(A dialogue sketch on 1 Peter 3:13-22, a reading this Sunday, is available here )
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” John 14:15 and again “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me;” John 14:21 – both included in this week’s reading of John 14:15-21. It would seem that obedience is commanded, and indeed that the effective presence of the Holy spirit in a believer is in some way conditional on such obedience. In a past world, that would have seemed pretty straightforward.
But our culture has moved away from obedience, and is unclear whether to see it as a virtue. Perhaps for some it came from the Nuremberg war-crime trials, which established that obedience to superior orders is no defence – we must only do what we judge to be right, even if it means rejecting the orders of others. For others, the civil rights and protest movements will have reduced respect for authority, and psychological studies like the 1961 Milgram experiment (which showed normal volunteers capable of inflicting, as they thought, painful and even fatal electric shocks on people when encouraged to do so by an authority figure) will have strengthened objections.
So, does obedience still have a place in faith? I think so, though I want to take these objections seriously. What Jesus says is not “Do as I tell you”. In fact, what he tells us is not mainly simple instructions like “Pray for 10 minutes twice a day”, but much more complex things like “Love God and love your neighbour” (eg Mark 12:30-31). So these verses do not say “obey” but “keep my commandments” – keep, look after, be mindful of.
This isn’t the mindless obedience of the bayonet charge, doing because you’re told to. Quite the opposite, it is an invitation to value and practise things you know to be good. This is clearer when we see that the condition is “If you love me, .” If we are familiar with the facts of Jesus’ life and teaching, and enthusiastic enough about them, are attracted to them strongly enough, find them to have greater significance and importance than others – then we are going to value them and put them into practise.
So, is there a place for obedience in faith? Yes. Don’t I just mean we do what we think is right? No. We look at the life, works and teaching of Jesus, and find that important beyond other things. We value and apply his teaching, and in doing that we learn that we never do so perfectly, because of our own weakness, sin, and failure. We also discover – perhaps in other people – that sin affects our judgement. I can be rational, but rational about my own weaknesses – that is much harder.
So, as I think about what is right and what I should do, I apply the teaching of Jesus, the New Testament and the Bible to my situation and culture – AND in those things I find difficult or tempting, I add extra weight to what they say, distrusting (but not discarding) my thoughts when they disagree. In other words, I find it necessary to obey more over things which tempt me, or which have caused me to fail in the past.