In the Sunday Gospel, Jesus cuts right through the modern Western tendency to place love in opposition with law, and law in opposition with joy. Jesus joins all three concepts and summons us to a new attitude.
I. Connections – Jesus says, As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete.
Note how the Lord joins the three concepts of love, law, and joy. This is precisely the opposite of what Western culture does. The best that Western culture will admit of law is that it is a necessary evil; more routinely it is viewed as an unloving imposition by the powerful on the weak, the hierarchy on the laity, the (evil, oppressive, pharisaical) Church on decent people.
Whereas the modern world disconnects law from love, Jesus links them. How do we both experience and show love? Jesus says that we do so by keeping His commandments. He sets forth a vision whereby we, having experienced God’s love, desire and rejoice in His commands. We also show love to the Lord through this very obedience and joyful adherence to His commands. This loving obedience goes even further by setting forth an abundant joy through the very keeping of those commands.
Again, this is completely contrary to modern notions. According to the modern world, a “loving” God has few or no rules. He merely affirms, encourages, accepts, and includes—or so goes the thinking.
The real Jesus is far more complex. He is surely loving, especially of sinners. He encourages, includes the outcast, and so forth, but He also speaks of sin and rebukes it. He embraces the sinner but directs him to “Sin no more.” He sets forth a demanding moral vision even as He shows mercy. In this Gospel, Jesus joins love and the law, saying that the law brings joy. They are not opposed. It is not an either/or, but a both/and. Jesus was not just the “affirmer in chief” who went about saying nothing but pleasant things. In fact, He often held many contrary ideas in tension and balance.
Consider the following portrait painted by Ross Douthat in his book Bad Religion, How We Became a Nation of Heretics.:
Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus. He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. He’s an apocalyptic prophet one moment, a [careful and] wise ethicist the next. … He promises to set [spouses against one another and] parents against children, and then disallows divorce; he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts. … He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners. He blesses the peacemakers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but the sword. He’s superhuman one moment; the next he’s weeping.
Douthat goes on to conclude:
The boast of Christian orthodoxy, as codified by the councils of the early Church and expounded in the Creeds, has always been its fidelity to the whole of Jesus. … [Where heresy says which one] Both, says orthodoxy…. The goal of the great heresies, on the other hand, has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus.
The main point is that Jesus, who is love, does not hesitate to teach on many moral topics and to warn sinners of judgment. He both personally and through his inspired apostles speaks with clarity about anger, greed, malice, neglect of the poor, divorce, fornication, adultery, impure thoughts, homosexual acts, lack of faith, revenge, dishonesty, the sin of human respect, false and worldly priorities, and countless other matters.
In the Sunday Gospel, not only does Jesus link love to the keeping of the commandments, but also says that the keeping of the commandments leads to joy.
Of this, I am a witness. God’s law gives joy to my heart. As a priest, I live as a celibate, like Jesus, and my life is very fulfilling. I have been faithful to my celibate commitment without fail. I have not strayed from proper boundaries. I do not view pornography. I am not in any way sexually active. In all this I am not repressed; I am not sad or lonely. My life is joyful; I am fulfilled and see my celibacy as a gift. To those who cannot marry, whether because they are homosexual, too young, or have not met the right person, I say that God can and still does bless you. Living celibately can be fulfilling and joyful for those who are temporarily and/or permanently called to it.
The Church cannot and will not affirm or call good what God calls sin, whether it is greed, violence, or (more controversially) homosexual acts or illicit heterosexual acts. In so doing we are not being any more unloving, repressed, or sad than Jesus—and He is none of these things. Neither can we affirm any other acts or attitudes that the Bible calls sinful. These things are all taught in love and they bring joy to those who will accept them.
The Lord is no liar, and He promises that love, His commandments, and joy are all interrelated. I am a witness that this is true.
II. The Core – The Lord says, This is my commandment, Love one another as I have loved you. While it is true that the Church and all of us as individuals must speak the truth, we must speak it in love. We are not out to win an argument, to overpower, or merely to criticize. Our goal is to love. It is not helpful, and quite likely harmful, to correct people whom we do not first love.
Hence the Lord’s command to love one another is at the core of any preaching or teaching task. There are many today who declare that they do not experience love from the Church, only “denunciation.” It is difficult for the Church to convey our love to a large number of people, to a nation, or to a culture. To the degree that we have failed to love or to convey that love, we must repent and strive even harder both to love and to express that love.
That said, the mere fact that we announce God’s law and summon others to it does not make us unloving. As we have seen above, Jesus links these concepts. There is no doubt that some will take offense no matter what we say or how we say it, but the fact that others are angry or hurt does not necessarily mean that we have done or said something wrong. Jesus, who was sinless, offended many and was a sign of contradiction both then and now.
As for the Church, we must never fail to ask for a deepening love for all, even for those who hate us, misunderstand us, or misrepresent us. The core of Jesus’ teaching is this: “Love one another.”
Jesus goes so far as to say that we must be willing to endure martyrdom in order to speak the truth to others. He says, No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Are we willing to endure hatred? Are we willing to be spat upon and mocked? Are we willing to be called hateful, bigoted, homophobic, backward, repressed, intolerant, and so forth? Jesus was willing because He had the kind of love to stay in the conversation even when many (though not all) hated Him. What are you willing to bear to proclaim the truth in love?
III. Camaraderie – Jesus also links friendship to the knowledge of His law. He says, You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.
Here is another connection Jesus makes that the modern world rarely does. The world thinks of rules, laws, and commandments in terms of slavery and subservience. Jesus, however links these to friendship. A friend knows what his friend is about and gladly seeks to understand and support him. Scripture says, Happy are we, O Israel, for what pleases God is known to us (Baruch 4:4).
True friendship means seeking to know and understand one’s friend and to accomplish what is important to him. Many today call themselves friends of Jesus but give Him little more than lip service. A true friend of Jesus is delighted to know His will and to accomplish it.
IV. Call – Jesus says, It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you. This I command you: love one another. In these final lines, we are reminded that the Lord, who has chosen us, can and will equip us to live His law, to bear fruit in the keeping of the commandments, and to be someone whom the Father can trust with blessings.
To be rebellious and resentful is to be untrustworthy of further blessings, but here again the Lord stresses that the keeping of the commandments is linked to love and to further blessings.
The commandments bring joy; they are rooted in love and bring blessings. Do we really believe this? Or will we accept the worldly thinking that places these in opposition with each other: love and law, law and joy, and law and friendship? The choice is ours. As for me, I am already a witness that the law is love, joy, and friendship. How about you?
This song rejoices in the Light of Jesus, the clear Sun (Son) of Righteousness, who shows the way to the Father: