What are the Commandments Taught by Christ?

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The political and cultural climate of the United States in the late 1960s was tumultuous. The country was at war, both militarily as well as symbolically. Lines were drawn and mistrust abounded; doubt in the ability of government to make appropriate decision lurked everywhere, unrest was sending a shiver through the local communities and record inflation was on the horizon. Then in 1967, the Beatles released their hit song, “All You Need is Love.” The lyrics were simple and the melody easy to sing; perhaps the song was even an attempt to provide an antidote to the state of discontentment. But even within the “flower power” movement, it was not a time where love came easy for anyone.

In Christian theology, it can be easy to quip that the answer is always love, and this can apply to just about any question you ask about God and the world. As simple as Lennon’s lyrics are in this hit song, love is far from simple, at least not the kind of love that Christ taught during his ministry that transformed the world. In the gospel of John, we find Jesus explaining his commandment to the disciples.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.  John 15:12-17

This text can be closely linked to the commandments from Jesus on love found in the gospel of Matthew.

36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  Matthew 22: 36-40 

Being loved is one of the most basic of human needs. Food, water and shelter might keep you alive, but you cannot truly live without love. Jesus’ disciples are just like the rest of us, looking to Christ to understand how to live out our faith in the world. They were asking Jesus to unlock the code, give them the playbook and show them the way within their new Jewish paradigm. They were like high schoolers quizzing the teacher about an exam, wanting to know what was going to be on the test so they could make sure to study the right material. But it just isn’t that simple. Love is just not that simple.

Jesus commands us to love. Love God. Love one another. Love ourselves. The love Jesus is talking about is agape love, God’s way of loving us. Do not confuse this form of love with the common human ways of love such as the kind typically shown to friends and significant others.[i] What Jesus is NOT teaching is that we should have different kinds of love; our love of God and our love of one another should not be different at all. We should love one another and God as passionately, deeply and sacrificially as Christ loves us. And that is where the rubber meets the road.

Love is an action word. The feelings we get when we feel love for someone are simply a symptom or an indicator, a sign of love rather than the entirety of the love itself. When we love as Christ commands us, we look at that person as Christ would, seeing Christ embodied within that person, that neighbor, that stranger, that friend, and that enemy. And when we can do that, we can respond with love to their needs. We can freely feed the hungry, willingly part with our money for the poor, and lift up in love those that have been relegated to the margins by our loveless view of the world existing beyond the comfort and safety of our surroundings. Our protective circles of friends and family often prevent us from doing the very thing that Jesus commands us to do, so must seek out ways to find and respond to the cries of the needy. Seeing the world afresh with a Christ-like perspective allows us to forgive those who have wronged us, find common ground with those with whom we disagree, and to extend grace and mercy to all we meet. This is God’s command for us, and through our baptism, we are equipped and have committed ourselves to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves” (BCP, 305).

God commands us to agape love. This is not a suggestion or good advice. Our response to Christ’s commandment is to seek and serve others. Christ came to transform the world and though the command is not an easy one to follow, it is the one that joins us with Christ in that transformation of all of creation.

[i]   Jaime Clark-Soles, Reading John for Dear Life (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 96.

 

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How Can We Share in Christ's Victory Over Sin, Suffering and Death?

Sometimes we call the Sacraments (i.e. Holy Communion, Unction, Penance) “Means of Grace.” This is a peculiar, but very useful way to speak about these great gifts of Christ to his people. What is meant by the word “means” is simply that they are a way or conduit for something, which is of course God’s grace to us in Christ Jesus. “Means of Grace” are the touch stones, or pin point locations where God has promised to be, bestowing his gifts to those who seek him there. This is not to say that they are the only places where he can be found doing this of course, but rather that these are places where all people can find him. The other places we often find him in our day to day lives are unique to us as individuals but in these seven places (the seven Sacraments) he can be found by all, for all. These “Means” are of course not the only place we can and do find grace. God’s grace is poured out upon all people all their whole lives long. Before we even know our need of it grace often is already there as a tool that God uses to lead and guide us to himself. But the Sacraments are places that are definitive places we can flee to when we are lost or cannot see or hear God’s call to us through the every day grace in the lives we live.

Now what has that got to do with the question before us?! Everything! In fact Sacraments (and in particular one Sacrament as we shall see) are the places where Christ is sharing with us his own victory over sin, suffering, and death, that is to say they are where he is bestowing his grace freely and for all. Each and every one of the Sacraments applies God’s grace, and therefore each and everyone of them bestows the forgiveness which Christ won for us in his victory on the Cross. In fact the giving of grace, and the forgiveness of sins is part and parcel of what it means for something to be a Sacrament. The place we see this most clearly is in the first of all Sacraments, that is Holy Baptism.

Much has been made in modern times about Baptism’s ability to incorporate the individual into the whole, that is to say, to make us members of the church. This is a very good thing indeed! In fact this is why the proper place to a baptismal font is near the entrance to the church. It is also why we put stoops of Holy Water near the doors of the church, to remind us that through our own baptisms we gained entrance to Christ’s body. However, there is something much more important that goes on in Baptism without which none of us could ever gain entrance into the church or be one with Christ.

That “something” is called Baptismal regeneration. It means that we are born anew or again in the waters of Baptism (John 3:5,6). In Baptism our old life of sin is brought to an end and a new rises with Christ (Romans 6:4). Just as he won life by losing his own, so we if we are willing to live a new and eternal life in him must be willing to die to self and rise to Christ the Life of the world. We must die to our sinful ways and the only way we are able to do that is through the power of forgiveness. It was forgiveness that Jesus won in his victory over sin, suffering, and death. Not his own of course but ours, and it is through forgiveness (which is nothing more or less than grace applied directly to us) that we can and must die and rise with Christ.

What people don’t like about this concept and why it is so often downplayed today is the knowledge that we must first repent of what we are and have been. Even the sweet baby in the white gown, little bonnet, and tiny shoes who is brought to the font has to repent to get this life. Because all of us are born with a fatal inclination to sin, and indeed are “sinful from birth” (Psalm 51:5) we must renounce through repentance what we have been in order to be what Jesus would have us be. We have to cast the old shackles of slavery to sin, death, and the devil behind us, overthrow their rule in our lives and own Jesus as our one and only King. It isn’t a pleasant thought to think that we are born under that dominion, or indeed that we may return to it if we do not continue to live in the grace of which Baptism is a means. However, there can be no victory unless there is someone to win and someone or something to loose, and who better to loose but Satan, who is himself the author of sin, suffering, and death?! Only through Baptism can we be the victors and Satan be the looser, only through forgiveness in Baptism, through Baptismal regeneration (1 Peter 3:21). 

Jesus has won for us a very great victory indeed by passing himself through sin, suffering, and death though he did not deserve them. We can and will share this victory with him only if we are baptized and daily live in the promises of that Baptism. So just as we return to the font when we enter the door of the church, so we must spiritually always return to the place where God has shared his victory with us, granted us his costly grace by freely forgiving us, raised us to a life that will never end, and made us his own for ever. Beginning with Holy Baptism but not ending there God guides us with the grace that comes through the forgiveness of sins all our days. One Sacrament leads to another guiding us through a life of repentance, forgiveness, and growth in holiness. So guided, governed, and loved God at last calls us to share completely in his Victory, he gives it to us so that it becomes our own, for we are “one with him and he with us” (See the Prayer of Humble Access). So thank God for the means of grace, thank God for the places he has promised to be, thank God “who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Corinthians 15:57).

 

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