The Rev. Dr. Wade: “Keep My Commandments”
The Bible does not record any instance when Jesus actually said the words “Have I got a deal for you!” but if he ever did, today’s Gospel would have been the perfect moment. In these few verses Jesus offers joy, friendship with God and a fruitful life. For the cost of keeping his commandments the joy of God will be in us, we will be Jesus’ friend and our lives will bear much fruit. The whole project hinges on that vaguely troubling line ‘keep my commandments.’ It would be possible to ignore that part or pretend that it means no more than decent manners and good citizenship but the promises are so compelling we might slow down and take a closer look. I would like to invite you to do that with me this morning; to look at what keeping those commandments might mean so that we can claim God’s joy, God’s friendship and our own fruitful lives.
At first glance the task of keeping the commandments is quite daunting. Jesus said a lot of things, including the fact that the commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures are still in effect. That makes for a substantial list and clearly some synthesizing is necessary if we are going to talk about them. In order to make the commandments a little more manageable lets look at the most basic commandment and the most frequent one.
Reasonable people can obviously disagree about these things but I would say that the most basic commandment is the call to generosity; generosity of spirit, of forgiveness and tolerance, of effort and understanding, generosity with our resources. From the creation story where people are called to care for the garden to Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, from bringing first fruits to the altar to going the extra mile the message is repeated over and over. We are to live life outwardly, generously, openly.
The Lord’s generosity is not satisfied with mere niceness. Spare change for the beggar’s cup and patience with people who talk too much does not cut it. This generosity of God’s would extend us to the point of vulnerability. Jesus’ talk about taking up our cross and following him, Isaiah’s images of the suffering servant, the lament of the psalmists and the risks inherent in love are all expressions of vulnerability. One can get hurt being this kind of generous.
There is no call to be foolish of course. Our Lord does not advise us to bet on slow horses, walk in dark alleys or rely on Congress. We are expected to know the difference between vulnerability and victimization. God’s call is to risk ourselves in generous outpouring before God and generous living with our neighbors. Generosity to the point of vulnerability is the most basic command.
Which leads us to the most frequent command in the Bible: Trust God. Because we are finite and cannot see beyond our moment; because we are fragile beings in a dangerous world; because we get lost and confused, hurt and frightened; because all of our instincts are about self interest in a disinterested world; because we cling to life when death is a certainty the message of God to us throughout scripture and our religious history is one of comfort and confidence. Do not be afraid. All will be well. Trust God. It was said to Adam and Eve, the patriarchs, Moses, the psalmists and the prophets. Jesus says it to his disciples and to us. Do not be afraid.
God is not telling us not to feel frightened. Fear is an emotion and not even God can tell us to not feel what we are feeling. Do not be afraid means do not let emotions tell you what to do, keep going in spite of fear, despite anxiety, despite trepidation. The most frequent commandment is connected to the most basic commandment because vulnerability is a scary feeling. Those who live generously to the point of vulnerability are on a risky path and need to hear those words of trust.
Keep my commandments means live generously, live life turned outward to the point of vulnerability and do not back down even when all of our instincts rebel against it.
Now if there is even a hint of cynicism in your heart you may have begun to wonder why God would give us a set of instincts that pull us toward self interest and preservation and a set of commands that pull us toward self giving and vulnerability. Wouldn’t it have been simpler to build generosity into us so that we were naturally what God has in mind for us? Why the necessity of admonitions that frighten us so that comfort and trust need constant repetition. Who was on the design team?
Of course, it would be simpler if we were just naturally generous but God wants us to be moral creatures as well and morality, by definition, takes effort. Jesus once said there was no credit to be given for loving people who love us. Anybody can do that. It is instinctive. The trick is loving our enemies. Moral behavior is about choosing what our Lord commands over what our nature demands. If there were no difference between the two we would be like aardvarks and zebras who have no choices to make about how they behave and so are neither good nor bad, right nor wrong. God’s plan for us is different, richer, better, more complicated.
We have choices. We can live generously or selfishly. We can be vulnerable or do all we can to avoid it. Because we have those choices, today’s Gospel gives us some incentive by reminding us that the joy of God is rooted in generosity, the friends of God walk openly and vulnerably in life. And that fruitful lives are moral lives where the commandments of God take precedence over the demands of nature.
That is the deal that Jesus has for us. Take it or leave it.