Love & Obedience

6th Sunday of Easter (Year B)

“If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.”

John 15:10

In this Sunday’s short gospel passage, Jesus uses the word “command” or “commandment” five times and the word “love” nine times. For most of us, these two things don’t seem to go together. 

We have very different reactions when we hear those words. When someone starts talking about “commands” we tense up. We don’t like being told what to do. We think of commands as hard, rigid things that constrict our freedom, so we resist them. 

When we hear the word “love” we have the opposite reaction. The idea of love makes us feel warm and fuzzy. It is a comforting thought. Love is not rigid, like a command. It’s soft, like a hug. We love hearing about love. 

So these two things, love and commands, are not usually associated in our minds, yet Jesus seems to think they have quite a bit to do with one another. He says we remain in his love only if we keep his commands, and then he commands us to love one another. We might think Jesus has a mistaken, outdated understanding of love, one that is too demanding. But it would be foolish for us to think we could teach Jesus anything about love. Jesus is God, and God is love (1 Jn 4:8). So if we are smart, we’ll allow Jesus to teach us.

One thing we learn from Jesus is that not all love is the same. The love I have for my wife and children is different from the love I had for the girl I was head-over-heels for my freshman year, and these are both different from my love for my cat. 

There are many kinds of love and Jesus speaks about two of them in this passage. The first is called agape in Greek. This is self-giving love. In Latin it is called caritas, which is where we get our word “charity.” Most often when love is mentioned in the New Testament, it is agape. Jesus also speaks of philia, which is the Greek word for love shared between friends. He calls us his friends and tells us that we will be his friends if we follow his commands. 

The Greeks had two other words for love: eros, meaning passionate desire (like I had for my freshman crush), and storge, meaning natural affection (like I have for my cat). Jesus doesn’t mention either of these in this gospel passage, because eros and storge aren’t things that can be commanded. You either feel them or you don’t. You can’t command someone to have a feeling. 

Our society today tends to treat all love as if it were the same. We think love is always passionate or affectionate, something you can “fall” in and out of. But Jesus speaks of love as a choice we can make. You can choose to be friends with someone (philia) even if you don’t have natural affection for them. And you can choose to give yourself in loving service to someone (agape) even if you don’t feel like it. This freely given love is the kind of love the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have for one another. It’s the kind of love that the Father showed us when he sent His Son into the world (1 Jn 4:9). It’s the kind of love Christ showed for us on the cross. It’s the kind of love the Holy Spirit gave the Church at Pentecost. It’s a gift of self. And that’s the kind of love that Christ commands us to have. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. . . love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:9, 12). He is inviting us into the love of the Trinity.

But how do we know that we’re doing it? The way we express agape love is through obedience. This is why husbands and wives promise to “love, honor, and obey” one another. This promise holds in both big and small things; and the small things are especially important because there are more of them! If my wife tells me to take out the trash and I don’t do it, then I’m not making a gift of myself to her. I’m not showing her agape

Loving my wife is not about buying her roses or chocolates. It’s about listening to her and doing what she asks of me. All the passion and affection in the world doesn’t make for a good marriage if it’s not accompanied by real self-gift.

This doesn’t mean we should all be doormats and it’s certainly not an excuse for us to boss around those we love. The obedience we give to one we love is different from obedience given to a dictator. We obey dictators out of fear. We might obey our boss because we are afraid of getting fired. We might obey the government because we are afraid of going to jail. And many Christians might obey God because they are afraid of going to hell. Obeying God out of fear is better than disobeying God, but it’s not love. God is not a dictator. He is a Father. 

God has only our good as his aim, and he knows exactly what is best for us. He is our Creator. So it would be the most foolish thing in the world not to obey his commands, even if they seem hard, because we know his commands are ordered toward our happiness. 

Jesus tells us: “I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and your joy might be complete” (Jn 15:11). He calls us his friends (Jn 15:15). True friends share everything with one another. Christ shares with us not only his love but his very life, and Christ’s life is one of obedience to the Father. So for us to be Christ-like means we also have to obey. Yes, Christ’s obedience caused him suffering in that it led to the cross, but it was also his greatest source of joy because it led to our redemption.

Love is the source of our greatest joy, but there can be no love without suffering. This is the seeming paradox of love that we could never figure out on our own, but which Christ came to teach us. If we obey God’s commands by giving ourselves in love to Him and to each other, we will suffer for a time, but only for a time, because the fruit of our obedience can be nothing else but eternal joy.