Be who you are
Roy W. Howard
I once heard a sermon on the three-letter word: Yet. The word Yet, said the preacher, signals the turning point of our lives and the entire story of God with us. We have fallen away, Yet, we are restored. Our Brief statement of Faith lays out the various ways humanity has violated the image of God in ourselves and others, accepting lies as truth, exploiting one another and threatening all creation concluding with the sharp statement: “we deserve God’s condemnation.” It’s a hard truth. There is a deep pause pondering that reality. The next line begins: Yet, God acts with justice and mercy to redeem all creation. That three-letter word means a lot.
Today I want to focus on a two-letter word: if. A great deal rides on our understanding of this little word. You may hear it as a conditional clause and be troubled as the woman who confessed to me a worry that she didn’t measure up. I want to suggest a more life affirming way to hear Jesus’ words that were given to those he called his friends, the ones whom he loved and wanted to comfort as he prepared to depart this life.
When someone says to Barak Obama, If you are the President of the United States, you will uphold the constitution, “If” assumes that being President means upholding the law. The fact of that he is President is not in question. That is obvious.
When someone says to an accomplished flute player, If you are a musician, you will practice your scales, this use of the word “if” assumes that being a musician means practicing your scales. The two go together. Whether you are a flautist is not being called into question, that is a given.
The use of the word if in both cases is closer to “since” you are flute player or a president, you will do certain things.
When Jesus says “If you love me, you will obey my commandments”, he is not calling into question whether his disciples love him; that is a given. He has already affirmed by this by calling them his friends. It is not a conditional statement; it is a affirmation that being a lover of Jesus means doing what friends of Jesus do. This is important because there are a great many people – perhaps you are one of them – that believe that God’s love for you is conditioned upon your behavior. It’s not; nor does is the gospel an instrument of punishment for those who fail to meet certain conditions that open the door to communion with God. Transactional religion in which your good behavior is exchanged for God’s favor is not Good News; it’s Old News. This is the relentless way of the world.
The Gospel – the story of Jesus – is Good News to those who believe; it is encouragement for the faithful; healing balm for the wounded and medicine for the sick.
The Gospel says to those who believe: be encouraged, you will not be left desolate as orphans in this world, for I will be with you. My Spirit will join you in holy communion with God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Fear not. Be of good courage. The world may look upon you as foolish, the world in which you and I live fully may offer the false hope of more goods, better looks, more of everything – all of it a false road to freedom – Fear not, for I am with you and will give you the power to live as a lover of Jesus with great freedom and joy. This is GOOD NEWS and it is not traded on the open market for good behavior. It is given free to all and received by those who believe.
Be who you are! This is what Jesus is saying to his disciples – the ones he has named as friends and lovers of God. Be who you are and the deeds of love that he commands will flow from your life. Jesus teaches that the fruit of a life submitted to love, is peace, and a sense of the abiding presence of the Spirit. In other words, according to Jesus, the path to human fulfillment – peace, meaning, and integrity – lies in a life of obedience made visible by our loving others, day in and day out. The Holy Spirit is promised to sustain us in this way of obedience to Jesus’ call to love.
Years ago I saved an article about Annalena Tonelli, an humanitarian who spent her life working for human dignity and setting up Tuberculosis Centers in Kenya and Somalia. Rebels who objected to her work among the poor assassinated her October 7, 2003, in Somalia. She was asked what gave her the motivation to devote her life to some of the poorest and most sick people on earth, especially over so long a time when most people give up in despair or exhaustion. What was it that enabled her to be so positive and even filled with gratitude?
“The reason that more people don’t feel this way [peace, joy, grateful] is that they don’t [stay with it.] You have to give time, you have to be patient; and then year after year, you’ll see that what matters is only love. But if you are impatient because people are not grateful or you were full of limits, you will not be happy. You need time.” (The Washington Post. October 8, 2003)
“In the end you will see that what matters is only love.”
That is what Jesus said to his disciples, too. And he promised his Spirit would give us the courage to do as he said. Be patient.