If you’ve had Chemistry or you’re headed toward a college level Chemistry class you’ll know this already: an equation has to balance. Some equations are harder to balance than others but it comes down to two basic steps: count the atoms of each element in the reactants and the products and use coefficients in front of the compounds if you need them. You have to balance chemical equations to adhere to something called the law of conservation of mass. It’s really a process of trial and error.
As I’ve read through this passage, I’ve felt like I was trying to make an equation balance. Each time I read it, put it on paper, and tried to balance it; nothing came out right. It is as if something is missing. I don’t have all the information I need to make it work. I’m staring into a two thousand year old silence and thinking about making an educated guess. Guesses like this scare me. There are hushes between the verses which make it almost impossible to balance the beginning with the ending. Sometimes you will find life to be like that; incomplete and lacking wholeness you feel you rightly deserve. Instead of something, you see nothing. You will be afraid and overwhelmed at times. Where you should find balance, your footing will be precarious. With a limited set of options, you will have the opportunity to use the resources at hand to find balance. As with chemistry equations, life is trial and error. Even your relationship with God is trial and error; it’s something you work on for the rest of your life.
What about this gap? What’s missing? It seems complete at first glance. It’s not. The first verse throws the next six out of kilter, whack, and balance. I’m absolutely certain something was said between what we read as verse 15 and 16. I’m convinced there was more, at one time, linking those two verses. The subject changes too abruptly. The flow is interrupted and no explanation is given. The jump between verses 15 and 16 doesn’t make sense because Jesus, and I think I know Jesus, doesn’t walk us through the implications of what he says. He doesn’t balance his own equation. Jesus doesn’t unpack one verse full of religious dynamite. That’s not like Jesus. In a flash, we are on to something completely different. He tells us of the coming gift of the Holy Spirit. But verse 15 is still hanging out there saying “Do something with me”.
What’s the significance of verse 15? Everything; Christian belief itself hangs on the implications of how we read and understand verse 15. For it to be sitting there by itself, with no solid connection to what comes before or after it, I start to ask the only possible question: what’s missing? Given the little bit of time we have remaining, will you join me on this mystery?
Verse 15 says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” That seems straight forward. If you love Jesus, you will keep his commandments. OK, we’ve got it! If I love Jesus I will keep his commandments. Do you know what his commandments are? Are they the 10 you memorized in Sunday School? Are they “Refrain from drinking at frat parties (especially if you are underage), call home once a week when you’re at college, and eat a balanced diet?” I don’t think Jesus would object to any of those but I’m not certain those are the specific commandments he had in mind.
A while back, a snarky know it all wanted to trap Jesus with a fancy theological question. This smarty pants happened to be a lawyer. He asked Jesus, “What’s the greatest commandment?” knowing full well Jesus couldn’t pick only one. Jesus said all of the law, all 613 commandments in the Old Testament (including the parts in Leviticus about JELLO shots at frat parties) hung on these two greatest commandments: love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind. Then love you neighbor as yourself. Those are Jesus’ commandments. Those two love commandments. This is what Jesus is talking about. I’ll boil it down: if you love me, you will love others. You will not pick and choose who you will love. A relationship with me is built on unconditional love. I love you unconditionally therefore I expect you to love unconditionally.
Here’s what Jesus does not say; this is the gap, what might have been left out. Is it possible to read this backwards? What do I mean by read it backward? Make verse 15 a negative, rather than a positive statement: If you don’t keep my commandments, you don’t love.” In its printed form, verse 15 balances, like a chemistry equation. Loving Jesus equals keeping his commandments. Would it not balance the other way; not loving Jesus means not keeping his commandments? Is it not written, is it left out, and because it is easily inferred, “if you don’t love your neighbor as yourself” then you don’t love Jesus? It sounds like it’s a blank left for us to fill in. Who knows?
There’s one more consequence which might stem from our basic lack of participation in Jesus’ equation for neighborly love. Jesus is arguing, “I’ve made it simple. To love me, love others.” Who wouldn’t want to be loved by Jesus? Jesus seems to have a great deal happening when it comes to finding fulfillment now, a great retirement plan, and everyone loved Jesus’ health care benefits. What scares me and I don’t frighten all that easily is the tiny two word preposition at the beginning of the sentence, “if”.
Jesus realizes our love is conditional. “If you love me, then you will keep my commandments”. Keeping his commandments is conditional on falling in love with Jesus, being in love with God. Do you know how many other things we’re in love with? You’re in love with cars, fishing, boats, phones, money, jobs, and God may or may not even be on the list. How fickle are we about love in general? Jesus realizes we might not get there. If we do get there, loving God with all we’ve got and our neighbors will fall into place. Falling in love with God is not a guarantee. A relationship with Jesus is a love affair but not like any you’ve known before. The usual rules of romantic comedies and island relationships do not apply.
Here’s the Good News: our love for God is conditional, fickle, and often pathetic. This scripture is an acknowledgement of how deplorable we are at loving God with all of our heart, soul, and minds. Jesus is admitting how feeble we are at loving our neighbors ourselves. On the other hand, God’s love for us unconditional, constant, and stronger than the Roman Army’s most brutal form of torture. God is everything we are not.
God’s love for us is never preceded by an “if”. There are millions of reasons not to love humanity, “ifs” a plenty, but God stopped counting “ifs” the night Jesus was born.
Saint Paul, a writer and preacher, says nothing will separate us from the love of God. Nothing we can do, think of, or have inflicted upon us will disconnect us from God’s love. He says, “For I am convinced, that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things, present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Death, that’s a no. Angels, that’s also a no. Rulers, that’s a huge no. Things you fear down the road, that’s a big fat no. Nothing cuts us off from God but us. We are the big “if”.
Uncertainties and possibilities will remain in our lives. The “ifs” aren’t going away anytime soon, especially for our graduates. This morning, I want to help take one “if” off the table. God’s love isn’t in doubt. You are loved. We are loved. Nothing will change this reality. Now, how will we respond to God’s love? It’s too big and wonderful of a gift to leave on display. It’s not the kind of thing you show your relatives admiringly and say, “Look what I got for graduation!” Open the box, do something with it, share what you’ve received.
We’ve been invited to participate in God’s ongoing work by loving our neighbors and responding to God’s call in our lives.