Love, Obedience, Union

By Evan Kardaras, Sub-Deacon at St. Mary & St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church, Bexley, Australia.

(Talk given at Thursday Evening Passion Week Service 2019)

I’d like to focus this evening on some of the passages we read in the First Hour Gospels. This is one of the last conversations between Christ and his disciples we have recorded, prior to our Lord going to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he would be betrayed by Judas and arrested. It’s interesting that the majority of what our Lord taught his disciples on this occasion, was about love as the means whereby his disciples can be united with Him; to abide in Him, and He in them.

I think it’s important for us to understand these verses as they obviously have important significance to our Lord, especially being that they span over three whole chapters in the Gospel of St John. It’s a significant amount of the Gospel, showing us that our Lord is trying to really drive home a certain concept to his disciples. I’ve selected only a few verses for the sake of time, and will read them now, and then we can try and go deeper and understand what these verses mean.

In the Gospel of Saint John 14:15-16 “If you love Me, keep My commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever.”

In the Gospel of Saint John 15:20-21 we read: “At that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you. He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.”

In the Gospel of Saint John 15:23 we read: “Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.”

In the Gospel of Saint John 15:5 we read: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.”

In the Gospel of Saint John 15:9-10 we read: “As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.”

I’ve selected here only eight verses from the three chapters in the Gospel. In these eight verses alone the word love is mentioned thirteen times.

The word abide, meaning to dwell in or with, appears five times. And we also read “I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you” and “We will come to him and make Our home with him.” Both these phrases carry the same meaning as the word abide. This means we can say that the word itself, or concept of abiding, is found a total of seven times in the eight verses.

Why all this repetition? I’m sure we are all aware of the importance of repetition as a means of learning. Our Lord who is the true Teacher of all mankind, likewise used repetition, knowing that we are weak as humans, and to ensure His Apostles would remember this extremely important concept to them. Now let us break down this concept.

In the Gospel of Saint John 14:15-16 “If you love Me, keep My commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever.”

Here we read that we will all receive a Helper, highlighted with a capital ‘H’ in the Scriptures, if we love the Lord and obey His commandments. The Early Church Fathers teach that the Helper in this passage is the Holy Spirit. But don’t we receive the Holy Spirit through Baptism and Chrismation? We see clearly that the Holy Spirit is received through Baptism and the laying on of hands in the Book of Acts, so do we receive another Holy Spirit? We all know there is only One Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Holy Trinity, so what is going on here? We’ll answer this question soon.

In the Gospel of Saint John 15:23 we read: “Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.”

Again here we have a similar concept. Jesus says: “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word”. Again, love and obedience are laid down as the prerequisites for what follows: “My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.”

Okay, so we see the same concept or idea in both verses.

  1. Love for God
  2. Obedience to his commandments
  3. Abiding takes place: Helper, and Father and Son will make their home with the person.

In the Gospel of Saint John 15:20-21 we read: “At that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you. He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.”

Here we also see the same formula:

  1. Love for God: “he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.”
  2. Obey to his commandments: “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me.”
  3. Abiding: “At that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you.”

And finally in the Gospel of Saint John 15:5, 9-10 we read: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing… As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” Again in these verses we the concept that an abiding takes place if we love God and keep his commandments.

So back to my original question. If in Baptism and Chrismation, we receive the Holy Spirit, meaning that God abides in us and we in Him, then why are we seeing here a different formula of needing an effort to love God, through obedience to His commandments, so that we can have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and also of the Father and the Son coming and dwelling in us?

We all know that there is no one without sin. In the First Epistle of St John 1:8 we read: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” So anyone that says they are without sin, doesn’t have Jesus. The truth, who is Jesus, can only be in us, if we really know ourselves, that we acknowledge we are sinners in a spirit of repentance, and that we are in need of His mercy and grace. We also know that sin is absolutely foreign to who God is. God is purity in its fullest sense, without any darkness at all.

Now, if we take this concept and add it to Baptism it all starts to make sense. In Baptism we are healed of all the consequences of the ancestral sin, Adam’s first sin. We are cleansed of all the corruption we inherited from Adam, of the passions dwelling in our members leading us to sin (the inclination to sin), we are joined to Christ, united to Him and become members of His Body, Our Lord himself being the Head of the Body. We are given eternal life in Christ and healed from the indwelling death in our bodies, that would one day lead us to eternal death in hell, and instead become members of the New covenant unto eternal heavenly life.

In other words all the effects of the fall we inherited from Adam, are completely removed, completely healed in us through Baptism, through us being united to God, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, making us sons and daughters of God.

But, as we said earlier, we all sin every day. This is the truth. We are weak; we do not maintain the perfection give to us in Baptism, we make dirty through sin the white garments give to us in Christ, and once again fall under the condemnation of sin and death. What is the solution then to this problem? Our Lord gives the answer in these verses we are studying and in this last discussion he has with the Apostles.

