Becoming Disciples: Keep My Commandments
For the past few weeks we’ve been living in the light of Easter, following the first disciples around and trying to figure out, along with them, what the unbelievable events of Easter might mean in our everyday, post-Easter quest to follow Jesus.
Many of the Gospel passages in our lectionary cycle following Easter tell about post resurrection appearances of Jesus. This week and last week, however, we read about a conversation Jesus had with his disciples before his death and resurrection ever happened. The reason we look back on this conversation now, in the light of Easter, is that this is undoubtedly an interchange the disciples kept revisiting, too. You know how it is: after a traumatic event occurs you can’t help but look back and try to piece together all the clues, the signs that something big was about to happen, to relive important conversations and say to each other: “So, that’s what he meant!”. This was certainly one of those conversations the disciples remembered after Jesus’ death and resurrection. I guess the compilers of the lectionary cycle thought it might be worth another look for you and me, too. You can turn with me in your Bibles to page 877 and look a little more closely at our passage for today.
Chapter 14 of John’s Gospel is found in the middle of several chapters that scholars call, “Jesus’ Farewell Address,” a compilation of some of Jesus’ final, wrap-up thoughts, last minute nuggets of advice and reminders before they faced all the changes ahead of them. In our passage today, beginning in verse 15, Jesus begins by reminding the disciples to “keep my commandments.”
Can you imagine what a relief it was for the disciples to hear such a directive from Jesus, especially after listening to him talk for years about such esoteric stuff that they couldn’t understand for the life of them? Love your enemies and bless those who curse you??!? Finally, something concrete and laid out clearly—Keep My Commandments.
The disciples could definitely handle commandments. Remember that they were devout, practicing Jews and had been since birth. They knew about all 613 Mizvot, or commandments of the law, and they knew their obligation to keep them. When Jesus said, “keep my commandments,” it surely was a brief moment when the light dawned. And what the disciples understood was a certain way of looking at human life and relationship with God, a way that involved meeting certain requirements and, as a result obtaining a certain result.
That, they could definitely understand.
I imagine that when the first disciples were thinking about Jesus’ call to keep commandments they must have been thinking about something like what we’ve experienced over the last five years of living in our newly renovated facility here at church. As you can probably guess, there are many requirements imposed by the District regarding very simple details, like number of exits, handicapped access venues, emergency lighting. We had to meet all of these requirements, as you know, before we could inhabit the new space. One part of our space, however, was particularly challenging when it came to meeting the District’s requirements: the childcare suite.
Do you know how long and detailed the seemingly endless list of requirements for certification of a childcare center is? I’d bet most of you would be shocked at the degree of detail the government dictates in a childcare center. Last time I checked, the manual of regulations was 187 pages long, full of detailed rules and requirements. And, unless you meet them all, check off the details, even the smallest and most minute, you cannot receive certification. No exceptions. Talk about keeping commandments!
In the case of state licensed childcare centers, there are “commandments” for everything from diapers to food storage, the size of toilets to the staff-to-child ratio. Hand washing rules, with signs posted, fire drill plans (also with posted signs), sterilization of toys, specifications related to play equipment…the list is endless. The director of the childcare center in our building,Tracy, worked for years (I am not exaggerating) to try to meet the requirements of the District government licensing system. There were numerous inspections by government employees assigned to make sure every single thing met the detailed rules. Time after time, inspectors would come in with their clipboards and lists and, inevitably, find some very minor detail that did not meet standards, so it was back to the drawing board.
The day finally, finally came when all of the boxes were checked, all of the requirements met, all of the rules followed. On that day, director Tracy and Milestones Development Center finally got their certification.
Now, of course, in order to keep that licensing current, the childcare suite has to be inspected periodically. A representative from the licensing office at the city will show up unexpectedly, with another clipboard and another list, and check off, one by one, all the requirements the childcare center is or is not meeting.
Keeping commandments. It’s something we understand, and it was something the first disciples understood for sure. It must have been kind of a relief to the disciples to hear Jesus say that what he wanted was for them to keep his commandments. And since we are following Jesus’ first followers’ examples, the same must be true for us, right? If we keep his commandments, we should be good to go.
To that end, I’ve asked Ellen to help me prepare an Excel spreadsheet with a list of all the commandments we’ll need to cover. Each list is pretty extensive, but not quite 187 pages. It’s only Christian discipleship, after all. I’ll pass those out now, and we can start immediately thinking about how each of us is doing in terms of successful following. You’ll each be given a rating, and then you can easily see what areas need improvement before Jesus will know for sure that you love him, okay?
