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Today is the sixth Sunday of Easter.
In the weeks since Easter Sunday, we’ve been exploring different angles on “practicing resurrection.” To this point, the journey has given us four windows into what this phrase (from a Wendell Berry poem) means for us today: 1) live with the wildness of surprise; 2) look for God in unexpected places; 3) enact God’s manifesto of solidarity, friendship, hospitality, and prayer; and 4) dwell in the spirit of God.
In this Sunday’s gospel reading, we hear Jesus’ clearest directive of what it means to practice resurrection: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
When Christians read Jesus’ words, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” we most often think of other words from Jesus — what theologians refer to as The Great Commandment — from Matthew 22:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’. . . and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Love God and love your neighbor. That’s it. If you love Jesus, you’ll love God and neighbor.
At face value, it seems quite simple.
Jesus didn’t invent the Great Commandment. He was quoting two commands from the Hebrew scriptures — Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Both of these verses refer back to and summarize the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments (what many Jews call “the ten utterances”), the ten principles that are the basis of biblical law.
Christians often don’t know what to do with the Ten Commandments. Some theological traditions teach that the Ten Commandments were impossible to keep and mostly served as a moral lesson of failure in anticipation of a Messiah who could — and would — perfectly fulfill the Law. Others believe that the Ten Commandments are an appropriate legal guide for societies but add nothing to salvation. Still others argue that Grace completely replaced the Law, making the Commandments essentially moot when it comes to the spiritual life. Still others treat the commandments as a list of “do’s” and “don’ts,” an obedience behavior checklist for children that will eventually be supplanted by specifically Christian ethics found in the New Testament epistles.
Indeed, Christian interpretations of the Ten Commandments are the source of much misunderstanding between Christians and Jews and have often contributed to antisemitism.
The misreadings are not helpful. Easter is, perhaps, the Christian celebration most shaped by Judaism. It isn’t possible to understand Easter without a more sympathetic eye toward its Jewish context.
Passover and Easter are historically entwined, in terms of actual events and in their theological meanings. And each is followed by an additional festival seven weeks from the major feast, fifty days later — when Jews celebrate Shavuot and Christians celebrate Pentecost. These weeks are the weeks in the year in which Christians and Jews are liturgically the closest.
In the Bible, Shavuot marked the wheat harvest in Israel. But rabbinic tradition taught that the date also marks the revelation of the Torah — including the commandments — to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai. Passover leads to the creation of a people covenanted to God, in a community of faith gathered by the Spirit; in the same way, Easter leads to the creation of a people covenanted to God, in a community of faith gathered by the Spirit.
The movement of the two holy days is similar — God’s presence comes down to the people in words and through wonders, and as a result of the holy descent, God’s people are transformed.
In the Gospel of John, when speaking of his upcoming death and the events to follow it, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
The relationship between Christianity and Judaism — between Easter and Passover, between Pentecost and Shavuot — is important to understanding Jesus’ instruction here.
When it comes to practicing resurrection faith, Christians shouldn’t dismiss or diminish the Ten Commandments. They are central to the story. And they are foundational to Jesus’ vision and message.
Indeed, the “love of God” aptly summarizes the first five commandments and the “love of neighbor” covers the second five. The “Great Commandment” is really two commands — and the two stand in for the ten. Love of God and love of neighbor encapsulates the mercy and justice God intends for all of creation — the Decalogue describes the world of God’s desiring.
The real problem of the Ten Commandments isn’t the commandments themselves — the problem is a failure to understand a single word in relation to them. That word is keep.
Too often Christians think of “keep” as “obey.” To obey means to submit perfectly to a rule or directive, to carry out or comply with a direction. That’s the Christian misreading — no one can completely obey the Ten Commandments because human beings always struggle with that sort of “do and don’t” morality.
But the word for “keep” in John 14:15 doesn’t mean “obey.” It means to continue in, to watch over, attend to, guard, or observe. Listen again:
“If you love me, you will attend to my commandments.”
“If you love me, you will guard my commandments.”
“If you love me, you will watch over my commandments.”
“If you love me, you will preserve my commandments.”
“If you love me, you will care for my commandments.”
The word “keep” used in John echoes a Hebrew word found in Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”
Genesis 2:15 isn’t a moral requirement. It is a mandate — a commission — given by God to humankind to attend to and care for the earth. Scholars often refer to it as the “creation mandate.” To keep is that which God bids us to do — and what God gives humanity the authority to do.
And, at the heart of keeping the earth is the keeping of the commandments. We were called to care for the garden by caring for loving God and neighbor. We guard creation. We guard justice.
