And His Commandments Are Not Burdensome
For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.
I will confess to you that I have never seen an episode of the television show Big Brother Canada (not much of a confession, admittedly). However, given the recent plethora of advertisements aired for this show I was curious. So I googled the name and read enough of the news about the show to determine that much excitement is generated over who gets evicted from the show. This does not seem very “brotherly” to me. I know very little about what might be said to be the merits of the show. I just wonder if you think the vision of human behaviour depicted in this show is something that would promote human flourishing.
In a recent news story from India a bride walked out on her own wedding because the groom couldn’t answer a simple math question. Keep in mind that this is with respect to an arranged marriage; the bride’s family was suspicious that the groom’s family had not been forthcoming with respect to the groom’s level of education. So she asked him what is 15 + 6; he got it wrong. (You will know this groom; he’s is guy walking down the street muttering 21 … 21….21).
In October last year the UK’s Daily Mail reported the story of thirty-one year old filmmaker Grace Gelder. After dating for six years and failing to find love she decided to marry herself. She proposed to herself on a park bench, bought a ring and a dress and invited all of her friends to watch her make her vows. Gelder said that she found the action “empowering” and hopes it will inspire other single men and women.
I share these latter two stories with you not to make any judgement about the people or their decisions. What I would invite you to hear in their stories are the assumptions being made about human life. Each of them tells a story about what is believed to be the nature of human flourishing; assumptions made with respect to what promotes future happiness. And because they are a little different from what might typically be our personal assumptions perhaps they help us to see our own. And in seeing our own, to ask—how reliable have our assumptions been in delivering what we hoped they would?
1. When the gospel of Jesus Christ is being proclaimed by Peter and John and Philip and Paul do you think they want humans to flourish? As the gospels and letters to the churches are being penned are these authors only concerned with promoting religious life? When God calls us to himself in faith in Jesus does God want humans to flourish? What do you believe is the scope of God’s love for humans announced in the gospel?
As we have noted previously John’s first letter is a commentary on his gospel. The Gospel of John is aimed to help people come to faith. His letter is written to help believers live out that faith. It the portion we read today (1 John 5:1-6) John insists that a constellation of things belong together with respect to the gospel; for the good news to be good news these elements are crucial.; these things are all connected in the gospel and imply the others. Belief that Jesus is the Messiah (Christ), love for God and others, obedience to our Lord’s commands, and faith all belong together.
As John discusses these things his heart is bursting with his sense of the glory of the gospel. In what is like a spiral he speaks of these elements leading from one to the other and leading back again to the first and so on. They all belong together. In the course of his joyful pronouncement he says this of our Lord’s commands—“And his commandments are not burdensome.” Now the word translated “burdensome” literally means heavy in weight. When used as a metaphor—as it is here—it means weighty, drags you down, or holds you back. Our Lord’s commands are said to be the opposite of such things. God’s commands have only human flourishing in view and the very best of what it means to be human at that!
According to researchers at Erasmus University carrying a grudge can weigh you down—literally. The researchers asked study participants to write about a time when they'd experienced a conflict. Some were instructed to reflect on a time when they didn't forgive the offender, others were told to think about the time they did forgive the person, and a third group wrote about a comparatively dull social interaction. They were then given a small physical challenge: jumping five times, as high as they could, without bending their knees. Those who had been thinking about a time when they'd forgiven jumped highest. In another, similar experiment, people who'd been set up to think about a time they held a grudge estimated that a hill was steeper than people who were thinking about a time they forgave someone.
The results suggest that the "weight" of carrying a grudge may be more than just a metaphor. The research paper confirms what you already know; a state of unforgiveness is like carrying a heavy burden. The believer who knows herself forgiven by Jesus experiences a freedom that lifts life. It does not impede but unburdens. This sense of freedom is not limited to the experience of forgiveness.
Our Lord’s said that to obey the commands of the one he called the Father was to abide in his love. So too to obey him is to abide in his love. (John 15:10) Note that Jesus, faith, love and obedience are all held together in our Lord’s pronouncement. It is easy to understand that not coveting our neighbour goods is on the other side of the coin that says to love the neighbour. It is also easily grasped how covetousness binds us; is a weight that makes it hard to navigate the landscape of life. There is great freedom in blessing the neighbour; rejecting a spirit of covetousness promotes human flourishing.
We can understand how the freedom of forgiveness and rejection of covetousness can work its way out across the spectrum of our life. But what about my specific work. Is my Lord interested in my engagement in the facts of my job? I point out to you that Jesus was a carpenter before he was an itinerant preacher; so yes. The late Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan’s book Bach Among the Theologians concludes with a chapter titled “Johann Sebastian Bach—Between Secular and Sacred.” Pelikan points out there that Bach began his compositions by writing Jesu Juva (“Jesus, help”) and closed them by writing Soli Deo Gloria (To God alone be the glory). I am thinking this a good pattern for any of us as we take up our work. Our Lord’s commandments are not burdensome.
