I will not leave you as orphans,” Jesus said. Not like the two brothers going to spend the week together at the family cabin. That’s the main thing I wish us to remember from today’s Gospel passage: through Jesus, God has promised us a parent-like love that will not leave us in the lurch, that will be with us even when we do feel like orphans in this world, for whatever reason. But before I explain more what such love is, I should say something about what such love is not. Which is the first question in the outline, if you’re following along: “What love is not.”
President Eisenhower prided himself on always finishing up a day’s work with a clean desk. But peek into his office just at quitting time, and you might catch him sweeping all sorts of notes, clips, pens, pencils, papers and other odd items off his desktop and into a drawer underneath. Over time, that drawer would fill up with all sorts of clutter that he would have to sort through or pitch out. The word, “Love,” in our use today, has become something like Eisenhower’s cluttered drawer. Anything having to do with warm feelings, indulging our wishes, physical attraction, affection, emotional attachment and sex we now sweep into the word, “love,” indiscriminately and without reflecting on the value of any attachment, attraction or affection. If feelings were all that Jesus meant by “love,” he might have taken up the devil’s suggestion to turn stones into bread, or even to worship the devil and so get all the kingdoms, the glory and the prosperity of this world, without having to face the cross of Calvary. But the love which Jesus describes and models is not everything we tend to jumble up together, like Eisenhower’s desk drawer, by way of emotion, attraction, affection, indulgences and even sex sometimes, however good those things can be, however much they may result from love. The love of which Jesus speaks in today’s passage can be a severe, austere, strenuous and demanding thing.
And we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Though I started out talking about a mother, her sons and some cookies, this Mother’s Day message is not going to be just a sentimental tribute to mothers for all the domestic home-making things they do, like baking wonderful cookies. Not all mothers do such things, not all the time, nor should they, always. And some Dads do. I was a stay-at-home Dad for two years, when our daughters were little, and I loved it. It paid off big-time in my relationship with them. But when the time came for me to work outside of the home, that felt right, too. Whether God calls us to marry or not, have children or not, stay at home or work outside the home, as long as we’re seeking and following God’s call, as long we are giving and receiving the kind of love of which Jesus speaks, it’s all noble work.
As for what love is, the second question, in today’s passage, the love of which Jesus speaks is a love that is less about feelings and more about choices and actions on behalf of each other’s greatest, eternal good. Real love then might require a word of correction as well as affirmation, or some serious questioning, as well as a high five. Such love is more about giving ourselves, and receiving each other, as persons, than about getting and giving things, even things as good as that mother’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. Such love then becomes a truthful and virtuous cycle of giving between giver and receiver, in which we offer and receive the best of our very selves. I call it a “truthful and virtuous cycle” because it has everything to do with virtue and truth, and not just emotion, excitement, affection and attachment, as wonderful as those things are. If we have no concern for truth nor virtue, then love degenerates into mere indulgence. And whenever we simply indulge other people, that’s usually more about wanting them to love us, than about us loving them.
Jesus’ kind of love is about choices, covenants and commitments that do not leave us in the lurch, or as Jesus puts it, “as orphans.” It’s a costly kind of love which stays with us, sticks with us, takes up residence within us, and loves us, whether we feel it or not, or deserve it or not. Often we don’t, but that doesn’t stop love from loving. We give and receive this kind of love for love’s sake, for God’s sake, for the sake of the one being loved, not because of feelings, drives or desires, but because it’s right, it’s what God says to do, and it’s how we would want to be treated. But having made such choices often enough, we may well find that feelings, interest, attachment and affection arise as a result of our actions and choices, because of all that we have invested of ourselves in showing such love, and in the person to whom we have shown such love.
God has initiated this virtuous and truthful cycle of giving and receiving that love, out of the overflow of his virtuous and truthful being. That’s why we can always say with St. John that, “God is love.” “We love because God first loved us,” wrote St. John. And “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (I Jn. 4: 10).”
Which brings us to the third question, about two ways according to this passage in which God shows us this kind of love. The first way God has shown us love is by coming to us, and being with us, in the person of Jesus, His Son. In Christ, God gave himself fully and vulnerably to us; he did not hold anything of himself back, nor did he reserve and protect himself from us, as we can tell by the scars in Jesus’ hands, feet and side.
But though Jesus is now physically gone from our space and sight, we are not abandoned like orphans. The second way in which God shows us this love is by giving himself to us again, now and continually, in the Advocate, or as some translations put it, the Comforter, or as Jesus also calls him, “The Spirit of Truth.” We also know him as “the Holy Spirit.” That may sound spooky or theoretical, but this is actually a supremely intimate way of self-giving on God’s part, for as Jesus says, “he abides with you, and he will be in you.”
As for the next question, the two ways in which we show love in response, the first is simply to accept God’s love and to welcome God as he comes to us to love us and to give himself to us, as Jesus, and now again, as he comes to us through his Holy Spirit. Because we can indeed show love by graciously receiving, as well as graciously giving. God takes it as an act of love on our part whenever and as we accept and embrace God’s acts of love on our behalf.
