Commandments in context

This is a sermon for the sifth Sunday of Easter, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is John 14:15-21.

Culturally, I think we have a bit of a problem with the idea of commandments.  We tend to see the level of demand implied by being “commanded” to do something as too high, unreasonable, and certainly not loving; so we tend to prefer to treat commandments from God as something more like “guidelines” or “suggestions” for living.

The problem here, I think, is not that we reject the idea of the oppressive use of power – we’re right to be suspicious of that – but in our misunderstanding of how commandments from God are supposed to function.

See, the thing is that commandments are only one aspect of a much more complex relationship between us and God; a relationship that the Scriptures talk about as a covenant.  That’s a word which describes a relationship which is binding; where both parties are held together in relationship by their mutual commitment to one another.

The idea of our relationship with God being defined by a covenant is not, of course, an original Christian idea.  It’s something that developed in Jewish understanding first; where covenant is the core idea that underpins the distinctiveness of Jewish religion; the Jews are the children of God by adoption and free decision on both sides.  Through that free decision, ancient Jews saw themselves as bound in relationship with God who makes an exclusive and absolute claim on their loyalty in worship and social life, but in response, God gives himself to them in an exclusive and absolute way, as the one who will have concern for their welfare, and see to it that their society is structured with justice as a guiding principle.  And, as a result of these commitments on both sides, community is formed; the community of people who are bound together with God and with one another by their participation in this covenant.

So a covenant between God and God’s people has different aspects; there is the call from God, inviting us into relationship with Him; there is God’s presence to us, and our mutual belonging to one another (us to God, and God to us); there is an element of public witness; and there is the way the mutual love between us and God plays out in our keeping the commandments.

And this is where this ties into our gospel reading today, where Jesus began by saying to his disciples that “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  What he is really saying here is not some kind of guilt trip intended to provoke good behaviour, but an appeal to his disciples to live out to the full the reality of the binding relationship between them and Jesus (and, through Jesus, God).  Here “love” expressed in service and obedience is an expression of loyalty; our choices are shaped by our commitment to God, rather than to any other.

In this section of John’s gospel, the account of the last supper, even though Jesus doesn’t use the word “covenant,” (he does in the other gospels), it seems that he is framing his relationship with his disciples as being a mirror or an echo of the Jewish relationship with God.  That’s why we can talk about our own participation in a “new covenant,” one which Jesus created, and the terms of which are spelled out in passages like this.

And this is why the promises in this chapter, are so significant; they are the flip side to our loyalty to Jesus in keeping the commandments; they are Jesus’ (and God’s) loyalty to us expressed in enduring relationship.  So we read here Jesus’ promises that he will enable the disciples to do greater works than his, that he will send the Holy Spirit, that Jesus will return and that the Father and Jesus will make their dwelling among the disciples; that the Holy Spirit will teach them and remind them of everything Jesus taught them, and that they will receive the gift of peace.

These are big promises.  They are – or ought to be – promises which give us a huge amount of comfort and strength to draw on in our pilgrimage together.

These things that I’ve been talking about this morning; God’s choosing us (and our choosing God), intimate abiding relationship between us, God’s presence dwelling in us, keeping God’s commandments, and so forth; these sum up for us John’s idea of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.  John shows us that discipleship is a covenant relationship; and it’s a relationship between us and God which mirrors the relationship between Jesus and the Father, in its mutuality, responsiveness, and intimacy.  Ultimately, the disciples are being called here to participate in the dynamic of the relationship at the heart of the Trinity; and this is supposed to give to the new covenant community – the church – our unique identity and distinctiveness from the rest of the world.

The unity the disciples are supposed to share comes from the presence of God dwelling in each of them.  This is, by the way, why the line in the Creed that says “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church,” comes in the section which begins “We believe in the Holy Spirit.”  It’s the Holy Spirit, given to each one of us, which makes us part of the Church, and it’s the Holy Spirit, dwelling in each person from baptism, which makes the Church something other than a random bunch of piously-minded people who decided to cooperate.  The Church is bigger than any institution or denomination, and is the network of all people everywhere who have the Spirit living in them.

It seems very likely that John felt the need to include all of this in his gospel as he wrote to a community unsure of their identity, in a world where their belief in Jesus meant they had to reevaluate all their previous religious commitments (whether Jewish or Pagan).  His gospel gave his community a solid footing for forming their own sense of distinctive identity, one which was robust and inspiring enough to strengthen and encourage them as they worked out how to live and worship as Christians in a hostile world.

Although our context is very different, we have the same need to be sure of our shared identity, so that it can give us strength and courage as we work through our very different – but no less challenging – issues.  These themes of covenant relationship, which Jesus presents so carefully to his disciples here, can be an important help to us in that; to be comforted by God’s continuous presence with us, and to respond with loyalty and love which sees us keep his commandments, not as a burden, but as an expression of our mutually loving and enriching relationship with God.

How will you live out your covenant with God, this week?

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4 comments on “Commandments in context

  1. Mikels Skele says:

    Hmm. So, if you decline to enter the covenant, you’re not bound by the commandments? I mean this as a serious question.

    • paidiske says:

      That’s an interesting question. I think you’re probably right. Commandments don’t apply outside a bigger relationship with God. (Which is why Christians trying to hold non-Christians to Christian ethical standards through the making of secular law, for example, is problematic!)

      One caveat: Jews (and I think many Christians) would say that we are all, as descendants of Noah, bound by God’s covenant with Noah, and that therefore the commandments given to Noah and his sons bind all of humanity.

      The “Noahide laws” are traditionally seen as:

      Do not deny God.
      Do not blaspheme God.
      Do not murder.
      Do not engage in illicit sexual relations.
      Do not steal.
      Do not eat from a live animal.
      Establish courts/legal system to ensure obedience to said laws.

      I am not expert on that particular idea and am not sure that I uncritically agree, but it is interesting to ponder whether there are any obligations on humans simply by virtue of being God’s creation (outside any more intentional form of relationship).

      • Mikels Skele says:

        Except that contradicts the idea of a covenant entered freely by both sides, never mind that we decidedly are not all descendants of Noah, if such a person can actually be said to have existed. Or are we talking about “spiritual” descent? Even that is tenable only for Abrahamic religions. Sorry, I don’t mean to be contrary.

  2. paidiske says:

    No, I agree with you, and that’s why I’m saying I don’t uncritically agree.

    I was just pointing out that for many Jews and Christians, the answer would be that the specifically Jewish or Christian commandments don’t apply to those who don’t enter those covenants, but that we are all bound by a prior covenant with Noah.

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