Easter 6.18 “What He Actually Commands…” John 15:9-17
St. Paul says that Christianity is a scandal to the Jews and folly to the Greeks (I Cor. 1:23). Jesus promises His Apostles they will be hated by all nations for His Name’s sake (Matt. 24:9). And don’t you ever sometimes wonder… Why?!! I mean, given what passes for Christianity in popular culture and most of Christendom today, it’s tough to see much of anything that would cause scandal, sneering, or offense sufficient to move many people to get off the couch and start killing ‘em some Apostles of Jesus, right?
And (I think) it’s not just the great pacifying effect of TV and Facebook (so soothing!). No. It’s what gets passed off as Christianity today from most pulpits and video screens that has removed nearly all the scandal and offense from the Thing. Which should make us wonder: if IT doesn’t draw the violently negative response that St. Paul and Jesus said that IT would, are we getting the Real Thing, or some pseudo, cinnamon bunned-up, sanitized-for-your-protection version of the Christian Gospel?
It’s a worry—one that should get you maybe, sometime, to turn off the TV and shut down your computer for a few minutes and study the Scriptures and see what they actually say. It might be shocking; might restore some of that scandal and offense Paul promises us the Gospel will wreak on an unsuspecting world…(!)
What I hear offered up as the Christian Gospel (and remember: I’ve been to 1 Lutheran college, 1 University Divinity School, and 3 Lutheran seminaries; have been going to pastor’s conferences and Synod and district conventions—as I am this week, pray for me!—for over 30 years) goes usually like this: “Jesus cut us a break by dying on the cross, and you’ve got to wrap your head around the propositional truths of that cross business. But then, (and this is the main point, usually) you can’t sit around loafing, like that’s the End of the Story. No! You have to get out and do stuff for Jesus! He commands you to get busy doing stuff to please Him, or else no soup for you!”
What kind of stuff do we have to do to seal the deal? Well, it varies a lot in different times and places. A quick run-down: in the early church, they were crazy for asceticism, self-torture, living out in the desert and on poles, in caves, starving themselves, hallucinating to beat the band in their hermitages and figuring Jesus loves that kind of thing! The antics of mad monks captivated even many of the orthodox believers and led to all sorts of silliness. But the world thought it was kind of cool and Christendom grew in numbers because of it. Most everyone figured Jesus must have commanded such a life. Somewhere. Matt. 29:53?
In the early middle ages, it was pilgrimages and crusades and slaying the heathen that became the essence of Christ’s commandments. That was fun. Until it wasn’t. The Crusades came a cropper. But it got lots of athletic types who weren’t so keen on the monk thing into the game. The world has always liked it some Gladiator Stuff… In the mid-middle ages, it was praying to saints, fasts, feast days, church ceremonials and shrines that were all the rage. In the high middle ages, it was building magnificent cathedrals, and works of penance and indulgences as the Great Commandment of Christ. Read Luther’s “On Councils and the Church” with me the next few Wednesday evenings to learn the high art of satirizing such nonsense. But it packed the pews, oddly enough…
Today, Christ’s commandment is seen as basically just that: “pack the pews—in whatever way works”. The so-called Great Commission (inspired by misreading the last 3 verses of Matt. 28!) has become the Great Commandment, which boils down to this: “We can’t do good works to save ourselves, anymore. But we can do the missional good work of saving the lost. Then our superior holiness is confirmed by doing Christ’s work for Him as we shame the heathen—not enough to make them really mad, just enough to guilt them into quarterly church attendance. And stewardship.”
In every age, the inborn legalism of sin makes most of Christendom insist that while the Gospel offers some hope and help from Jesus, there is always something we have to do in order to seal the deal of salvation and prove we deserve to go to heaven.
But that is not what Jesus really says or commands us! You know the real Great Commandment of Christ our Lord? It’s right here in our Gospel reading this morning, though maybe you missed it? Here it is: “These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full”. He says—this is My commandment: let my Joy remain in you with the result that you’ll love as I love you…
And that, my friends; that… scandalizes the world! Run with the Apostles and faithful pastors like Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, Sasse for a while, preach the pure, free Gospel that Jesus does it all for free, only wants to see you enjoying His Kingdom, basking, reveling in IT like a permanent vacation on the Cote d’Azur, and you’ll experience a shocking amount of hate and scorn—most of all from your ecclesiastical supervisors. “Whaaaat? You’re saying the Great Commandment of God Himself is Enjoy yourself at My Expense!!!!” You’ve got to be kidding! No missional works? No social gospel? Honey, get my gun…”
You’ll probably point out to me, “But, pastor! Jesus says we have to keep His commandments, abide in His love, and love one another. That sounds like a lot of hard work!” And uh, no, it doesn’t! Divine Love is not something we accomplish by our efforts (else it wouldn’t be Divine, right?). Love is something you fall into like the Ocean that first drowns, then floats, and finally, totally changes you. Jesus’ line: “I’ve spoken all this to you to this End: that My joy may be in you and your joy may be full…” clarifies everything. Joy is the EndGame.
Jesus says there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for His friends—which Jesus does, for us, on the Cross. So, to abide in His love is to abide in His cross, plunging into His dying like a warm Ocean. That plunge happens only through hearing and believing the Gospel that the Cross is everything, the end of sin, death, hell and the beginning of a permanent vacation on the shore of that Ocean of Christ’s love, life, joy. Jesus commands us to quit working; just lean back, pull up a chair on the edge of that Ocean, soak up the Son, enjoy! Because it’s not human effort, but only His joy that is the Secret of Heaven…
Jesus says He doesn’t call us servants anymore (servants have to work for their keep!). He calls us friends, because friends mooch off their Host. Friends stay free. We didn’t elect ourselves to do this, but Jesus chose us for the Good Life by getting us lost in the Word of His Cross, drowning us in the Ocean of Divine Love, surfing the Wave with our fellow travelers of the Church (an Ocean Wave that sweeps us out of our old life + loves, right into the Hidden Cove of Christ) until it’s no longer we who live, but Christ Who lives in us—a Life lived only by Faith in God’s Son. When we try so hard to be good by our works, nothing but misery ensues. But when we (scandalously!) quit trying, start seriously loafing, mooching off the goodness and mercy of Christ our Savior, then Joy, the Joy that led Christ Jesus to endure the cross, despising the shame, catches us up, and love and goodness just happen; and Peace, surpassing all understanding, guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.