"What are you teaching my daughter in Confirmation class?" On a Monday morning several months ago a mildly joking but clearly confused Ike Sturm burst into my office to ask that question. We had just had confirmation class on that previous Saturday and, sometime over the weekend Annabelle used, apparently quite effectively, everything she had learned -- on him. You see, I'm not big on dumping a whole lot of biblical and catechetical information on the children. I'm interested in giving them tools to exegete everything from tweets to texts, Bible time to current time, teachers, parents, partners and God. My goal is to make them Lutheran theologians, that is, to be able to rightly divide between Law and Gospel. We don't use that kind of language, of course, we call what they are learning "up" and "down" religion. "Up" religion, I teach them, insists that we have to do something to get [up] to God. "Down" religion is Christianity. It proclaims that God comes [down] to us. I love Confirmation Class because I love the look on their faces when they finally get it. It's even more fun for them, and me, when they start to use it, as Annabelle did with her father. Ike had made one of those typical parental statements, "If you clean your room and do thus-and-so, I'll do thus-and-so for you."
Annabelle sweetly rejected her father's proposition with these words: "No, Dad, that's "up" religion," and then proceeded to do what her father asked anyway. Annabelle, you see, gets it. Now Ike does too. And that leads us to this Sunday's quandary: what does God want from us and why should we do it?
In 2017 America, we are told, there are two kinds of Christians with two contradictory religious impulses: (1) obligation-keeping and (2) liberation-seeking.
Especially in these days, we tend to think of ourselves as either one or the other. Red state, blue state; liberal, conservative; obligation-keeping or liberation-seeking β oh that it were this simple. Contemporary socialists and our own experience implies that we are either one or the other.
I think that, as far as it goes, this distinction is helpful. It's a good Lutheran Law-Gospel distinction and a useful way to evaluate our baptismal vocation. So, I regularly ask myself, "What am I doing that's obligation-keeping and what am I doing that's liberation-seeking?" I invite you to do this too. Gender choices, pro-life
or pro-choice, peace-activist or militaristic, capitalist versus socialist, science versus religion, work, leisure or rest; which impulse rules when? It's not as clear cut as you might think.
In today's Gospel, Jesus provides an interesting laboratory for us to think through these distinctions. He begins with what sounds like obligation: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments;" and again, "They who have my commandments and keep them will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them." In between, we hear liberation: "I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will see me no longer, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live."
The tricky thing is to balance somewhere on that tightrope; and none of us can claim to be, nor does anyone of us need to be, pure.
Pure obligation-keeping in individuals leads to oppressive, regimented legalism with blinders on; pure obligation-keeping for a community of faith leaves that community unable or unwilling to respond either to our changing world or to new movements of the Spirit. Pure liberation-
seeking, on the other hand, leads to "tossing to and fro on the winds of doctrine" or causes us to chase after the next new thing, whatever it is, that will loose us from whatever restrictions we wish to be released from no matter what effect it has on others. Theologians call that antinomianism.
Is God leading us toward obedience or freedom? Jesus' command β Jesus' primary command β that we love one another provides the balancing point here. Jesus had to command that we love one another, because love is not always easy and love is never completely painless. If it were, no command would be necessary. As it is, there are times when we need a command to keep us loving, especially when our love is taken for granted or, worse, not returned.
G.K. Chesterton once said, "Jesus told us to love our neighbors. He also told us to love our enemies. This is because, generally speaking, they are the same person."
It is human nature for us to hear, "If you love me you will keep my commandments" as law, as a goal to be achieved; an order to be obeyed. It is human nature for us to hear this as if Jesus
were saying, "Prove that you love me! Love one another." That's what we often hear, but that isn't what Jesus says.
Jesus gave us another word, God's last word which is Gospel, not law; promise, not judgment; and with that word Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit. The capacity to love people, even those who don't respond, those we don't like, and especially those we fear, is not something we develop or achieve; it is a gift of God received as an integral part of our ongoing relationship with God in Christ. "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" is Christ's promise that living the new life in Christ β remembering our baptism β is a life-long, life-changing, transforming experience.
Being "in Christ" creates in us the capacity to live with ambiguity; to stop worrying about whether our actions are obligation-keeping or liberation-seeking; right or wrong. Being "in Christ" enables us to see our actions, not as right or wrong, but in the words of one of my mentors, the late Pastor Frank Fry, our "reverent best guess." Being "in Christ," being "in love" through Christ, creates in us the capacity to see each other and the whole world as, according to
Jesus, God sees the whole world; β as beloved; as something worth living for; as something worth dying for. Being "in Christ" gives us the capacity "to live and move and have our being" together, because together in Christ we know that we are not orphaned; and because together we see the all-embracing presence of God-in-Christ in water, bread, wine and word and therefore in one another.
Does God love us because we are good, or does God love us anyway?
Through Christ's cross and resurrection, effected in us and experienced by us through Word and water, bread and wine, we experience God's unequivocal YES to who we are and simultaneously receive God's unimaginable power β the Holy Spirit β to live and move and love as God lives and moves and loves.
How shall we do that? What ought we to do? Here's a hint: Trust God; take your reverent best guess; and then just do it.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!