Love God and Do What You Want – Br. James Koester

Br. James Koester

Acts 14: 19 – 28
Psalm145: 9 – 14
John 14: 27 – 31a

When I was 7 or 8 I made a book of coupons for my mother, which I presented to her on Mother’s Day. Each coupon was good for something different. One was for taking out the garbage. Another was good for breakfast in bed. I don’t remember what the other ones were good for, but the idea was that she would take out one of the coupons, return it to me and I would do whatever the coupon was good for. Curiously, she never used them. I found the coupon book years later among her things. My hunch is that my book of coupons said more to my mother than any number of breakfasts in bed.

Each of us have different ways of showing love. We might be one of those people completely comfortable telling another I love you. Or we might be one of those whose love for another is shown, not so much in words as in deeds: flowers, acts of kindness or generosity, thoughtful gestures, small favours. That may be the way we show love.

However we do it, in order for a relationship to survive and thrive, whether that relationship be between friends or spouses, partners or neighbours, workmates or even nations, it is vital that we show the other they are valued, honoured, respected, and loved. It’s important for the other to know how we feel about them. It’s also important for us to be able to expresses those feelings. So too is it important for those around us to know the depth and extent of our interconnected web of relationships.

If this is true for our relationships with one another, it’s also true for our relationship with God. Just as it is important for us to let another know that we honour or value and love them, so too it is important for us to show our love for God. The problem is that the local florists don’t deliver to heaven, at least not yet, so we need to figure out another way to manifest our love for God.

Like our relationships with one another, the way we manifest our love for God is different for different people. Just as we have different ways of saying I love you to the people in our lives, so there are different ways of saying the same to God. For Jesus, his way of manifesting his love for God was a life of obedience: I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.[1]

Obedience is not, and indeed has never been, a very popular concept. For some it is experienced as an abdication of responsibility and a sign of immaturity. We even say in our Rule of Life that the vow of obedience is fraught with risks. In the name of obedience human beings have gladly abdicated responsibility and taken refuge in passivity and conformity.[2] Children are taught to do what they are told, simply because they are told to do, and history and even our personal relationships are littered with examples of damage done as a result of blind obedience. While such behavior may be a kind of obedience, it is not love, and nor is it how the monastic tradition understands obedience. Again our Rule reminds us that monastic obedience gives us constant practice in letting go of attach­ment to our individual preferences and learning to trust in the wisdom of the community. It trains us to be resilient and prompt in responding to the Lord in the here and now.[3]

For obedience to be an act of grace, it needs to be the free act of a mature individual. It needs to be an act of love. I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. What marked Jesus was not that he did what he did, because he was told to do so, but because he loved, even to the point of death. As the Letter to the Philippians reminds us, Jesus humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.[4] His obedience even to the point of death was his free act of love in response to the One who said of him: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’[5] In Christ, love met love, and not even death could defeat it.

As followers of Jesus, our vocation is to learn to love as Jesus loved, with the kind of love Paul described in his First Letter to the Corinthians: Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.[6]  It is this kind of love that St Augustine of Hippo speaks of when he tells us to love, and do what you want.[7] If we have the kind of love which Jesus had, the kind of love of which Paul speaks, the kind of love which Augustine tells us about, then nothing can spring from it but good,[8] for to have this kind of love, St Augustine tells us and be a bad person is impossible.[9] With this kind of love, we will truly fulfill the words of the prophet Micah: what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?[10]

It was this perfect love for the Father which inspired Jesus to do all that God commanded him. But what exactly had God commanded Jesus? To be nothing less than the herald of the coming reign of God, a reign of justice, mercy and healing. When the disciples of John the Baptist come asking Jesus if he is the one who is to come, or should they look for another, Jesus is clear: ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.[11]This is exactly the work which Isaiah tells us God will do when Israel is restored. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.[12]

To love as Jesus loves is to be obedient to what God commands. Like Jesus we too say I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.[13]And what does God command us to do? To love as God loves, for God is love.[14]

