Redeemer Lutheran, HB
Series A: Acts 17:16-34; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.
At first it might seem Jesus’ words in John 14 sound a bit out of place next to Paul’s bold defense in Athens or Peter’s declaration of holy suffering, holy baptism, and defending the faith in holiness.
If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
But there’s (at least) one common thread woven between all three readings: love from Christ to his disciples, and love from his disciples to God and the neighbor. Or quite simply, love and works. And before you break out into mental jumping jacks, it’s not a chicken and egg scenario. Which came first works or love? Jesus is quite clear: love then the deeds; not, deeds then love.
In John 14, Jesus keeps his disciples – and promises to send the Holy Spirit to continue keeping them – as they love and keep his commandments. Christ’s love sustains and keeps the disciples as they love and live in his word and teachings.
In 1 Peter 3, Jesus’ love is revealed in this righteous death for us the unrighteous. And our love to the neighbor is revealed in making a defense for the reason for the hope that is within us, and doing it with gentleness and reverence, having a good conscience…how? In Baptism where you received that holy, humble, and clean conscience before God. And so your neighbor is whoever is close to you on the roads, in your home, at church, or in your communities. God places people in your life in order for you to make a defense for the hope that is in you…even when, especially when, you are slandered and reviled for doing good.
Sounds like Paul in Act 17. The Greeks called him a babbler. Foreigner. Preacher of strange divinities. The Epicurean and Stoic philosophers brought him to the Areopagus – a public forum or marketplace of ideas - to be a circus pet, someone who would entertain their ears with a new teaching. And Paul revealed God’s love by making a well-crafted and faithful proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection.
If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
First comes love. And this is opposite of the world’s love. According to our Old Adam love is a transaction, a deal to be made, and strings attached. Don’t just tell me you love me; show me. But really, who needs your love and good works, God or your neighbor? Listen to Paul again: “God is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything.”
God doesn’t need your good works but your neighbor does. That’s how you love him, by loving the neighbor. Not for yourself. That’s not a good work. Love as response, not reward. That’s the pattern.
Christ’s love is opposite of the world: giving unconditionally. It’s about sacrifice and forgiveness, not merit and reward. And that’s how Christians are called to live. We love because Christ first loved us. We keep Christ’s commandments and Word because Christ keeps us, fulfilled the commandments for us, laid down his life and rose again for us.
But again, this is opposite of the way the world loves. There’s always a catch we say. That’s the way the Greeks worshiped in Athens. And, here, Paul’s observation about Athens still holds true today: “men of Athens; I perceive that in every way you are very religious.”
All of life is liturgical; it’s full of ritual. From the time we get up, whatever your morning ritual is, to the time we go to bed. And ritual isn’t just a part of our personal lives. It’s life. G to a USC or UCLA game – there’s liturgy and ritual all around you: game day traditions, seasons, proper vestments, saints, songs, stadiums. Wherever we go the objects of our worship surround us. We’ve a plethora of altars dedicated to the pantheon of our unknown gods.
And don’t forget the popular cliché: “I’m spiritual, not religious.” Ironically, that’s a religious statement. A claim to truth. A confession: for Old Adam’s god of choice is to worship the trinity of me, myself, and I.
So don’t fall for the old canard that people don’t like the liturgy. It’s not that people don’t like ritual, liturgy, and routines. It’s that our sinful flesh doesn’t like anything which points us away from and outside of ourselves and onto Christ and his work for us. There’s a little Epicurean and Stoic philosopher in each of us, always looking for something new to scratch our itching ears, something new and entertaining.
In many ways our culture is similar to the Athens that Paul encountered. You don’t have to go to the marketplace or the Areopagus; just have to go online. It’s all there. All 31 religious flavors and then some. Angry atheists. Skeptical skeptics. And we, as the baptized priesthood of Christ are given to be His apologists, to give a defense for what we believe and why.
And yet we don’t. Perhaps we don’t know why we believe what we believe, or even what we believe. And there’s no need for that. We all have Bibles, Bible classes, the Confessions.
Maybe we don’t speak because we think in terms of success and failure. We’ve bought into the world’s notion of performance, as though we were salesmen and the church is a business. Paul didn’t worry how many believed or not in Athens. That was God’s business. Paul’s business was to declare and defend the Gospel. You can’t fail except not to open your mouth, when called upon, to speak. Not like a religious nutcase. But simply in your daily life. When you live as one who has hope because Christ has risen, people will want to know what makes you stand out – that’s a good thing.
But really we don’t speak because we are afraid. Afraid of the ridicule from others. Maybe they’ll laugh, call be a babbler and a fool. Paul faced the same. And yet, like Paul, you know the truth: that the ungodly stand justified before God because of what Jesus did – His perfect life, His death, His resurrection. Sinners stand forgiven. Children of Adam are declared to be children of God. Death is not the end of life but in Christ is the beginning of eternal life. You know where to find Christ to save you and for you to worship Him: in the preached Word, in the Sacrament, joined to His Body the church. You know these things.
And yet we’ve all failed. It’s easier to talk about sports or the weather or anything but the most important thing.
But our silence is our sin. Thankfully, that sin and all sins are washed away, just like our sin of failing to love God and keep his commandments and love our neighbor. Baptism washes it all away. Clean.
A good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are free, forgiven people. We have nothing to lose because we have everything in Christ. We have nothing to fear, because faith in Christ trumps all fear. We have no reason not to speak, because it’s not we who are speaking but Christ who works in and through us and the Spirit of truth He sends to us.
So, how does a Christian go about loving God and keeping his commandments? Do you have a manual? Is it to be like St. Paul?
No, but by dropping dead and rising again in Baptism. By the Law killing us and the Gospel making us alive. Sin enslaves. But Christ’s death for your sin sets you free. And if the Son sets you free you are free indeed. Free to love. Free to keep his commandments. Forgiveness means freedom. Freedom to fail, freedom to risk, freedom to worship, freedom to speak. Freedom even to suffer for the sake and name of Christ. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven…
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God
You are forgiven and freed to stand before the scoffers and the skeptics as well as the genuinely curious and tell them the reason for the hope you have in this life. Not like Darth Vader says by searching your feelings. But on account of the sacrificial blood of Jesus your sins are forgiven, you are justified before God, you are covered with a righteousness not your own but that of Christ’s, that because He lives, you will live, and that not even death can separate you from God’s love in Jesus Christ, that in Baptism you are united in his dying and rising, that in the water you have a real washing away of sins. Baptism saves you, just as it did Zoey this day; that in the Supper you personally receive the tokens of His sacrifice, His own Body and Blood, that Christ speaks the words of forgiveness into your ears through the pastor He sent to you.
What’s more, Jesus doesn’t abandon you as orphans. He gives you the Holy Spirit who prepares you to make a defense to anyone who asks you what you believe and why.
And it’s Christ’s love keeping you even as you struggle to keep his commandments and love one another. Jesus knows it’s a struggle. He knows we are weak. He knows our guilt, sin, and death. He knows it all better than you know yourself. But as much as you struggle and wrestle and die to sin, Christ has struggled and wrestled harder for you, even to the point of death on the cross. As much as you strive to keep the commandments, know that Christ has perfectly kept them for you. And he perfectly keeps you in his dying and rising.
It is not your love for others that sustains your faith in Christ, but Christ’s love for you that sustains you in your love for others.
And it is Christ’s love that keeps you, even as you keep his commandments and love one another.