As for the second way in which we respond to God’s love and show love, it has to do with our obedience. Today’s reading begins and ends with these words of Jesus: “If you love me, you will keep my commands.” It’s all great and wonderful whenever we feel emotional and excited and super-charged about God and our relationship with God. Sometimes a verse in the Bible, a line from a beloved hymn, or the testimony of a saint can stir up feelings of holy, tender excitement. But only for a passing moment.
Today we hear that our love for God is as much volitional as it is emotional. By that I mean that it’s at least as much about willing and acting as about emotion, attraction, or affection. “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me,” Jesus says. Now we don’t obey his commandments in order to earn his love. Obedience and discipleship are not the price by which we earn God’s love. Obedience and discipleship are the evidence that we are accepting God’s love, and returning God’s love. It would be just as true were Jesus to say that “those who love me you can tell by their keeping my commandments.”
Which brings me to the last question, How God’s love to us is like a parent’s love—yes, Mom’s love or Dad’s—in two ways. The first is that God loves us just as he finds us, because of who God is, not as much because of who or how we are; God loves us because of God’s goodness; it does not depend so much our own goodness. Just like when we, as newborns, were placed in our mother’s arms for the first time, she did not love us because of the doctor we might grow up to become someday, or the teacher, the nurse, the mechanic or the athlete. Nor for the grades we might get in school, or the money we might earn as adults. She loved us so powerfully, in part because we came from her; we are the overflow of the whole picture of love that she gave and received from our father. As we grow, her feelings about our attitudes, our actions, our friends, our grades, and our choices will be all over the map. She won’t love everything we do; a mother shouldn’t. But her love for us as persons, her children, will hopefully remain constant and unchanging. Children need to know that there’s nothing they can do to make their parents love them more, and nothing they could possibly do that would make their parents love them less, that they as persons are loved always and unconditionally, whatever they do. That’s one reason why they might test their parents’ commitment to love with some misbehavior, sometimes.
And so it is with God’s love. What a terrible world it would be if God loved and affirmed everything about our attitudes, our actions and our values. But God never stops loving us, as his children, and the bearers of his image, with the kind of love Jesus describes. His Holy Spirit is always with us, present to us, calling, touching and seeking us, reassuring us of his love, seeking also to challenge, convict, correct us and make us grow, whenever we need that as well.
The second way in which a mother’s and a father’s love are similar to that of God is that, just as God loves us supremely just as he finds us, in whatever shape we come to him, God is never content to leave us that way. God works constantly to make little Christ’s of us. Parents must not only assure the children that they are loved, they must teach the children how to love and even what to love. What makes it harder is that they must do so before the children can understand and appreciate what they’re up to. God does much the same with us, teaching us what to love and how to love. Ancient philosophers called it “training our affections.” St. Augustine called it “setting our loves in order.” That we have the capacity to love is a given. What we’ll love and how well we love, there’s the rub. Like any good parent, God also is teaching us what to love and how to love.
I suspect that, for all the years those two brothers in that cabin enjoyed their mother’s cookies, their appreciation and enjoyment were all the greater if long before then she and her husband had taught them to say, “Please” and “Thank you,” to write thank you notes for Christmas presents, make their beds in the morning, and always tell the truth. Every gift in life is sweeter when we have learned to approach it with a sense of gratitude, instead of entitlement. God’s love for all his children is like that of a good parent’s love for a child in these two ways: 1) His indwelling Spirit, as the Comforter or Advocate, assures us of God’s unconditional love for us; and 2) His Spirit of truth is ever teaching us how to love and what to love. In such ways God has not left us as orphans in this world.
If that all still sounds vague and theoretical, here’s an illustration. It has to do with those two brothers on that island again: after they got off the ferry and entered the cabin, and began unloading the week’s groceries, trying to come to terms with the strangeness of the new landscape of their orphaned lives, they discovered in the back of the freezer, the same old tin, full again of Mom’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. A piece of masking tape on the lid had their names on it, in their mother’s handwriting. The date she wrote on the masking tape showed that she had made this, her last batch of cookies, just a month or two before she was completely bedridden, and then died several weeks later. Knowing that death would take her from their presence before the cabin was opened for the spring, she had baked these cookies and had arranged for someone to take that tin out to the freezer in the family cabin before her sons got there. She knew she would not be around to talk with her sons over the phone and hear them say, “Mom, those were wonderful cookies, as usual!” and “Thanks!” But that was not going to keep her from giving one last parting gift to her sons, that they could enjoy and share even after her departure. She did that not for the praise nor the thanks, but out of love for her sons in a future that she knew she would not share with them. In that way, in such an expression of love, you could say that she was with her sons during their week together on the island. With every bite of those cookies, the brothers felt a little less like orphans.
The surprise she pulled on her sons is a bit like the love of which Jesus speaks in today’s passage. God has shown a love that will not abandon us, not even to death, but which sticks with us, first by coming to us once in Jesus, and again, and ever, through His Holy Spirit. We return God’s love by accepting and receiving it, and by following and obeying Jesus.