1 John 5:1-6
“The Lord will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.”
“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… love one another.”
“You are my friends if you do what I command you … love one another.” I wonder about the “if.” The very fact that I wonder, the fact that the “if” threatens me, indicates that I read Christ the way I read a legal contract: as a matter of law. It tells me that, when push comes to proverbial shove, I hear Christ’s command not as gift, but as burden. It tells me that I don’t abide in Christ’s love; that I’m not Christ’s friend; that I don’t qualify. Which (from my side) is true, and yet (from Christ’s side), is false.
Still, the “if” haunts me. It condemns me to uncertainty at best. Worse than that, the if subverts even my uncertainty, leaving me with the certainty that I don’t abide in Christ, that I fail Christ’s love. So long as the “if” endures, the best I can hope for is a certain uncertainty: the lingering suspicion that I’m not. But, then, according to St. Paul, uncertainty may suggest hope, the very ground in which Christ grows faith.
Did you ever doubt your mother’s love? Hollis did. When Hollis was five years old, there was a day when he could not believe his mother loved him. His family had just moved into a neighborhood of farmlets—little weekend acreages with small barns, a couple of out buildings, a pasture, a hay field, a small orchard, and neighboring houses across the fields.
Linda and Bill lived to one side, Pete and Irene on the other. Linda was also five, and became friends with Hollis that first week. Each day when kindergarten was over, they’d race from the bus, have a snack, and then meet in the field to plan adventures. Sometimes they’d chase chickens; sometimes they’d explore the woods or throw rocks at cattle. Or they’d play hide and seek in the barn. Then, one day, they decided to take off their clothes and race naked around the hay mow. They had a blast chasing each other shrieking at the top of their lungs. It was perfect Eden until Maxine, Linda’s frantic mother, discovered them. Their shrieks had caught Maxine’s ear. Suddenly, she was there: an enormous cat pouncing on a cowering mouse. The field stretched continental as furious Maxine dragged Hollis pell-mell across it, swatting his bare behind with every giant step.
By the time Maxine delivered Hollis into the hands of his mother at the back door, he knew he had committed mortal sin, that he was as good as dead, that judgment would be swift, that he would never again be welcomed home, or anywhere else in the neighborhood. As Maxine proclaimed his sin, he was certain he’d forfeited his mother’s love: he’d be disowned, sent away—probably to “Woodburn,” the infamous reform school, the place his older brother had said was a hell hole from which you could never return. He’d have to pack his bag and forfeit his dinner. The police would soon arrive and take him away.
As Maxine turned and huffed off back across the field, Hollis waited for the hammer to come down. Standing stark naked inside the utility room, shivering with fear, he awaited the worst: judgment, condemnation, rejection. Shaking her head, his mother left the room, and went inside. He could hear her footsteps on the stairs. Maybe she was going to get a gun. Maybe she was going to get a suitcase. Maybe she was going to get his little brother to protect the sleeping child from the shame of such a wayward brother.
It wasn’t long before she was back: no gun; no suitcase; no baby brother. She had gone to fetch some clothes. “Here,” she said, “Put these on while I make you a sandwich.” Hollis was crying and, amid his tears, saying how sorry he was. But, seeing the clothes and hearing “Sandwich,” he managed to mumble, “Aren’t you mad?”
“Oh,” she said, “I’m a little mad at Maxine for getting so worked up over the two of you. That’s just something kids do. I’d probably be a little angry at you if you did it again. But I expect you’ve learned it’s best to keep your clothes on when playing with the neighbors.” “Here,” she said, “Eat your sandwich, and don’t worry too much about Maxine. She’ll get over it. I just hope Linda doesn’t get it any worse than you did.”
Linda and Hollis never spoke of it, so he never knew. But he did know this: there’s a world of difference between the varieties of love. When Christ Jesus bids us abide in his love, he says we can trust the dependability of his love, not ours. Whereas our love for anything and everything is inconstant, and changing with the weather, or with age and circumstance, Christ’s love for us is constant, unchanging, and eternal. As Luther might say, we cannot of our own ignorance or weakness alter Christ’s love. Christ’s love is more like a mother’s—only stronger, more durable, and utterly dependable. Yet a mother’s love (or indeed any parent’s love), impressive though it may be, is merely a sign of that love which Christ alone exhibits not merely for good people but especially for the bad, for us not merely when we’re lovable, but most especially when we’re not—when the “if” haunts, and we know in ourselves that we fail Christ and his commands. Even so, and especially then, Christ abides. His cross-death signs his love. He bears the shameful pain for us. The death we deserve, he takes upon himself. This, then, is love: we did not choose him, but he chose us, and gave himself for us when we were naked, afraid, and trembling at the door in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.