Yes it does sound ridiculous, because it is ridiculous.
In fact, following a rigorous, predetermined set of rules is not what Jesus meant at all when he asked the disciples to keep his commandments. Turns out Jesus was talking here less about a prescription or assignment for discipleship, and more about the intense and rigorous life practice of a disciple—an entirely new and different way of life. In fact, the closer we read this passage, the more concerned we should probably get about what exactly this life of discipleship entails.
For one thing, in this passage Jesus reminds us that the commitment of a disciple is motivated not by wanting to attain a certain level of achievement, or to avoid punishment, or even to make God happy. Instead, we live the life of disciples solely because we love God. Our behavior is motivated by love.
This should be enough to make us immediately suspicious, don’t you think? After all, people do a lot of crazy things for love. Acting with the motivation of deep love and commitment, in fact, often leads us to behave in ways that people around us might find a little odd, if not completely crazy altogether. But, I think Jesus was saying that it should. Have you ever thought that Jesus might be cluing us in here on the fact that he knew, even before the disciples knew, what a huge commitment the life of faith would be?
If the first sentence doesn’t make you think twice, then surely the next phrase should perk our ears up. It’s here that Jesus talks about the coming of the Holy Spirit, and he calls the Spirit, “the advocate”. The word for “advocate” is the same word one would use to say lawyer. So, what should it tell us that Jesus says to his disciples, “Don’t worry, I’ve got you a good lawyer”? No offense to the many fine lawyers sitting among us today, but it’s usually a pretty serious life situation if one requires the services of a lawyer, an advocate. At the very least, Jesus is saying something like: “In those inevitable moments when being a disciple makes you feel like you’re all alone, that nobody understands what you’re doing or why, and that your convictions make you subject to ridicule, somebody will be there with you.” But, it’s possible that Jesus is also saying something a little more urgent: that your choice to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ will put you in situations where you will feel vulnerable and alone because of the positions you take motivated by your faith. And, even then you will have someone there with you to defend you. Of course he goes on to qualify this with the disclaimer that the world will not be able to see or recognize this advocate, so people may think you’re even more crazy when you tell them the Spirit is with you, but don’t worry…even when the whole world turns against you, God will be there. You just won’t be able to see him.
In fact, this whole idea of being left alone, abandoned, seems to be something Jesus knew would be part of the life of a disciple. After all, it’s hard to buck the system, to follow the commandments of God, to live the life of discipleship. There are moments, Jesus knew, when we would feel totally, utterly alone. In response to these, he says, “I will not leave you orphaned.” In other words, when everybody else ditches you, when you feel like you’re crazy for making some of the commitments you’ve made, when the life of discipleship seems to make no sense at all and you feel like you’re way out on a limb all by yourself, I will not leave you.
See what I mean about my confusion regarding the way people read this passage as a passage of comfort and sweet affirmation?
If you take the time to really listen to what Jesus is saying here you will know without a doubt that keeping Jesus’ commandments, living the life of discipleship, will be a huge commitment. It will not fit well into our prescribed and pre-planned lives. It will not allow us to just dabble in its exercise when we feel like it, or revisit its expression when it’s convenient for us, or even complete a detailed list of requirements for discipleship certification or something like that.
Following Jesus is nothing like, in fact, the state’s inspection for childcare facility certification. Rather, becoming a disciple, keeping Jesus’ commandments, is something that takes over every part of our beings. It challenges our former assumptions. It makes us uncomfortable. It asks us to sacrifice in ways we never thought we would or could, even. It makes people around us suspicious of our motives and even our mental health. It flies in the face of the way of this world. It’s hard.
There are several folks in our community of faith who have recently taken on physical challenges like long running races, biking competitions, triathalons. Keeping up with their progress has made me revisit the only occurrence of such an event in my life—a long time ago, and completely involuntary, I have to confess. I told the Wednesday Night Words group about this a little bit when we met this week.
When I was a freshman in high school I attended a school for children of Hawaiian decent. It had become clear through research and study that the Hawaiian population was inordinately at risk for diseases related to obesity: high blood pressure, heart attacks, diabetes, etc., due directly to causes like poor diet and lack of physical exercise. As a result, somebody got the great idea to require every single freshman in the school to complete either a 2.5 mile swim or a 15 km run, our choice, for which we would train all semester long. Further, each student had to complete either event in order to move up to 10th grade.