If it is true that we are to love as God loves, what might that love look like? Again St. Augustine gives us a clue. He says: If you would see God, here is what you should imagine: God is love. What sort of face does love have? What shape is it? What size? What hands and feet does it have? No one can say. And yet it does have feet, those feet that carry people to church. It does have hands, those hands that reach out to the poor. It has eyes, those through which we consider the needy: “blessed is the person,” it is said, “who considers the needy and the poor.”  It has ears, of which the Lord says, “He that has ears to hear let him hear.”[15]

If the world is to know that we love the Father, then like Jesus, we must do the works which God commands us. As they say, it’s not rocket science, but in a world which so easily discounts the poor and marginalized, we need to be constantly alert to ways in which we can speak with the authority and claim of Jesus, for like him, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon [us], because he has anointed [us] to bring good news to the poor. He has sent [us] to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’[16]

To be a disciple of Jesus is to discover the grace and freedom of obedience, doing all that the Father commands us, not resentfully, or even dutifully, but lovingly.

To show love to another, we might give them a book of coupons to be redeemed for any number of things, as I did for my mother those many years ago. Or we could simply say I love you. To show our love for God, we will want to learn to love as God loves, who stretched out [his] arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of [his] saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit, [Lord] that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name.[17] If we are to love God and do what we want, as Augustine suggests, then what we will want is to be like Jesus.

 

[1] John 14: 31a

[2] SSJE, Rule of Life, The Spirit of Obedience, chapter 12, page 25

[3] Ibid, page 25

[4] Philippians 2: 8

[5] Matthew 3: 17

[6] 1 Corinthians 13: 4 – 8

[7] Augustine of Hippo; Sermon 110 on 1 John 4: 4 – 12, paragraph 8

[8] Ibid, paragraph 8

[9] Ibid, paragraph 6

[10] Micah 6:8

[11] Luke 7: 22

[12] Isaiah 35: 5 – 6

[13] John 14: 31a

[14] 1 John 4: 8

[15] Augustine, Sermon 110, paragraph 10

[16] Luke 4: 18 – 19

[17]BCP 1979, page 101

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8 Comments

  1. Randy LaRosa on May 18, 2021 at 10:39

    Thank you for this as well as your prayers .

  2. chris rushlau on January 19, 2021 at 01:13

    I was just reading another take on St. Augustine’s words which had it all about “stavrology”, the Cross; it sounded quite self-flagellating in a quick read-through. Your take, on the other hand, seems to vanish into an abstract mist. Let me split the difference. I’d thought these words were from Thomas Aquinas, where he’d unexpectedly gotten to the point. Love is letting things be what they appear to be. It is not being a know-it-all. A know-it-all doesn’t need to look carefully, he already knows. If you don’t look honestly, you can’t see who needs help, and of what sort if any. But to look without filters is to “die to yourself” in the most profound spiritual way. The sun might be going out. Your eye might be falling out. Your best friend might be betraying you. A new Sister of Mercy said to me once, “I knew I’d have to die to myself, but every day?!” She said it with somewhat of a smile, and for my benefit, I see now, forty years later. But all the joy in life comes when you let it past your filters. “Behold, I make all things new.” “Well, will my old Confederate States of America coupons still be worth money?” Clock Without Hands, by Carson McCullers. My favorite word has been “spontaneous” for more than ten years, but just this week I discovered it comes from the word for “vow”. Sponde, etc. Someone who has made and is living up to a vow is an honorable person, in a perfect sense. “No honor among thieves,” but most honor is of just that sort: an honorable Viking, an honorable nazi, etc.: someone worried about “how it will look,” but only worried about certain persons’ opinion. An honorable person is worried about how it will look in anybody’s eyes. The “reasonable person” standard, I suppose I could call it. But it’s simpler than that: the next person you meet, that is the person you must reckon with. Will you edit that person out of existence? What if that person visits you in a flash of recollection? Will you edit her out of your memory? My main phrase these days is “he became a legend in his own mind,” which I heard forty years ago, in a military setting. I am vaguely aware of it when I slip into that self-absorption myself. It’s like I’ve disengaged from my body, the world, the here and now. I, again about forty years ago, had the image of a snail crawling over a razor blade, which they can apparently do. Am I aware of the passing moment? Have I used the forty years to advantage? I suppose life is like a good computer: it saves your work, for you to pick up again when you get back, or around, to it. I think I needed forty years to consider what everybody else was doing. Having found no eligible alternatives, I’m back to clutching or not. Can you follow that one? It’s a double. When you panic, you push in the clutch and stop your power, but equally when you clutch, you grab things in a strangle hold. Only in the moment can you experience your body knowing what to do: how to treat the stranger, how to be: how to love. Love is letting be. It may need changing in an instant, but right now it is as God made it for you. I suppose I could define dysfunctionalism in the given case as the things you agree with your dysfunctional support group that you will pretend you do not see. It jumps out when you see it in others. I regret being only able to state the negative case. Don’t be a know-it-all. I heard a good sermon once, from a Catholic priest, a visiting preacher, what you call that: he said, “We’re all here because we’re beggars for truth, and I’m a full-time beggar so maybe I have something you might profit from hearing.” It’s not the thing–I’ve forgotten what else he said. It’s the wake-up call that’s important. So I will define Augustine’s love as love of his body: not cursing himself when he sees something he isn’t supposed to see. I’ll expect people in his time and place had that problem as much as people do today: on the imperial periphery, the latest party line crashing around, Platonists (supposedly) telling us that our bodies are evil, the world is illusion, God is some sort of machine. I don’t know if the empire has failed or I’ve just given up trying to keep up with it. Let me close with an etymology: suffering means bearing up, literally: Middle English: from Anglo-Norman French suffrir, from Latin sufferre, from sub- ‘from below’ + ferre ‘to bear’. I think maybe the empire never existed in the first place. A few guys said it did, so they could justify murder and mayhem.

  3. The Revd Heather Benson on May 6, 2020 at 15:13

    The prayer at the end from the BCP is a prayer by Bishop Brent. I always think it is a shame that the BCP version says “. . .reaching forth our hands in love:” instead of the original “. . . reaching forth our hands in loving service to others.”

  4. Jeanne DeFazio on May 6, 2020 at 13:49

    Thanks for reminding us to love.

  5. Polly on May 6, 2020 at 09:35

    Touch is such a natural way of showing love. I miss giving and receiving hugs and kisses amid the coronovirus season.

  6. SusanMarie on May 6, 2020 at 08:53

    This is a lovely and informative sermon. I needed to read this. It helps me understand “how” to love God, which for some reason has always been confusing to me and to others with whom I’ve discussed this. I know that I love God, but was not sure how to show that. Saying “I love you, God” seemed rather hollow, and I felt very stuck. I knew/hoped that the way I lived my life was pleasing to God (most of the time), and I believe my desire to please God made God happy. This sermon has helped me to realize that the way I live my life—leading with love for the ways of God—is the “how” I was searching for.

    “To be a disciple of Jesus is to discover the grace and freedom of obedience, doing all that the Father commands us, not resentfully, or even dutifully, but lovingly.”

    Thank you, Br. James.

    Thank you

  7. The Rev. Dr. Virginia W. Nagel on April 29, 2019 at 17:33

    Dear Fr. James, By coincidence, my breakfast reading this morning was from Wright’s book, Readings from the Church Fathers for the Daily Office’ and it was very similar to the sermon you sent out which I read this evening. I do love your sermons…they always “get to me” deeply and nine times out of ten they are exactly what I needed to read on that particular day. I suspect the Holy Spirit is at work, forging some sort of spiritual bond or something. Thank you.

  8. Ruth West on May 23, 2017 at 21:54

    Br. James, I love this sermon! Love is the key. I remember a sermon my husband preached using the words of Augustine of Hippo. If we are obedient in love, we don’t have to go around holding our breath for fear of offending. We can “do what we please” as our thoughts and actions will be guided by His Spirit in loving Him.

    My own son made me such a coupon booklet one Mother’s Day. It meant so much to me, I saved it for many years, and probably still have it. It was far more meaningful than roses or candy!

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