“Give what you command [O Lord], and then command whatever you will.”
In St. Augustine’s Confessions, that was his memorable way of capturing this comforting scriptural truth: God himself effectively works in us to will and to act in keeping with his good purpose (Philippians 2:13). That is a truth most important to remember as we come to Sunday’s gospel (John 14:15-21).
At first, we are rightly overwhelmed by the magnitude of what Jesus asks of us in his bookend commands that begin and end Sunday’s gospel. “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (15). “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me” (21). Yes, the word for “command” that John uses is clearly broad enough (as John’s use of it in 1 John 3:23 shows) to include also Jesus’ gospel “commands” to believe in him, to trust in him, to remember our baptism, to receive the gift of his Supper. Yet, “commands” most surely also include loving others as he loved us which always includes that humbling triumvirate of denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following him.
If only Jesus was asking us just to say we loved him. But to so guard and treasure his commands so that we actually live them out, well, that makes us – like him – easy targets for the world’s rejection.
Can you picture the trouble that comes to boldly proclaim the truth of last Sunday’s gospel that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus? To proclaim there are not many ways to heaven, but only one narrow way? To be so concerned for others not just in theory but in reality so as to call them to repentance from cherished and chosen ways of life that lead them away from God? To cling to the so often despised (even by us!) means of grace as the only source of life in a dying world? To be willing to bear the rejection of the world as we cling to a Savior we cannot see while pressing toward a hope we have not yet experienced? All that sets us up for a cross to be borne day after day after day. Isn’t Jesus asking way, way too much of us?
Well, yes, in a very real way he is. To actually treasure what Jesus commands – and not just claim to – takes superhuman power that you and I do not possess. For me that is proved so easily by my all-too-easily-kindled irritation with others in these trying times.
But the beauty of Sunday’s text is that sandwiched between those two bookend commands is the very superhuman power needed to accomplish those commands in our lives! Jesus was not blind to his first disciples’ weaknesses as he spoke these parting words. And he is not blind to ours either. In fact, his whole valedictory address clearly has as its heart providing of just such divine strength for fearful disciples then and now who struggle to keep his commands in challenging surroundings.
Notice how quickly, after calling us to love him with evident obedience, Jesus adds a powerful promise. Anticipating the day of Pentecost which these last Sundays of Easter so nimbly foreshadow, Jesus speaks these comforting words: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever – the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him or knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (16-17). Has Jesus just laid before us a command that, if honestly pondered, sends us running for help? Well, Jesus beckons us to remember that just such help, or better, just such a Helper, is readily supplied. He is the Holy Spirit. The one whose preeminent calling card is that he delivers the alone saving truth of Christ to us in rich measure. While an unbelieving world has no power to know where to look for him nor what it means to find him, this is the Spirit who first taught us to know him – and to find our Savior – in the means of grace when the water of baptism was still wet on our foreheads. He is our great Helper, poured out so richly on the first disciples at Pentecost in fulfillment of this promise of Jesus. And that outpouring in and through Christ’s Church through the means of grace has never stopped. Suddenly, divine help, immeasurable help far beyond even our imagination, is handed to us!
But Jesus didn’t stop there! He now pictures in yet another way how such powerful help comes to us. “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see my anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and I am in you” (18-20). These words of Jesus are certainly broad enough in their promises to include the brief but comforting post-resurrection appearances that Jesus gave to his disciples in the 40 days after his resurrection. Yet, if that is all he meant, then he merely postponed for 40 days his leaving them as orphans. But clearly not leaving them as orphans encompassed something far grander – and that is where we also are included yet again in the help and comfort! While the Spirit is “another Counselor” or “Helper,” Jesus has never ceased being also a Helper of the first disciples – or us. As the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost clearly taught then and still teaches today, our Savior remains as wonderfully near to us as the Spirit is near to us. Believers in this world did not suffer a great setback when Jesus removed his visible presence that he exercised during his time of humbling himself. No, when Jesus resumed the full use of his divine power and glory in his exaltation, we experienced not a loss but a gain. We now have two present-everywhere Helpers filling us with a constant supply of strength to live – just as Jesus is alive – and to love – just as he has loved us.
In this close and intimate loving provision of divine help and strength, suddenly the commands that begin and end Sunday’s gospel don’t feel so daunting.
Oh yes, till heaven, seeking to love our Lord Jesus by treasuring all his commands will provide daily reason to pray: “Forgive us our sins!” But even as we die in daily repentance with Christ, we also find each day abundant, divine, infinite help in our Helpers. In that gift we rise each day to love him by treasuring what he commands.
St. Augustine was right. “Give what you command [O Lord], and then command whatever you will.”
Or, if you prefer the wording of the Prayer of the Day from the new hymnal, here it is:
O God, you are the giver of everything good.
Inspire us, your humble servants, to long for what is right
and through your gracious guidance, to accomplish it to your glory. Amen.