I give you three words from today’s Gospel which go together: love, obedience and joy. Of the three, we all probably like the first and the third. It is the second word which gives us problems. We all want love and we all want freedom. But we are not so keen on obedience. And yet when you think about it, obedience is the most natural thing for those who love each other.
For when you truly love someone, you always want to do what pleases them provided, of course, that what they want is truly good for them. By definition love unites those who love one another. In fact, love creates deep union and communion between those who are in love. That union is not just one of ideas or activities but is also, and most importantly, the union of minds and hearts and wills.
Obedience is just another way of speaking of that union of hearts and wills. It’s relatively common to hear to people who love and respect each other to say to one another “your wish is my command.” And why would someone say that? Surely it is obvious that it’s because they love one another.
Therefore when Jesus says that the person who loves him will keep his commandments, he is simply expressing a very human experience. In fact, to love is to obey. To love is to give everything that you are and that you have to the one you love.
This kind of obedience which is proper to love is very different, of course, from other kinds of obedience. When we obey the laws of the land (depending, of course, on what they are), we can only be said to be loving our country in doing so in a very loose sense. And yet, it could be argued that by obeying the laws of the land which are just you are indeed being charitable to your fellow citizens. Obedience to these laws is a form of love of neighbour. It is the dutiful understanding that we have the responsibility to preserve proper order in our social lives.
Even so, you cannot say that the obedience to traffic ordinances reaches the depth of obedience between two people who love each other.
What is astonishing in the words of Jesus that we heard today is that between the divine persons themselves there exists this same obedience. For Jesus says that he remains in his Father’s love because he keeps his Father’s commandments. This makes it very clear that obedience is not something alien to love but is in fact at its core. It translates love into action; it proves that love is true. The one who loves simply cannot not do what his beloved asks. You might even say that the person who loves actually lives to hear and execute what his beloved wants him to do. To obey the will of the beloved is all that the lover wants because in obeying the beloved the lover becomes the beloved, becomes more and more deeply united to the beloved.
Certainly, if we don’t experience that love between ourselves and the one who commands us then we will experience their commands as an imposition, as something alien to love. But we can look at this differently: if you accept the truth that God loves you, even although you may not have experienced that love yet in any deep and personal sense, obeying Him through trust will eventually lead to the experience of his love. Perhaps it could be put like this: knowing God’s love will lead more easily to obeying God’s commandments, whilst obeying God’s commandments in trust will lead gradually to the experience of God’s love.
Then there is that third word that I mentioned at the beginning, namely joy. Joy is the first fruit of knowing that you are loved and that you love. Joy provides the energy, the readiness of heart and the willingness that are all required to obey the commandments of God. Joy removes the burden which obedience may seem to confer. Joy is the fruit and flower of love and it is what makes the work obedience light and easy. Jesus promises us not any joy, not any love, not any obedience, but his own joy, the completeness of that joy, the completeness and fullness of his own love, and a share in his own filial obedience to the father.
So where are we to start? The first thing is to make and hold to a clear statement of the truth: God loves us so much that he gave his only Son for our sake. That is a truth that cannot be denied. That is the firm foundation that can never be shaken. While I may not yet experience that love in terms of sentiment, emotion or feeling, that truth it is still true, it is the truest truth that can ever be stated. If that is so, then the second thing follows immediately. Namely, that I can trust that all God commands me will only be for my own good because I know and I believe that his love for me is the greatest truth of my existence. The third thing therefore is to commit myself to the work of keeping the commandments of Jesus. While that will cost me in terms of letting go of my own selfish preferences, I can be sure that that cost will eventually pay me back infinitely more than I have given.
Finally, I can trust that my life of obedience to Christ will gradually and increasingly give me the profound experience of his own love for me and of his own joy in me.
The endgame of all this is very clear: to share in the eternal life, the eternal love and the eternal joy which Christ won for us by his death on the cross and by his resurrection from the tomb.
Obey Him to know His love. Obey Him because you have known His love. And the joy of that love will never leave you because He will never leave you.