2. I have, in recent years, come to appreciate the work of the theologian Karl Barth. What I love about his work is his passion to apply the gospel and its logic to absolutely everything. He insists that it guide thinking and living. That as believers we ought to have gospel logic guide us in our life in every way. I believe that in some respect this is what the Apostle John is doing here in his letter. He insists that the good news has an inner logic or coherence that centres in Jesus Christ. Without Jesus Christ you no longer have the gospel.
I often find myself underestimating the gospel; in that it has almost been default thinking that the gospel is limited in its address to the spiritual life—as if that were only a slice of life What the gospel insist on is that our entire existence is a spiritual existence—it is shot through and through with spirit. When John speaks of the inner logic of the gospel centering on Jesus Christ he sees it as something that overcomes the world. The scope is vast—there is no part of life it does not touch. The faith and love and obedience that inhere in Jesus Christ is the life changing work of God to make all things new.
To be sure John writes his letter because there are those in the church who are undermining the centrality of Jesus—denying that God has come in the flesh. We have them today in the church. John’s letter isn’t written because he is offended that someone thinks differently than he does about Jesus. He writes his letter because not to know Jesus Christ is to never experience the salvation that is Jesus. Faith—the faith the gospel speaks about—is encounter with the person Jesus. Not to encounter him, John points out, is not to encounter faith. Put another way—it is our Lord’s commands that are not burdensome because they are our Lord’s. John isn’t saying something positive about the nature of obedience because there is some inherent benefit in the value of obedience. It is the one we obey who makes all the difference.
It is the same with love. Not any definition of love will do. The love we embrace, the love that is to shape all the believer’s other loves is the love of Jesus. My command is this, said Jesus, that you love one another as I have loved you.
It is our Lord’s commandments that are not burdensome. It is interesting as you read the gospels those who were considered reprobate by society, by religious leaders, found in Jesus a ready welcome. They were attracted to him. And it wasn’t because Jesus was shy about speaking about sin and the need to repent. When they met him they know themselves welcomed by him. His commands were not burdensome. Matthew tells us that this was to fulfil a word spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. … He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick until he brings justice to victory. And in his name the Gentiles will hope.” (Matthew 12:18-21)
Jesus told his hearers, “Take my yoke upon you.” Yoke, the collar by which oxen pulled a load, is the everyday Hebrew metaphor for obedience. “Take obedience of me upon you”, Jesus means, and then adds, “My yoke is easy; my burden is light.” Christ’s yoke is easy; his burden is light. Other burdens—the “baggage” we saddle ourselves with as a result of our folly and our sin—other burdens are heavy. Other yokes—the false gods and foolish causes to which we harness ourselves—these yokes only chafe and irritate until we are rubbed raw and infected as well.
But Christ’s yoke is easy. Since our Lord apprenticed in a carpenter shop he made ox-yokes every day. He knew that if the yoke fit well, the ox could pull the heaviest load with maximum efficiency and minimum discomfort; but if the yoke fit badly, at best the animal suffered, and at worst it strangled. Our Lord’s yoke fits you perfectly. There are two truths we must preserve about Christ’s yoke. One, his yoke is easy; two it is a yoke. Obedience ever remains an essential aspect of faith.
3. Recall that our Lord’s commands don’t weigh us down because his commandments are in essence commandments to love. Of course we know what this love is because it is first our Lord’s love of us. In John’s gospel and letters when he speaks of “children of God” he means believers, he means those possessed of faith in God. In common use of this term some people use it to mean all people as in all people are created by God’s. John believes that all are created by God but when he uses this term he means those who have embraced faith.
John wrote, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.” When Jesus said that people will know his disciples by their love for one another there is an implied obligation that the exercise of our Lord’s love begins here in the church. Our obligation to love is not limited to the church but surely this ought to be love’s incubator, so to speak. So John asserts love of the children of God as integral to the outworking of obedience.
2015 is marks the 175th year of the existence of this congregation and we have be celebrating that by asking congregants to share what the ministry of Central United has mean to them. It has been encouraging to read and hear these testimonies. I want to share with you what one member wrote—a member who is no longer able to get to church. She wrote, “When I first entered the church I felt like I was home. The people were kind and friendly. The pastors preached the gospel and believed in God and in Jesus His Son. I attended several Bible courses and the social life is always good.” I think her testimony speaks volumes about a people who endeavour to love—a people who know that our Lord’s commands are not burdensome.
One more story. This comes from the experience of a minister and author named John Trent.
When I led a Young Life group, I did my best to round up kids who really needed to hear the gospel when we went to summer camp. Mark was one of those kids. Bob Mitchell, the main speaker that week, called most of the shots—including when meals would be served. So "Mitch" was always talking with the cook. The cook loved her work, but it was exhausting. She always looked tired. Whenever she talked to Mitch, he got up and gave her his chair—and a moment's rest—while they discussed meal plans.
Nobody noticed Mitch doing this ... except Mark. Mark hadn't come to hear about Jesus. But when he saw Jesus' love lived out in that simple act of kindness by the camp speaker, he began to listen to his talks. Later that week, Mark asked Jesus to be his Savior. It wasn't because of the messages, Mark said, but because of the love he saw in Mitch. "If that's what it means to be a Christian," Mark said, "I want to be one."
For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.