Normally, I’m not thrilled at having to write these reflections down! I’ve never written a sermon in my life before Covid and I’m having to walk round the garden imagining you all in church, saying out loud what I want to convey – then trying to write it down before I forget!
But this week I’m feeling more comfortable with writing, because I want to look at three words that I doubt I would use if I were speaking out loud, and you may need a little longer to digest what I’m saying than the “sermon slot” would give!
The three words are “consequential”, “conditional” and “integral”. See what I mean?
In our gospel, we translate what Jesus says as, “If you love me, keep my commandments, and I will pray to the Father.” Now that is the text of my favourite composer Thomas Tallis’ most beautiful motet, “If Ye Love Me,” – but it’s still a tricky phrase which we can misunderstand. It appears to speak of an action and an outcome. It starts with loving Jesus, with the outcome of the gift of the Spirit of Truth. But my three words represent different understandings of the relationship between the action and the outcome. The outcome could be consequential to the action, it could be conditional upon the action … or it could be integral to the action.
The first temptation is to see the phrase as “consequential”. “If …. then … and…” It’s the approach of science and is fairly well ingrained in us. If you were doing a physics experiment, that’s the way you would approach it, “If such and such is true, then this will happen and this will be the outcome.” An action has a consequence. If I jump off the church tower, then the law of gravity will apply and I will be a mess on the car park….
If we apply this thinking to what Jesus says, then the gift of the Comforter is a consequence of Jesus asking the Father, which only happens if we love him. It has echoes of that famous manipulative phrase in marriage relationships – “If you really loved me, you would…”. Not helpful.
To see the words as “conditional” is the next trap. I describe this as a “pagan” approach to God, a throwback to the days when people offered a sacrifice to appease what they imagined as a wrathful God. Our modern version is, “Oh Lord, I promise to be very, very good and to go to church every week if you will just….” We bargain with God. But it’s based on the totally wrong assumption that God needs to be reluctantly persuaded to be kind to us. Jesus never portrays God like that, and would never put conditions on love. God’s love is an unconditional gift. And you can’t bargain with the source of all being.
So – if those two are the wrong ways of looking at it, is there a right way? Well, we come to the word that I want to use about Jesus’ teaching, “integral”. What I mean is that it’s not one thing following on from another, or conditional upon another – it’s all one description. We might adjust the translation of Jesus’ words a little (well – more than a little!) to reflect this:
“This is how it will be with you who love me. that love will flourish into the fulfilling of my commandments; you will be constantly upheld by my prayers in the presence of my Father, and the Spirit of Truth will be our gift to you in that love. For all who abide in my love, this shall be. Amen.”
I’m taking liberties with the text, and you have every right to say, “but it doesn’t say that!” But what I want you to do is take on board the suggestion that this is “integral” – everything Jesus is saying is inter-dependant, not one conditional on another or following on from another, but all included in loving God – and then re-read the actual passage and see if it doesn’t look different to you.
This is crucial. Not for this passage alone, but to understand God’s grace in every context. We can’t bargain with God and his love is never conditional. We can only enter into it and abide in it and let the fruit of God’s grace flourish, as it cannot help but do if we are grafted into him. He will not leave us orphaned.
So now you need to re-read all this too, because it’s a bit hard to digest – so a good job it’s written down after all!