The key to us restoring and maintaining the gift of life given to us in Baptism, is to lead lives of genuine love for God and for one another, through obeying his commandments, which results in us having God abide in us, and we in Him. We have faith, we believe in God, but the devils believe in God too, but without any benefit.

We need a genuine love for God to maintain the gift given to us in baptism and to cultivate it every day. Our Lord chose this opportunity to stress the absolute importance of this to His disciples. He spent, as we said earlier, three whole chapters highlighting to them the importance of love for God, through the obeying His commandments, which ultimately means loving others, as a mean to be united to God, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

The Lord knew the Apostles would face a multitude of challenges when He was to be separated from them through being crucified, and also through his inevitable ascension at a later date. He knew they would face persecution, and that they would need to be united with Him to have the strength to go on without His visible presence. He knew they were weak sinners, as we all are, and that they would not be able to maintain the purity of Baptism without fault.

So He gave them the formula to maintain the grace of Baptism and to cultivate the gift of salvation.

  1. Love for God
  2. Through obeying the commandments of love for others
  3. As a means to be united with Him, through the indwelling of His Holy Spirit in our bodies, souls and spirits.

He would not be with them in body, but would definitely remain with them in their hearts, if they lived lives of love through humble obedience to his commandments and everything He taught them.

Of course in other places in the Scriptures we see the absolute importance of repentance and confession as a means to be cured from sin, and of partaking of the Holy Eucharist, Holy Communion, as a means to be reunited with God, as we were originally in Baptism. Time doesn’t allow to explore these individually.

Everything we had given to us in Baptism, which we lose when we sin our of our weakness, is regained through striving to love God, through obeying His commandments, which limits sin in our lives, and allows us to grow deeper in our loving union with Him. To facilitate this process our Lord gave us repentance and confession, as a means to get rid of the sins from our hearts when we fall, and Holy Communion to be united with Him once again, after we separate ourselves from Him through sin, and allow Him through His holy, precious Body and Blood, to unites us to Himself as his Body, as members of the Body of Christ, which is the Church.

This is why the Early Church Fathers stressed the absolute importance of being in the Church to attain salvation. Only in the Church can one partake of Baptism, which heals us from all the consequences of Adam’s sin, unites us to God as His Body, as the Church. Only in the Church can we partake of the therapeutic Mysteries, the Sacraments, which heal and cleanse us from sin and facilitate the process of us remaining united to God as His Body, the Church, through eating His precious Body and Blood.

And only through and in the Church, can we have this teaching of Christ passed down to us, through an unbroken chain of apostolic succession; teaching us genuine love for God, through obedience to His commandments as a means of union with Him, allowing us to become who God has called us to be; sons and daughters in His kingdom, reigning with Christ forevermore, in an intimate union with God and one another as His body for all eternity.

This is why Jesus did not come to teach individualistic salvation. He came and established a community of believers, his Body, the Church; as a community where love, forgiveness and healing can take place, and be offered to all humanity. And His disciples needed to hear this message, understand this message, have it engraved in their hearts, as they were to go out display this love, to teach and preach and invite others to this awesome salvation.

And today brothers and sisters, we sit at the Lord’s feet, as his disciples in the 21st century, listening to him teaching us this formula of love in the readings of this evenings Pascha service. We must realise that we can only truly be Christians, if in our hearts we have a yearning and desire to love God with all our strength and obey His commandments of love for others. If every day we are not having this as our goal and focus, to know God more, to love Him more, to obey Him and love others as best as we can then our lives on earth are useless and void of meaning.

Our goal and purpose in this life is to be united to Christ in a loving union of love, and with each other as members of the one Body of Christ. If we come to Church, attend many services, Tasbeha, Asheya, Liturgies, Paschal Praises, the whole lot, but aren’t doing this with a desire to truly love God and others as our primary objective we are wasting our time.

We come to Church, attend all of these services, with the goal of being taught to love God and others; the Church is our school and hospital to teach us to love, and also to heal us from our weaknesses and sins. If we don’t have love for God and others as our ultimate goal, then we will make very nice Pharisees, and be just like them, with all the wonderful externals of religion, but with a heart that is dark, dirty and a home for evil spirits and not of Christ.

As St Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.”

And I’d like to add another short sentence to this statement by St Paul for me and for us all.

“Though my breath stinks from fasting and eating siami food, but I have not love, I am nothing. Though I attend every Church service, waste away from asceticism but have not love, I am nothing, and though I may a very prominent member of the community, and give sermons at Pascha services like this one tonight, and have not love, it profits me nothing”.

Our Lord had this last conversation with the disciples to teach them and us, that a Christian is not characterized simply by correct faith, but rather primarily through a faith that produces selfless love for God and others.

May God help us all my fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, to give everything to God, our whole lives, to hold nothing back. Because only through a genuine offering of our whole lives to God, in our own individual unique circumstances, as a sacrifice of love, can we partake of all these gifts unto eternal life, granted through the blessed feast of the Resurrection, where the ultimate healing and salvation of all creation took place, and to which we are journeying this evening.

Glory be to God forevermore, amen.

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