A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, Farmville Baptist Church, Farmville, Va., on May 29, 2011.
Sixth Sunday of Easter
“If you love me, you will obey what I command,” Jesus said to his disciples in our Gospel lesson today. It seems to me that in our culture today, the word “obedience” is not often associated with the word “love.” In my years as a minister, I’ve married a lot of couples, but not once so far has a bride chosen to say the traditional vows in which she pledges “to love and obey” her husband. Of course, it doesn’t help that, in the traditional vows, the bridegroom does not have to pledge the same to his wife. In our more “enlightened” times, the notion that obedience is tied to love seems out-of-date at best – and chauvinistic at worst. For many, it conjures up painful images of an abusive husband demanding from his wife obedience to unreasonable commands and submission to his every whim.
So what are we to do with Jesus’ words to his disciples, “If you love me, you will obey what I command”? How are we to understand what does it mean to have this kind of loving obedience to our Lord?
I must say that if we just look at just these verses from John, there’s not much in this passage by itself that can give us a satisfactory answer to these questions. But if we look at the Bible as a whole, we may gain some insight into what Jesus was saying to his disciples here in John 14. First of all, in the Bible, there is a strong affirmation of the unconditional love of God. The Biblical witness is clear in testifying that before God ever commanded “obedience” from human beings, God first initiated his love for human beings. 1 John 4:19 says, We love because he (God) first loved us. In Genesis, God created Adam and Eve and lovingly placed them in a beautiful garden and told them to be fruitful and multiply. It was only later that God told them not to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In other words, God showed them love before God gave them the law, and this pattern is repeated over and again in the Bible – there is a covenantal relationship before there is the law. Similarly, the Bible records the patient love of God for His people even in the midst of their disobedience. As St. Augustine has said, “It is God’s love that makes us loveable, not our own efforts.” It is an awareness of this fact that can set us free to love God in return. It is within the context of being deeply and unconditionally loved that we are able to love in return. And in such a loving relationship, “obedience” is nothing more than freely doing things to please the beloved as our way to return that love.
I once heard a story of a six-year-old boy who had lost both his parents to an accident. Subsequently he was adopted and raised by his aunt. But in his own pain and grief and self-pity as an orphan, he often would often lash out against his aunt, especially when she would try to tell him to take a bath, eat his vegetables, or do his homework. His favorite reply was, “You can’t make me, because you’re not my mom!” Furthermore, the boy was embarrassed by his aunt’s hands, because they were blotchy, gnarled and deformed. He never invited his school friends over to the house, because he was afraid of what they might think if they ever saw his aunt’s hands.
One day, his grandfather came to visit, and the boy let it slip that it wasn’t fair that he didn’t feel he could have friends over because of his aunt’s ugly hands. His grandfather looked at the boy with compassion and asked: “Do you know how your aunt got those hands?” The boy shook his head, “No.” “Well,” replied his grandfather, “when you mom and dad died in the house fire, it was your aunt who rescued you in her arms and shielded your head from the fire with her bare hands. So instead of your face getting burned, it was her hands that got burned instead. That’s why she has those ugly hands.” From that point on, the boy never lashed out at his aunt, and he gladly did whatever she asked him to do.
“If you love me, you will obey what I command.” Jesus said these words to his disciples when he knew that he was about to be crucified on the cross for them and the rest of humanity. The apostle Paul states in Romans 5:8 just how much God loved us: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Any love we have for God is only in response to the love that God first had for us.
Furthermore, because of God’s love for us, any commands that he gives us are only for our own good. This invites the question: what has Jesus commanded us to obey? In Matthew 22:37-39, a lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” And one chapter before today’s Gospel lesson, in John 13:34, Jesus tells his disciples: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
“If you love me, you will obey what I command,” is another way of saying, “If you love me, if you are going to be my disciples, you will model your life after my life. Any commands that I want you to obey are the same commands that my Father wants me to obey. The greatest command is to love God just like I love my heavenly Father. The second command is to love one another, just as I have loved you. Jesus does not ask us to do anything that He himself has not already done in obedience to his Father. Indeed, Jesus said to his disciples: “You will love one another, as I have loved you – fully, sacrificially, transparently, voluntarily laying down your life for each other – because you are no longer my servants; rather, you are now my friends.”
All of us know that when we want to honor or do something nice for a friend, we have to think of the friend’s personality, values, likes and dislikes. The best front-row tickets to a rock concert might be meaningless, even hurtful, if they are given to a friend who only listens to country music. In marriage, we have these popular images of how a husband might treat his wife well – bring her flowers, buy her jewelry, send her sweet cards, etc. But even these classic, time-honored gestures are really only gestures if they do not match the spirit of the woman you’re trying to honor and love.
When my wife Beth and I first dated, I sent her roses. I brought her an opal from Australia when I was a summer missionary there. I bought her presents and sent her cards. She liked these things, and she said thank you for these things, but one day she finally told me, “Don’t do that anymore.” Now maybe that sounds a little crazy or a little ungrateful, but over the years, I’ve learned that Beth doesn’t wear all that much jewelry. She’s confident in my love and doesn’t need displays like flowers. And mainly, when it comes down to it, she’d rather see me cook dinner! So over the years of our marriage, I’ve learned that helping with laundry, setting up her computer for her (and her parents!), cooking a couple of nights a week, helping with the kids – these are the real gifts I can give her.
But these gestures of love go both ways. Beth has voluntarily found plenty of reciprocal ways to show her love – mowing the lawn, cooking her share of the dinners, paying bills and doing taxes, etc. Again, we don’t do these things out of sense of obligation or coercion, but out of an understanding of the other person’s character and a desire to honor the other. Men, let me tell you – if your wife likes jewelry and flowers, by all means, give her those things! In any relationship, we have to seek to know and honor the spirit of our beloved.
Now, it’s one thing to know and honor the spirit of our spouse. But how are we able to know and honor the spirit of our Lord? Jesus promised his disciples that they will not be left as orphans. Yes, Jesus was about to leave his disciples to return to His Father, but He promised his disciples that a Counselor, an Advocate, the Spirit of Truth will be with them forever. Jesus promised his spirit to be with his disciples. We love Jesus when we act in the spirit of Jesus, guided by the spirit of God.
When Rita and Ken Jerabek saw the men in uniform at their door one April morning in 2004, they knew their lives had changed forever. They were told that their son Ryan, not long out of high school and a Marine Corps private first class serving in Ramadi, Iraq, had been killed in an ambush.
Something would always be missing for the couple and for Ryan’s brothers. But a year or so later, Mrs. Jerabek came upon an idea she felt would honor her son’s memory while also helping others. She found it in his own words, back when he was a student at Pulaski High School near Green Bay, Wisconsin. In a speech class in 2002, he said: “I’d like to ask of you to thank those who fought and are fighting in the battles to keep this country at the pinnacle of freedom.” It became clear to Jerabek: “Ryan is wanting us to carry on what he had asked his fellow students to do.”
Ryan’s parents knew that he ran track in high school, staying in shape by running a four-mile route near the family’s home in rural Hobart, Wisconsin. So, with the help of event planners and race organizers, Rita and Ken organized the first “Private First Class Ryan Jerabek, USMC Memorial Challenge” – a four-mile footrace retracing Ryan’s training route. That was in 2006, when about 600 people participated. Since then, it’s become an annual event.
In August of 2009, about 1,200 runners and walkers – children as well as adults – took part, including 18 marines from across the United States who had been in Ryan’s platoon. It was a five-year reunion for them. Gold Star families – those who’ve lost somebody in war – have begun coming, too. “They’re able to introduce their loved ones to the group,” Jerabek says.
Proceeds from the event go to two causes Ryan and his family valued: the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, which provides financial assistance to those of all uniformed services injured in post-9/11 combat and training, and the Pulaski Community School Education Foundation Inc., which makes small grants to local teachers for books and other equipment or special projects.
“It’s such an exciting day to see everybody gather in support of our troops, to remember the fallen, and to say ‘thank you’ to our military,” says Jerabek, who’s a nurse practitioner at a rural family practice clinic. Has the Jerabek Challenge helped ease the loss of Ryan? Pausing, Jerabek says, “Yes, it has.” “Sometimes it’s overwhelming,” she goes on. “But then I remember that it’s helping other people, so it is healing for me. And for me, it was important to do something that I think Ryan would be really proud of.”
For Americans, tomorrow is Memorial Day, the day we have set aside to honor by remembering all those who have died fighting for the thing we like the most about America: our freedom. For Christians, every Sunday is a Memorial Day, the day that is set aside to honor by remembering the One who died fighting to set us free from our sin, and to celebrate the same One who was resurrected to set us free from death. On this day, and every day, we best honor this One by acting in the Spirit of Jesus in loving obedience. “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” Let’s find a way to do something that Jesus would be really proud of! May our love for God and for each other bring honor and glory to our risen Christ during this Memorial Day and every day! Amen.
 William Dych, S.J., Introduction to Anthony de Mello: Writings Selected, pp. 9-10.