It can be the phrase people use to manipulate a lover: If you really loved me, you would … buy me something expensive / seriously compromise your integrity to do what I want / deny your responsibility to other people in order to please me alone / or whatever. The message is that if you really loved me, you would do everything to please me. It’s all about ME, ME, ME. It’s a line that bad parents sometimes spin to their kids, or self-centred people to their lovers. It’s a dynamic you see in stories and films and music. There are a couple of novels, a film, and at least two songs: “If you really love/d me”, including a brilliant parody by Tim Minchin which shows just how creepy it can be as a line, but it was too rude to show in church.
So in today’s Gospel, Jesus says: If you love me – if you really love me – you will keep my commandments. And he’s not saying: If you really loved me you would do what I tell you, NO. If you remember the story that the other Gospels tell about Jesus and Commandments, he says that the Commandments are really about loving God and loving your neighbour. So Jesus is saying: If you really loved me, Jesus, you would love God and love your neighbour. He is pointing away from himself to God and to your neighbour. It’s not about manipulating us, his followers, but pointing us to a right way of living.
And we are not on our own in this, because Jesus is promising to send help. He is telling the disciples on the night before he dies that he is going away. He knows he is going to die. He knows that he will rise again, and the disciples will see him once more when they are not expecting it. All that is to come. But then, after all that, after Jesus has gone from them a second time, he will send the Advocate, the one who will stand up for them; the Counsellor, the one who will guide them and gently challenge them; the Spirit of Truth, who will point them to what is right and good and true, and who will measure them by the Truth – the Holy Spirit. It is two weeks to Pentecost, and we are beginning to get hints about what is going to happen.
The Holy Spirit will be there for us to help us love God and love our neighbours. And remember that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves, so you need to learn to love yourself in a good way, not a selfish way. And that is part of the package.
It is part of the ongoing relationship between God and us, which has changed and developed over the centuries and reached its climax in Jesus.
The Old Testament reading gave us the second half of the Noah story that we were thinking about last week. The rain has stopped, the waters have subsided, and Noah is able to open the ark and let the family and all the animals go free. And the first thing he does is worship God and offer to God the best of what he has. They have been left with nothing but a boatful of animals, everything else has been destroyed, and Noah sacrifices the best of the beasts. God promises never to attempt to wipe out humanity again, and establishes the rainbow as a sign of the relationship between humans and God.
In Jesus, that relationship between God and us moves on, because Jesus shows us what it means to integrate being fully human and being divine, what it means to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves.
In the New Testament reading, Paul is trying to get this across to the people of Athens. They were pagans, and had loads of gods. There was always room for another, as far as the Athenians were concerned. Paul, in his sermon, tells them about the One True God who made everything and is everywhere, except in idols, and cares about what we do and think and say. He is telling the Athenians that a relationship with God means letting go of trying to find blessings from idols. Which may sound a bit irrelevant to us, except that there are people all around us trying to find blessings in money, power, celebrity and status, which are the idols of today.
So it all comes down to love – our relationship with Jesus, with God, with our neighbour, with ourselves – love that doesn’t manipulate us or require us to manipulate others, but what does that mean in practice?
Look around at what’s going on in our world:
Elections. Did you vote? Voting is an act of caring about our community and our world. I know politics seem a bit rubbish at the moment, but if we don’t vote, it remains rubbish. And in 12 months time we get the big one, the General Election. That has a big impact on our lives and the people we care about.
Christian Aid. Making a contribution, doing some extra fund-raising is about caring for people in our world who are really suffering, perhaps as a result of violence and war.
Loan Sharks. I went on a training session the other night on being aware of illegal Loan Sharks and the damage they cause to people who are already struggling. People have been destroyed by small debts that just mount up and become massive. We were encouraged to watch out and told how and where to report any concerns we have.
All of these are ways in which we love our neighbours – and many others. As well as showing personal care.
If you love me, Jesus says, you will keep my commandments. You will love God and love your neighbour. And love yourself.