And keeping — treasuring, really — springs from love.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments” is a mandate like the creation mandate. In the same way that the creation mandate is never rescinded, the mandate to keep God’s law is never rescinded by Jesus. Both mandates are renewed, re-birthed, amplified, and realized in unexpected ways by Jesus’ death and resurrection. In John’s gospel, there is no commission separate from the commandments. Indeed, the commandments are the resurrection mandate. Commands and commission enfold one another in love — and the call to care for all that God loves.
To keep — to guard, watch over, and to attend to God’s creation and do justice — is the mandate for those who love Jesus.
Two weeks ago, we were given the resurrection manifesto —
a public declaration of divine friendship and human solidarity.
Today, we are given the resurrection mandate —
the spiritual directive to carry out God’s love and justice.
Practice resurrection. Keep my commandments: Thou shalt love . . .
The commission comes with a promise, because keeping results in blessing: “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
— Romans 13:8-10
My father was a god and did not know it.
He gave me The Ten Commandments neither in thunder nor in furry;
neither in fire nor in cloud
But rather in gentleness and love.
And he added caresses and kind words and he added “I beg You,” and “please.”
And he sang “keep” and “remember” the Shabbat
In a single melody
And he pleaded and cried quietly between one utterance and the next ,
“Do not take the name of God in vain,” do not take it, not in vain, I beg you,
“Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
And he hugged me tightly and whispered in my ear
“Do not steal. Do not commit adultery. Do not murder.”
And he put the palms of his open hands
On my head with the Yom Kippur blessing.
“Honor, love, in order that your days might be long
On the earth.”
And my father’s voice was white like the hair on his head.
Later on he turned his face to me one last time
Like on the day when he died in my arms and said I want to add
Two to the Ten Commandments:
The eleventh commandment — “Thou shall not change.”
And the twelfth commandment — “Thou must surely change.”
So said my father and then he turned from me and walked off
Disappearing into his strange distances.
— Yehuda Amichai, “The Eleventh and Twelfth Commandments: Don't Change! Change”
I’m drawn to are the words at the beginning of the Decalogue: “I am the Lord your God.”
Who is the source of not only our identity, but our community? Who is the center of our relationships, our interactions, our encounters, our connections? What and how we think about God impacts our thoughts and actions toward neighbors. The commandments, then, are vocational — and they remind us that at the heart of each person’s calling is the call of God, who “spoke these words” to God’s people.
Vocation doesn’t simply mean responsibility or duty. Seeing the commandments this way reminds us that what we do has eternal significance, no matter how big or small the gesture.
— Mihee Kim-Kort
It is when we stop defining ourselves in relation to God and start defining ourselves in relation to other people that competition, strife, covetousness and envy enter our minds, and they lead only to unhappiness.
Thirty-three centuries after they were first given, the Ten Commandments remain the simplest, shortest guide to the creation of a good society.
— Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
The world now is too dangerous
and too beautiful for anything but love.
May your eyes be so blessed you see God in everyone.
Your ears, so you hear the cry of the poor.
May your hands be so blessed
that everything you touch is a sacrament.
Your lips, so you speak nothing but the truth with love.
May your feet be so blessed you run to those who need you.
And may your heart be so opened, so set on fire,
that your love, your love, changes everything.
— Black Rock Prayer Book
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THE NEXT COTTAGE ZOOM GATHERING
On THURSDAY May 25, the paid subscriber community is invited to a live lunchtime conversation with Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family and the new book, The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War. You may have also seen his Netflix series, The Family — or heard him interviewed on major news networks and radio shows.
These are the kinds of first-rate author discussions hosted by The Cottage. Recordings of the conversation will be sent to paid subscribers who can’t make it to the live session — and all recordings are available in the Cottage Archive.
MORE DETAILS TO FOLLOW shortly.
Oh, how I love your law!
It is my meditation all day long.
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is always with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers,
for your decrees are my meditation.
I understand more than the aged,
for I keep your precepts.
I hold back my feet from every evil way,
in order to keep your word.
I do not turn away from your ordinances,
for you have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding;
therefore I hate every false way.
— Psalm 119
Paddy sitting at the gate waiting for my husband, Richard, to come back from mowing the front yard. Paddy will be five months old on May 22 — and he’s all puppy all the time. (He’s a Glen of Imaal Terrier — people always ask his breed!)
Amazing difference between Obey and Keep.
Having worked at Jewish Family Service as a devout Christian, I found todays sermon refreshing! For 8 years, so many people tried to create dividing lines between our faith traditions, and in my mission of creating inclusion for families living with and supporting people with disabilities, I was always building bridges in the community to create human connections for people who so often live in isolation. Thank you for helping to resurrect an important bridge using the foundation of our faith tradition. And, the poem from the Black Rock Prayer Book touched the core of my spirit,
“The world now is too dangerous
and too beautiful for anything but love.
May your eyes be so blessed you see God in everyone...”
Thanks again for continuing to challenge us to continue to see the love in scripture.