Love & Obedience

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

We’re still in the “farewell discourses,” which means that I’m still struggling with how to approach the sermon. That being said, three related thoughts struck me that I’m finding pretty intriguing.

1) Love involves obedience.

That’s not all it involves, but it does involve obedience. We’re on tricky ground here, I know, as we can point to plenty of examples where the call to obedience — particularly when held up as a Christian virtue — has been abused (sometimes even in the Bible!). But I still think love involves some measure of obedience. I think that’s what Jesus means when he says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (15:10). Or, from First John: “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments” (5:3). We just can’t love another, I think, without some surrender of our will. Or, to put it another way, when you love, it’s no longer all about you. And so we are called to love God by keeping God’s commandments.

Ah, but if this is true, how do we tell the difference between right obedience (that is, from love of God and neighbor) and wrong obedience (as in caving in to abusive power)? After all, there are all kinds of people willing, even eager, to tell you that you should be obedient. So maybe the question becomes, how do we really know when the commandment in question (even if it’s in the Bible) is from God?

That leads to the second thought.

2) Obedience is about loving one another.

No, that’s not just saying the same thing backwards. 🙂 What I mean is that every time you’re invited to obey, you need to ask whether what you are being asked to do is, in fact, loving. Does it, that is, benefit another person? Does it build up the larger body? Does it also lead you to be more truly who you were created to be?

That last sentence can seem misleading. I’ll try to be clearer. Love does indeed call at times for sacrifice, but sacrificing for another and being less of a person isn’t the same thing. At its best, sacrificial love invites us to live more fully into the kind of person we are called to be. I think that’s what Jesus means when he says “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (15:12-13). Jesus isn’t less of who he is called to be by laying down his life, but more. I know this is complicated, and again open to abuse — not all sacrifices are holy — but when I look at some of the loving sacrifices people have made for me (my parents, my wife) or that I have made for others, we were never disgraced or devalued by making those sacrifices but actually lived more fully into who we were called to be.

So when someone throws “Christian obedience” your way, ask yourself whether what you’re being asked to do is really about loving each other or not. Depending on the answer, you’ll have a much better idea of whether this is obedience-as-love or obedience-as-coercive-power. Oh, and one more thing:

3) Be ready to be surprised by what “loving God through obedience” and “loving one another” looks like.

Here’s the thing: Peter and Company honestly thought they were being obedient and loving God by requiring Gentile converts to be circumcised. So his question to his circumcised peers — “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47) — is amazing precisely because he would have answered it differently just a day earlier.

Similarly, I suspect there were a lot of slave owners who read the Bible and thought they were being obedient and loving God by owning slaves. And until recently — and in many Christian traditions still — folks believe they are being obedient and loving God by not allowing one half of the Christian population to be ordained leaders in the church. God continues to surprise us with what obedience-as-love looks like. What you are firmly sure you are against (or for) today may change in the future as you, like Peter, are drawn more deeply into relationship with others.

How do you know? Well, not to sound like too much like a Johnny-one-note, but I think it comes down to love: What is the loving thing to do in this situation? So when faced with a challenge, dilemma, problem, or divisive moral issue, 1) search the Scriptures, looking not just for commandments but for how you honestly think Jesus would have responded, 2) trust your own experience and ask how you would want to be treated in similar circumstances, and 3) talk it over in your community, especially involving the folks the question-at-hand most directly affects.

So let me say it again, love is about obedience, obedience is about love, and God often surprises us about what this all looks like. Can we say that on Sunday? Actually, Working Preacher, saying it is the easy part; it’s living it out that will take everything we’ve got.

Thanks for your good work, and blessings on your week and proclamation!

In Christ,

PS: Totally off topic … but nevertheless important: It’s National Teacher Recognition Week and if you’ve got any teachers in your life — family, friends, congregation, community — that are important to you, I’d urge you to send them this link.

PPS: And if you’re looking for something to share on or for Mother’s Day, consider Anita Renfroe’s funny and candid  “Mom Song.”