For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
May 13, 2012 (The Sixth Sunday of Easter, Series B)
At first glance, today’s Gospel lesson sounds more like a Law lesson. “If you keep my commandments,” “if you do what I command you,” and sayings like that seem to be put forward by Jesus as conditions for remaining in God’s love. Which doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of since, because this passage follows immediately after the Gospel lesson we heard last week, which talks about how Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, and so the only way any of our works are pleasing to God is because we are pleasing to God in Christ Jesus. Being in God’s love, having faith that trusts that salvation is a free gift from God, seems to be the prerequisite for good works, not the other way around. But this portion of what Jesus said in the upper room that first Maundy Thursday seems to say the opposite, namely that keeping the commandments is a prerequisite for salvation rather than salvation by grace through faith being a prerequisite for good works.
Of course, Jesus doesn’t contradict Himself. Salvation is by grace through faith here just as it is in the rest of Holy Scripture. The problem is one of how we sinners who by nature want to fix our relationship with God ourselves, tend to understand the words Jesus uses here, specifically the word “keep,” and the word “commandment.”
The word translated by the English Standard Version (from which I read this morning) as “keep” is understood by most Christians as “obey.” In fact, that’s how many modern translations and paraphrases render that word, as “obey.” But there’s a lot more to it than simply trying to do what the Ten Commandments say we should do. There’s a lot more to keeping God’s commandments than simply trying to honor your father and mother, not steal or kill or cheat on your spouse or lie. The word “keep” means a lot more than simply to obey. What it really means is to treasure, to guard and protect, to regard as so important that you are willing to die for it. A “keep” is another old word for a fortress, a place where the king and his treasures and his people can be safe. So when Jesus says to “keep” His commandments, He’s talking about treasuring God’s Word and regarding it as the most important thing in our lives. Of course, doing what the Ten Commandments say will be part of that, but the word actually refers to treasuring up what God says in our hearts first and foremost. How we live that out in our lives flows from the fact that we treasure the Word in our hearts, not the other way around.
The other word that is commonly misunderstood here is “commandment.” Of course, we all know what the Ten Commandments are. They are the summary of God’s Law. But the word that is translated “commandment” in this text means a lot more than just stuff we’re supposed to do or not do. It refers to God’s eternal proclamation, His Word. It refers to the fact that what God says, is. God doesn’t lie, not because he’s righteous, but because His Word creates what He says. “Commandment” in the sense we normally understand it as law we’re supposed to do or not do, is kind of a secondary meaning here, one that only comes about because we, born sinners and enemies of God, have to struggle and fight within ourselves to live the way God created us to live. The “commandments” would not be a problem for us if we were not sinners. They would simply be a description of what life lived the way God created us to lived would look like.
And, in fact, the very first and most important of the Ten Commandments reflects this. What is the First Commandment? You shall have no other gods. What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things. In other words, the way the First Commandment is obeyed, is to believe what God says, to trust in Him as the giver of all good gifts and the one we look to in all times of need. In short, to have faith. And, after all, what faith is, is simply to agree with what God says. It is simply to receive His Word of promise that we are forgiven and restored to His fellowship, and to agree with it. As Jesus pointed out last week, that’s what remaining in the vine means, namely to rely on Him as the giver of everything we are and have, both for this life and the world to come.
And, knowing that this good news, this Gospel, is the heart and center of what God says to us, what God works in us through His Word, of course we are going to treasure that Word. Of course we are going to enthrone His Word as the heart and center of our very lives. Of course we are going to guard and defend it. To treasure God’s Word, to treasure His promises to us of forgiveness, life, and salvation, is simply to obey the First Commandment, because after all, to look to Him is simply what it means to say that He is our God. Everything else in the Ten Commandments simply spells out what this looks like as we live our lives trusting in Him and loving our neighbor as those whom He loves the same way He loves us. It’s not a matter of doing certain things and not doing certain other things as a matter of drudgery because if we mess up we’ll be punished (even though that sad reality does exist for those who are cut off from the vine). Rather, the Ten Commandments simply spell out what it means to be those who are in a relationship with their loving Creator who provides us with everything we are and have, and who recognize that our fellow human beings are intended to be in that same loving relationship with that same creator.
He not only creates and restores our relationship with Himself, in other words, He is the one who actively sustains that relationship and gives us His life through the Word of promise by which He creates and sustains that relationship. Treasuring God’s Word is not a precondition of remaining in the Father’s love so much as failing to do so is a symptom of one who has refused the Father’s love. The summary of the Ten Commandments is love toward God and toward our neighbor. It is God’s love shown to us in His Word of promise, the Gospel message that our sins are forgiven, we are restored to fellowship with Him, and we will enjoy that fellowship in perfection forever, that is the reason we love one another by obeying the commandments. Fruit is a symptom of remaining in the vine, not a cause of remaining in the vine. God’s Word, His promises proclaimed to us in preaching and in the Sacrament of the Altar, is what brings His love to us. And His commands come true simply because He says them. He has commanded you to be resurrected to eternal life with Jesus. And that’s what happens. All the rest of the commandments are simply a matter of living out what that means to us. He commands you to be His forever. And His word does what it says. You are His, forever. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +