May 9, 2021
Our second reading today… just like our first scripture reading… picks up exactly where we left off last week. Jesus is gathered with his disciples on the night that he is arrested… he is praying with them and teaching. In these verses… like last week… he is teaching about love. Listen for the Word of God as it continues speaking to you.
READ John 15:9-17
I want to start today with an article from the Wall Street Journal given to me a week or so ago by one of our members. Written by Mustafa Akyol, the article is titled “Where Islam and Reason Meet”. The article is primarily about two religious ethical points of view that are in conflict in Islam, which is the author’s religious context. As a Christian pastor reading the article, I can confidently say that this is not a conflict found only in Islam… but is also a part of modern Christianity as well.
Let me see if I can explain using some quotes and paraphrases from the article. Remember… this is an ethical question. “Does God command or prohibit things because they are inherently good and bad? Or are things good and bad simply because God decreed so?” That’s the heart of the argument right there. Is there objective good and bad? Or maybe we could ask if there is such a thing as universal good and bad… right and wrong… that even, say, God would be subject to… or… is God’s will what defines good and bad… God’s commandments lay out for us what is right and what is wrong. Let me use some more of the author’s words to explain further… “Students of Western philosophy may find the question familiar, because the first person to pose it was the Greek philosopher Socrates, in his famous dialogue with Euthyphro. The question became know as the Euthyphro dilemma, and it presented two options to any theology. The first is ‘ethical objectivism,’ meaning that God’s commandments are based on objective ethical principles that we humans can understand. The second is ‘divine command theory,’ meaning that God commands whatever God wills and ethical principles follow God’s will, not the other way around.” Do you see the difference?
In the article, the author then goes on to discuss how this ethical conflict is playing itself out in Islam… so… since we are not Muslims… let me share with you a story about how it plays itself out in Christianity. And if you’re wondering what this all has to do with love and the commandment to love one another… I’m getting there... I promise. And yes… I know the example I’m about to give you is a bit extreme… but it gets the point across.
I don’t remember how many years ago it was now, but I was teaching Old Testament at the local community college campus up in Sparta. That night we were going over the book of Joshua. Joshua is primarily the story of the conquest of the Promised Land. As part of that story is God’s command for the Jews to kill men, women and children… and sometimes even all the animals in the towns. So in wanting to provoke some discussion with my students… and because I struggle with the book of Joshua myself… I asked what was their response to these clear examples of divinely mandated genocide? There’s really no other word that fits. Objectively speaking, I think we can agree that genocide is wrong… but because this is scripture we are reading… does it make it right? What happens when the heroes of our scriptural stories participate in something we would normally understand as being wrong… even at God’s command? Is God wrong for commanding them to commit genocide of the people already residing in their Promised Land? What do we do with this? It was a question for them that night… it is a question for all of us as we continually discern the scriptures before us.
That’s when one of my students piped up and challenged my ethical objectivism… clearly that’s the way I’m functioning… that’s the side of this argument I fall upon. He did not. Because God had commanded this… he asserted… that made it right. God’s command superseded any moral objections we might have. Our place is to follow God. Our place is to follow God’s commandments without question. And he… he so loved God… that if he were in this situation himself, he would also do what was commanded without question… even if it meant killing all the men, women, children, animals… everything… if that’s what God commanded. Had you been there you would have seen exactly what I saw… the absolutism. For him… these weren’t just words and a position he was taught to parrot… this was truly what he believed. I told him because I so loved God… that I could not and would not… that I would question and argue with God… because that’s what it meant for me to follow God… that there are lines of right and wrong that I will not cross even if God were to command me to do so. That’s what it means to love God.
In this part of John’s gospel, Jesus keeps using that word “abide”… abide in Christ as Christ abides in God and God will abide in you and you will abide in Christ’s love as Christ abides in God’s love… and to abide is also connected with obedience and keeping God’s commandments. But here are two people who are defining obedience and what it means to abide in love in two different situations. My student looked at me and in his definition I lacked conviction. I looked at my student through my definition and I would say he lacked vision, so blind was his devotion. Again… as someone who falls so clearly on the ethical objectivism side I love the stories where Abraham stands up to God and tells God your will can’t be an unethical whim… that’s not the kind of God you are. And then later on, Moses tells God practically the same thing. You have to be the God of something higher… something greater.
