The great love of God is our Source and our Destination and before Jesus left his disciples he reminded them that they too were part of the powerful, healing, forgiving, circular flow of God's love just as he was. (Revised Common Lectionary, Easter Five, May 17th 2020, John 14:15-21)
“If you love me you will keep my commandments...” Words deeply familiar and not necessarily all that controversial at first read. It makes sense to promise love, even divine love, in exchange for something. And eternal divine love in exchange for doing the right thing - which we should be doing - anyway is surely a bargain. But read this way it does indeed suggest that love, even Godly love, is transactional: quid pro quo. And I do not believe that is scriptural, or at least not gospel (it is one of the themes of the Old Testament but even then not as much as we might think).
So why do we hear and see and accept without question most of the time that love and every other gift, even the gifts of God for God’s people, is transactional or conditional?
Well firstly I guess because that’s how we were loved and therefore how we tend to love. I am sure that at the beginning our parents intended to love us whole heartedly but we know that while they did their best most of us were loved with a lot of conditions: related to understandings about discipline and what was good for our moral and behavioural development (not that those terms would have made much sense to our parents generation); how much love and energy there was to go around (many of us came from busy large families where everything including time and affection was in limited supply); and the particular makeup and wellbeing or otherwise of our particular parents (mental health and substance misuse issues have abounded in most generations there just were less labels and treatments and supports in days gone past).
Now while most of us received less than perfect unconditional love we were loved well enough to survive and even thrive moderately well and went on to create families and social networks of our own. Many of us intended to love our children and friends better than we were loved but if you are like me then you have had mixed results – loving generously and selflessly in moments and then at other times being very conditional in our loving.
Now appropriate (and how long is that piece of string?) boundaries and limits are an important way of protecting ourselves, making society run smoothly and raising people who will have due consideration of others needs. But despite our parents saying to us “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.” just before some form of punishment was delivered most of looked into our fathers or mothers angry face as they dished out some punishment and knew that was not necessarily true. And if we are honest most of us here will have dealt out consequences to our children or others in our charge at some point as much in frustration and retribution as in loving and reluctant discipline. Or am I the only less than perfect parent here?
So we tend to accept conditional transactional love because that is how we have been raised. And the other reason I think is because our ego’s, or our wills, would prefer to risk not being loved at all while pursuing being loved on our own conditions which we mistakenly think will give us control over our lives, particularly that we can control what happens to our fragile breakable hearts. True love constantly renews and breaks our hearts and all of us have to make almost daily decisions as to whether we leave our hearts open and relatively unprotected so that we can love and receive love or whether we protect our hearts behind walls of rules and conditions.
So if Jesus is not offering us more of the same kind of small conditional loving then what is he saying?
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate, to be with you for ever... You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you... on that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you...” And on and on. These are images and words that suggest the circular flow of love without barriers; of love that flows out of the Father, out of God the Source, through the Son to those who receive Jesus. And as Jesus is about to leave them physically he assures them that there will be a new spirit filled way for the flow to continue in a constant movement out from the heart of God to those whom God loves. And the only condition? That those hearts are open to receiving God’s love. It is that simple and that hard.
Just imagine that we could accept that all we have to do in God’s presence is open our hearts and all that we most need and desire would flood into us. That is, we are able to love, to fulfill the commandments, because we are first loved. We are able to give because we are first filled.
But what about how we love others who are slightly less well intentioned than God? Lets not pretend that just because we want to love or be loved that it flows so easily among us ordinary folk. Well our epistle this morning exhorts us to have a “unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” And when that is not enough at first attempt then “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse, but on the contrary repay with a blessing.” Now that may sound so lovely we wonder how does it relate to real life because we certainly need at time to set limits, to withdraw support, to confront and to generally do some fairly grownup relationship work. Most of which we do not find easy. Judging, criticising, avoiding, retaliating are much easier for most of us.
We are not asked to ignore or pretend that others are not potentially too demanding or unwell or outright dangerous. We are asked to remain in a state of flow and connection I believe and to never lose sight in our hearts that it is another precious one of God that we are in a struggle with. If we can stay aware of the preciousness of the one we are struggling with then we are more likely to be just, creative, encouraging and to set limits that are for healing and healthy reasons not as punishments. At the very least I think we are called to pray for those we are in difficulty with, and where possible and safe to do so to love without guarantees and safety nets for our hearts. The safety net for our hearts is the universal open and ever renewing heart of God – our source, our Alpha and Omega.
Even so, come Lord Jesus the Christ, come and renew our hearts.