In today’s readings there are some challenging, even hard, teachings. Jesus tells his disciplines plainly the nature of love. He says, “whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.”
Do you remember the story of the wedding at Cana from the Gospel of John? They are running out of wine, and Mary tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” That was not just a thoughtful Mom making sure the party went well. That was basic instruction on Christian discipleship from Christ’s best disciple. That story was in Chapter Two. Now, in Chapter Fourteen, Jesus says it himself. Just as she said, “Do what he tells you to do,” Jesus tells his disciples — which is us — “Do what I tell you to do.”
So a great deal of what it means to love as a Christian should love is to obey. So let us spend a few minutes on what it means to obey. What is the nature of obedience? Sometimes it is easier to define what something is NOT rather than what that thing IS. Obedience is not understanding. Obedience is not agreement, not “buy-in.” For example, when I as a father tell my child not to cross the street when the light is red, I do not expect to have to prove the danger every time. I expect him to do what I told him to do. This example is a good one because Christian obedience is not oppression. The loving father expects obedience from his children — our Lord expects obedience from us — because he loves his children, and our Lord loves us.
One of the hardest things we are asked to do out of holy obedience is to wait on God and his plan of salvation. The story of salvation history we get from the Old Testament is one of waiting for God’s presence, basking in his presence, turning away from him when we no longer feel his presence, and then again waiting for the return of his presence. This cycle of waiting, blooming, dying, and waiting is repeated throughout the Old Testament stories. We see it the Exodus story: the Israelites waiting for someone to lead them to freedom. They bask in God’s presence when Moses leads them through the Red Sea, but they cannot obey God and drift away for 40 years in the desert. Even there, God comes and speaks to Moses on the mountain, but the people soon depart from God’s presence and begin to serve false gods. This cycle repeats in the crossing of the Jordan, where the people are given a difficult instruction by God’s prophet and do not obey. So they intermingle with the people of Canaan and let their faith in God be diluted by incorporating the Canaanite gods in their worship and sacrifices.
But our God is a jealous God, and he won’t tolerate infidelity. We think of infidelity today as relating to sexual behavior, but it all starts with being faithful to God in matters of faith. The morals flow from the faith. When we do not put God first – which is the first commandment – the rest of the commandments fall like dominoes.
So Jesus warns his disciples that only the ones who keep his commandments are the ones who love him. We call ourselves Christians, and we say we love Jesus. But loving Jesus means being faithful to him and to him alone, no matter the cost. This is what St. Peter is talking about in his letter when he tells us that, “it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than for doing well.” Nobody likes suffering, but suffering with purpose is at the core of the Christian life. Suffering with purpose is what Our Lord’s Passion is all about. He took up his Cross, and we are to take up our crosses. And there will be suffering when we do.
We usually think of suffering as something like suffering a serious illness. When we know somebody is fighting cancer, we understand their suffering, for chemotherapy is an awful way to get well. But chemo is not the only kind of suffering.
Waiting is suffering. Waiting for justice. Being still in the midst of contending worldly powers and knowing that He is God is the suffering kind of waiting that is described in Psalm 46.
Waiting for truth amidst a deluge of lies is suffering. When we know something to be true but everyone in power seems to be parroting a lie, that is a suffering kind of waiting. As the Psalmist asks in Psalm 94, we want to scream out, “When will you fools be wise?” Keeping our mouths shut is a kind of suffering, and we make it holy if we do it for God.
Waiting is suffering if it is an active kind of waiting. We hope for salvation as Christians. We know that there is something much much better for us when Christ reigns supreme at the end of time. But in today’s Gospel, Jesus is reminding his disciples that while his return is guaranteed, the when of his return is not something we will be told. So, as his disciples, we wait actively. We live out our lives as though the Kingdom has come so that we will be counted among his subjects when his Kingdom does come. We say we love Him, and this is how we show it.
It’s why we keep his commandments. It’s why we obey. We do not insist that it all make sense to us. Obedience is the action step we can take against pride. Obedience is the action step we can take to grow in humility. We can obey when we don’t like it, just as we can love another person even if we don’t like that person much right now.
Obedience and acts of love are things we can break down into discrete steps. I can pray to God to give me the strength to obey him this day. Or if that is too much, just this hour, Lord. How many of us in our families or in our workplaces have not whispered to ourselves, “God, grant me strength?” We don’t want to lash out, we don’t want to lose our temper, we don’t want to lose our kindness or our patience, but we are being seriously provoked. By asking God for help, we are obeying him, for he said, “Come to me.” By asking God for help, we are loving God and neighbor, for he said, “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” By asking God for help, we are entering into a holy suffering, suffering with purpose. We are enduring discomfort, even pain, by practicing self-control, by mastering our passions, by keeping our eyes on God when others are not.
This is not easy to do. It was not easy to do at the foot of the mountain while Moses was up at top talking with God, so most of them gave in and worshiped the golden calf. It was not easy to do in Canaan, when everyone was offering sacrifices to Baal and other pagan gods, so most went along. It is not easy to do today, when most religious leaders accommodate the world in one way or another. See how harshly the Catholic Church is attacked for defending the original definition of man and woman, Holy Matrimony, the dignity of life, and the preciousness of others. See how hard it is even for Catholic leaders to be steadfast under this assault.
Part of our holy waiting, our holy suffering, is the patient trust in God’s providence when it seems so bleak out there. Think of the Israelite banished to Babylon at the start of the 70-year Exile. He would likely die before the end of that period of bleakness. Think of Tobit being mocked by his fellow exiled Jews for keeping to the old ways and burying the dead. Think of St. Augustine watching his beloved Roman culture be overrun by Vandals sweeping across North Africa from Spain. And just 200 years later, the Muslims would sweep across from Arabia, destroying Christianity in that region. St. Augustine did not lose hope. St. Augustine waited patiently on God’s providence. St. Augustine kept the faith and taught the faith.
This recent time of the Corona lockdown has been a time of suffering. Many decisions were made that have led to suffering for everyone. No doubt some lives were saved. We certainly hope so. Every life is precious, from conception until natural death. Some decisions are harder for us to understand. And we are tempted to disobedience. We are tempted to insist that it make sense to us. We are tempted to pride and confusing our justice with God’s justice.
God gave us talents, and he gave us brains. We must use our talents and our brains to inquire and discern and try to separate truth from fiction. These are the first action steps to take whenever life presents us with a challenge or question. For we are not like jellyfish that cannot take any action on their own but wait for the ocean current to bring them what they need. But we are also not like sharks, who have to be in constant motion in order to stay alive.
After learning and understanding, and discerning, we have a choice on how to react, which action or non-action to take. It is only by obeying God that we will know when we need to be still like a jellyfish and when we need to get moving like a shark.
Our waiting on God is an active waiting. Our waiting on God is a waiting marked by prayer. Our waiting on God is a waiting marked by trusting that everything is in God’s hands and it will all finally work out to his glory.
Our waiting that way will make our suffering a holy offering to God. We can place that suffering at the foot of the altar at the Offertory and join our sacrifice to his at Calvary.