I can cite times in history where people blindly followed someone who spoke for God and did great evil… because obedience to God’s command was more important than questioning the human leader through whom God’s voice came to them… obedience was more important than questioning the command itself. We know and we can’t write off and ignore the darkness that religions… ours included… have brought into the world because of people being unquestioningly true to this divine command theory ethic… loving God while doing horrendous acts towards their neighbors. When such obedience leads to such darkness, we on the ethical objectivism side will use the word “fanatic” or “zealot”. Right? It boggles the mind and breaks the heart. Why do we keep thinking that doing something so clearly wrong… so unquestioningly bad… why do we keep believing that our blind and absolute loyalty will somehow eradicate the darkness of our acts and somehow God’s love in Christ will shine through?
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Where is the fanaticism to obey this commandment? That’s what I want to know. We can do unspeakable evil… where is the so-called unspeakable good that would come from fanatically obeying this commandment? I hear conditions all the time when we get to this commandment to love… and it is the same conditions we hear articulated in other parts of scripture as well. When Jesus says “one another” who does that include? It’s the same question of the lawyer wanting to justify himself over in Luke’s gospel… “And who is my neighbor?” Is this love to be limited to just fellow Christians? Is it this love to be limited to fellow, “real” Christians and not everyone who calls themselves Christians? My student following his divine command ethic… I can confidently tell you from other conversations that semester… the question of who exactly is Jesus commanding us to love… the who is important… and it also opens the door for the reasoned argument that if God does not command that I have to love these certain people… then I will not only not love, but it opens the door for me to do all manner of neglect and disregard and harm with impunity. We know, though, how neighbor defined as Jesus defines it through the parable of Good Samaritan giving answer to the lawyer’s question. Who was a neighbor to the man who was beaten and robbed? The one who showed mercy. Mercy was the objective ethic that defined neighbor. Nothing else. That’s the power of that story. All are able to recognize the divine quality that exists in showing mercy… the higher quality that would be violated if say… one didn’t stop because the command I’m following from God would prohibit me in some way from showing mercy. Is that not the justifications we attach to the priest and the Levite who pass by on the other side of the road? The disconnect is clear… why would God command someone not to show mercy? Mercy is a clear good.
Love one another… if we make it past that point without wanting to limit just who one another is referring to… we get to what I think is the all important “as I have loved you” portion of the commandment. As I have loved you. There is the model. Not just the model but the line in the sand we are not to cross… because to cross would be to regress… to cross would be to disconnect from resurrection… to cross would be to attach the bad to the cause of Christ and count it as righteousness. And that disconnect is clear to anyone who has eyes to see. What is it that Paul says when he talks about the Fruit of the Spirit… these higher ideals that no one can argue against… that there is no law against these things? For Paul, the works of the flesh are obvious… enmities, strife, anger, quarrels, dissensions… to name a few… it is obvious that these are not as Christ loved us. These are not works that illuminate either for ourselves or others the love with which Christ loves us. Yet… how often are these works put into practice because we believe they are useful in fulfilling the commandments of God?
The commandment to love one another as Christ loves us… that commandment ought to cause us first to discern just what that love is… how does Christ love us… love me? We will likely find that that love is defined by words… by ideals… by an ethic we already know to be higher… to be better. Words like sacrificially might come to mind. Or mercy… for sure there is mercy there in that love. Christ loves us in a way that builds us up in that love… that inspires us, for sure… but also frees us so that we may then strive toward that inspiration. There is generosity and kindness in that love. I don’t believe there is any great mystery to God’s love. It’s not that we don’t understand this commandment… it’s more likely that we don’t make this the prime commandment… the narrow gate… through which the rest of our faith must be able to pass. Amen.