Every day in PE class we would have to do a run or a swim; I chose to run. So, every morning I would wake up, get dressed, do my hair very carefully in case I ran into a cute boy on the bus, arrive at school, and proceed to first period—PE—where I would drag myself up and down the hills of the campus completing the assigned run of the day, rush to shower in time to get to my second period class, and spend the rest of the day with limp hair and running eye make-up. Gorgeous.
Every morning as I slogged my way up and down the hills I felt more and more sure that there was no possible way I would ever successfully complete a 15 km. The task seemed overwhelming, so far outside any reality I could imagine, that I got pretty discouraged, I have to say. Sweat, pain, shin splints…I had all of it, not to mention the number it did on my hairstyle. But I completed the assignment, every single day, wondering how on earth I would ever be able to do the whole race at the end.
Some of you may have guessed by now that I actually did end up passing 9th grade. I can’t say that it was pretty, but I did complete that semester requirement. On the day of the race I joined everybody else, pinning a race number on my t-shirt, and starting the course. I’d never actually run 15km before, even though I’d gone to PE faithfully every day, and there were times over the course of that run that I felt like giving up. It was too hard; I thought I would never make it; as the day went on I got further and further away from my group of friends—falling to the back of the crowd—and I felt like I was all alone, struggling desperately all by myself.
I made it, though. In the end, I finished the race. I can’t say what it was that got me to the finish line…it could have been concern for my grade, pure stubbornness, or something like that. More likely, though, it was the cheers of those on the sidelines, my classmates running alongside (and eventually up ahead) of me, the incredibly beautiful course that ran along the ocean on the West side of the island. I remember that when I wanted so much to give up, to pack it in, I could hear the cheers of those who were watching…I could give a high five to a friend as she passed…I could look out over the vast stretch of ocean and remember again that I am a very small part in the large and beautiful world around me, and this experience is only a tiny piece of everything that makes up my life.
Thank goodness I had all of these things; I don’t think I would have made it otherwise. And, frankly, I think it would be a little embarrassing to be my age and still stuck in 9th grade. For the 26th year in a row….
Such is the kind of experience for which Jesus was trying to prepare his disciples, and prepare us. Because the life of faith is not so much like a list that the DC City government brings by to check, one by one, for issues of compliance. Instead, it’s more like a test of endurance, life turned on its head and lived in a whole new way day in and day out, in the moments when it seems hard and pointless and discouraging. Even then.
In other words, when Jesus said, “Keep my commandments,” he was not thinking of a black and white list kept neatly on a clipboard, through which we may be examined and judged on our achievement and compliance. No, in fact the life of a disciple is much more rigorous than that. Why else would we need the words of deep comfort and reassurance Jesus said to his first followers? Becoming disciples means that we get up every morning and slog our way through the training that’s required. We make commitments that seem beyond our capabilities and certainly outside the designations of sanity for many observing. And we keep going.
It’s no cakewalk, that’s for sure. In the course of becoming disciples, of learning to keep God’s commandments in every area of our lives, we will wonder why on earth we ever thought this was a good idea in the first place. We will get tired—so tired that we’re sure we can’t take one more step, that there’s no possible way we could move even another inch in this race of faith. As we go, we won’t be able to see much past our stumbling feet right in front of us. We’ll see people along the way who are taking shortcuts, or for whom the whole endeavor seems effortless. We probably won’t be able to even catch a glimpse of where we’re going, much less train our eyes on it.
So why do we do it?
Why even try to keep God’s commandments, to live the life of a disciple?
Why, for the very same reasons we began in the first place. We believe in the transforming power of the Gospel message. We believe that God is at work in our world and in our lives. We can see the community of faith is transforming everything it touches. We can see enough, that we can summon the courage to take one more step, to keep walking the journey.
Jesus told his first followers that part of becoming disciples was keeping his commandments. And here we are, 2000 years later, still trying to figure out what it means to become a disciple of Jesus Christ. “If you love me you will keep my commandments,” Jesus said, but there’s so much more to his instruction than just following a set of rules. Instead, we’re invited on a long, rigorous, incredibly beautiful journey, a journey that, with each step, works to soften our hearts and change our minds and slowly, gradually, help us become disciples.
May it be so.