If on the surface this does not seem too daunting, then we have a very shallow understanding of what Jesus’ commands entail. You have heard it said that Jesus only commanded a handful of things: loving Him as He loved us, remembering Him in the Eucharist, making disciples and baptizing them (clearly something only clergy are expected to do) and possibly washing each other’s feet once a year, if then.
But on closer inspection we remember to our chagrin that there were dozens of other commandments and “words” from Jesus of a far more demanding and comprehensive nature. In a sense we probably could both start and end with just one: “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). That’s harsh. But we can ratchet it up a notch by going just a few chapters later in Luke and finding these words: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26,27). No doubt the “large crowds following Jesus” (vs. 25) heard those words as purely figurative, having no clue at that point that when Jesus spoke of crosses He was not speaking metaphorically. They must have caught the drift in a generalized sort of way that Jesus was speaking of self-sacrifice and hardship, something along the lines of what it would cost to chase around the Holy Land after a migrant miracle-worker. They knew He could not possibly have meant anything more than something vaguely figurative about hating mother, father, children, sisters and brothers, not to mention oneself. It was only natural to throw cross-bearing into that same category of hyperbole.
But here’s the sad truth: that is exactly what most of us do today after 2,000 years of trying to untangle what Jesus meant. We have the huge advantage of 20/20 hindsight and we still take Jesus’ words with many grains of salt. We sing, “Jesus loves me,” and in the next breath sing “O, how I love Jesus,” and then we live pretty much the same as those who lack both this insider knowledge and this pledge of commitment. In our day there are remarkably few persons who live out this or any “commitment.” Instead of showing our love for Jesus by obeying His commandments and His words from the Father, we simply sing the words that Chicagoan Philip P. Bliss penned in 1870:
I am so glad that our Father in Heav’n I am so glad that Jesus loves me,
Tells of His love in the Book He has giv’n; Jesus loves me, Jesus loves me;
Wonderful things in the Bible I see, I am so glad that Jesus loves me,
This is the dearest, that Jesus loves me. Jesus loves even me.
These words are true words, to be sure; but there’s so much more. What’s “more” is that Jesus actually demands that we demonstrate our reciprocal love for Him through our own sacrificial discipleship.
Why is it that we are so resistant to following Jesus according to His own words? I think that for many of us and, at times, perhaps for all of us, following Jesus seems too risky. Consciously or unconsciously we all tend to be more the disciples of hedonism and utilitarianism than of Jesus, weighing the balance of pleasure over pain and deciding that following Jesus does not tilt the scales far enough in the right direction.
But what if we’re wrong? What are we sacrificing when we do that? Even Immanuel Kant understood the “moral imperative” in a sense not altogether different from the understanding of Emmanuel Jesus: our conscience provides a sense of “ought” that should transcend our “reason” whenever the two seem to be in conflict. Accordingly, if Jesus says that we must be cross-bearers who obey His commandments, and our consciences tell us that He must surely be right, then we need to get past our feeling that somehow these demands are unreasonable.
Does Jesus promise us some sort of reward if we do what is right and is in accordance with His commandments and words from the Father? He certainly does! He says, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him” (John 14:23). How can Jesus make good on this incredible promise? Because there is another person of the Godhead provided to make it a reality: He says that the Paraklete, the “Helper, the Holy Spirit, Whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (vs. 26). Why would we forfeit anything as extraordinary as that? “Helper” might be the feeblest and least concrete translation of “Paraklete.” Other translations offer “Advocate,” “Comforter,” “Counselor” and “Intercessor.” The cluster of meanings is blissfully inexhaustible. We often simply reduce it etymologically to “the One Who is called alongside to help,” the very sort of thing every one of us actually craves.
Do we doubt that this reward for obedience to Jesus’ commandments would tilt the scales heavily in favor of pleasure over pain? What else does Jesus promise in this context in addition to a constant Helper who is sent from the Father in His Name? He promises two of the greatest treasures known to humankind: peace and freedom from fear! Where else are we going to find those extraordinary gifts? And they are ours for the taking. Paul assures us that this “peace of God that passes all understanding will guard our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). He writes that “to be spiritually minded is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6). And Jesus tells us in our Gospel reading that the peace He gives is “not as the world gives” (vs. 27), a rather reassuring thought for all of us who know how uncertain and transitory world peace always proves to be.
What about freedom from fear? Here is where Jesus the realist kicks in. Later in this same Upper Room discourse Jesus says, “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world" (16:33). Yes, in the world we will have tribulation: Jesus actually guarantees it. But He promises the antidote for fear: “I have overcome the world.” This is the same God Who said to Isaiah, “Do not fear, for I am with you... for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand” (Is. 41:10). John writes at the end of His life that “perfect love casts out fear” (I John 4:18). And in yet another verse that beautifully connects fearless living with the unity of the Godhead, Paul writes: “For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15).
Again, this intimacy is exactly what Jesus was promising in our Gospel: “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him” (vs. 23). Jesus also said, “You heard that I said to you, ‘I go away, and I will come to you’” (vs. 28), referring to His promise of the Holy Spirit, the Paraklete. And in the next chapter of John’s Gospel Jesus reiterates His promise with a slightly different emphasis: "If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love” (15:10). Reflecting on this many years later, John writes, “We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (I John 4:16).
Yes, there are demanding aspects of keeping Jesus’ commandments and obeying His words. While at times the requirements do indeed seem stiff, this is the same Savior Who reassures us with His promise, “My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). And the rewards are incomparable: Peace, freedom from fear, and intimacy with God the Father and God the Son. Even that’s not all: there is also the promise of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit Who is “called alongside to help,” and Who, in the process, “will teach (us) all things, and bring to (our) remembrance all that (Jesus) said” (vs. 26).
Do we need more incentive than this? To be sure, there is a cost of discipleship and God’s grace does not come cheaply. But the guarantees should propel us forward in our determination to live our lives in ways that are pleasing to Him and in accordance with His commandments.
And so, as Paul exhorts us in Ephesians, “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen