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‘I love you.’ Those are always welcome words to hear. They’re always welcome words to say too. But I suspect that there have never been three, more misused or misunderstood words in the human language than those three words. ‘I love you.’
What do those words mean to us when we hear them spoken to us? And what do we mean when we speak these words to someone else?
It’s such a simple sentence, yet so hard to understand. ‘I love you’ is a one-way road that runs from sender to receiver, from lover to beloved. In it’s purest form, ‘I love you’ means that I will surrender all of my wants and desires for the sake of your welfare and wellbeing and happiness, unconditionally, without any conditions attached.
Unfortunately, we fling this little phrase around pretty carelessly sometimes. We fail to understand that no other sentence in the human language requires the connection between words and deeds like this sentence does. St. John writes, ‘Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.’ (1John 3:18).
Mommy and Daddy say to child, ‘we really want you to show us that you respect the things that we have bought you and so we want you to put your clothes away where they belong and keep your room neat. That shows us that you appreciate and respect the way that we provide for you.’ And the child says, ‘I love you Mommy and Daddy,’ and the room remains a disaster area.
Husbands say to their wives, ‘I love you dear.’ And sometimes the message is punctuated with a bouquet of flowers and a box of candy or a nice 5 wt., fly rod. And the wife says, ‘great, I’m so glad that you’re willing to lay down your life for me, just as Christ laid down His life for His bride, the Church. And the flowers and candy are nice, but what I’d really appreciate is if you would you do the dishes and give me a break with the kids’? ‘Sorry honey, I’ve got to run.’ And on the way out the door he says, ‘I love you, dear.’ And we wonder why wives don’t submit to a husband’s ‘love’ as the Church submits to the love of Christ.
So, when we say, ‘I love you,’ what do we mean? How do we love our beloved, not just in words, but in deeds? And now consider this, if we are confused about how we are to love our loved ones, then it should come as no surprise that we are also confused about how to love God.
As children of God, we say, ‘I love you, God.’ But how do we show our love for God so that we love God in both word and deed? Before we start thinking of all the clever ways we can show our love to God, such as giving Him our heart, as if He should be pleased with a rotten, sinful thing as that. Or, letting God take control of our lives, with the minor exception of our time, talents and our treasures. Jesus, who is God, says, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.’
That’s not the way that we would have chosen to love God. Keeping His commandments seems so basic. We’re so past all of that. Surely God must be too. We’re into newer and jazzier ways to love God than keeping the commandments. We don’t even know what the 10 Commandments are.
But then again, Jesus does summarize the 10 Commandments as ‘love.’ He summarizes the 1st Table like this, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind.’
But we have already devoted a large portion of our heart and soul and mind to other gods and when push comes to shove, we obey them rather than the Lord God. Yet still we say, ‘I love you God.’
But we’ve already made commitments to others that we’re not willing to break, even if it means breaking the commitment to keep the Sabbath day holy. Yet still we say, ‘I love you God.’
Jesus summarizes the 2nd table like this, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’
But our neighbors are not very loveable. And we’re very busy. And we don’t see how loving our neighbor connects to loving God. We agree we shouldn’t hate our neighbor but loving him goes a bit too far. Yet still we say, ‘I love you God.’
So, where does that leave us? Well, if we can be honest with ourselves, it leaves us with only one thing to say, ‘I do not love you God. For, if I did, I would strive to keep Your commandments.’
One of the great things about following a set liturgy that puts God’s own words into our mouths for us to speak back to God, is that we say things to God about ourselves and about God that we would never think to say on our own. ‘We have NOT LOVED YOU with our whole heart, we have NOT LOVED OUR NEIGHBORS as ourselves.’ Rather than coming before God and telling Him how much we love Him, which is not true, we come before God and confess what is most true, ‘We have not loved you.’
And if we’re willing to begin right there, with the truth, then there is a clear path for us to go forward. And the way forward begins with absolution. ‘I forgive you all of your sins.’ That’s how God loves you. Not by keeping your commandments, but by forgiving you all of your sins. It’s the love of God being poured out on you every time.
‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.’ That’s not a deal that Jesus is making with His disciples and it’s not a deal that He makes with you. ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments, and then I will love you.’ No, if that were the deal, then we could be absolutely sure that God would never love us, because we never do keep His commandments.
So, can we begin to see right here that the Christian life is not based upon our love for God? Nor is it based upon our love for our neighbor. If the Christian life and the message of the Gospel were that we are loving people and ‘see how they love one another,’ it would be the most hypocritical religion there ever was.
Religions that try to reach out to others with the message that they produce the most family loving, spouse loving, neighbor loving, earth loving and God loving people there are, have put the emphasis in exactly the wrong place. Who do we really think we’re kidding when we say that we try to win people to Christ by our love? I really don’t think we fool many with that one.
No, the Christian faith and life is based upon God’s love for us. John writes, ‘This is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.’ (1John 4:10).
Thank God that true love is a one-way street and not a two way street. God’s love for us is unconditional. There are no ‘ifs’ involved. God does not love us IF we love Him by keeping His commandments. He loves us, even while we were sinners, even while we do not keep His commandments. He loves us, even while we do not love Him.
This love that Jesus has for us is a self-giving love. Jesus gives us Himself. And with Jesus, we receive the Father and the Holy Spirit, the Triune God. ‘I am in my Father and you are in me and I am in you.’ ‘And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth’ He dwells with you and will be in you.’
Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all dwell in you and you dwell in the Triune God. And with the Triune God there is forgiveness and life and salvation. And there is the ‘LOVE OF GOD.’ Once again, it’s John who writes, ‘GOD IS LOVE.’ The God of love, dwelling in us creates in us a clean heart and a right spirit, and we are converted so that we desire to love God, with true love, real love.
So how do we love God? When Jesus says to His disciples and through them He speaks to us, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments,’ He is referring us to His law.
In the Small Catechism, in the Explanation to the 1st Chief Part ‘ The 10 Commandments, we read that the Law of God has three functions. The first function of the law is to act as a ‘curb.’ This applies to all people, believers and unbelievers alike. If there is going to be an orderly and civil society, all people need to keep the commandments, ‘Honor the authorities,’ ‘no killing,’ ‘no adultery,’ ‘no stealing,’ ‘no lying,’ and so forth. Without this fundamental, moral law in place, the world would be chaos. Which explains a lot really. The Law as a ‘curb’ is enforced with penalties and punishments for breaking it. So, keeping the law as a ‘curb’ is not an act of love. We keep the law as a curb because we’re afraid of the consequences of breaking the law.
The second use of the Law is as a ‘Mirror.’ This applies to believers only. The Law shows us how we stand before God. Whoever looks into the Law, which is perfect and pure, sees just how far short of the keeping the law of God we fall. Anything less than perfect obedience to the 10 Commandments is less than holy and we are far from perfect. And so, this second use of the Law is not about loving God either.
However, this 2nd use of the law is critically important and necessary for the life of faith. For it’s only when we are convicted by the Law that shows us how unloving we really are, that we fall to our knees and cry out for mercy. Lord, have mercy upon me.
And to that plea for mercy, God is always quick to respond with mercy, the mercy that is embodied in His crucified and risen Son, Jesus Christ, who has kept the Law perfectly ON OUR BEHALF, IN OUR PLACE, FOR OUR SAKE. And for His sake, God forgives us our sin and by His perfect obedience declares us perfectly obedient, and He gives us another Helper, the Spirit of Truth, Who will not leave us as orphans, but Who will continue to pour the love of God into our hearts.
So, how is a poor, miserable sinner who has been loved by God like this, supposed to show God his love in response? ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.’ The third use of the Law is as a ‘Guide.’ This is how we show our love for God. Don’t be doing things for God and giving things to God that you think will please Him and that you think He’ll appreciate. Chances are, they won’t. This is what pleases Him and what He appreciates.
‘You shall have no other gods besides Me.
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
You shall honor the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
You shall honor your father and your mother.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against you neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.’
‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.’ Not so that God will love you. But because He does.