I was asked to give a talk (sermon/homily) in church today on keeping the commandments and how it leads to a greater closeness with God. Here is the talk I gave:
Good afternoon, brothers and sisters.
I’d like to take as my text today a verse from the gospel of John. Jesus, responding to a disciple’s question, said simply, “If a man love me, he will keep my words; and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him” (John 14:23).
It’s a beautiful doctrine and an amazing promise. I wish to speak today on the nature--and promise--of Christian discipleship.
Jesus spoke these words to a people accustomed to keeping the commandments. The Jews of His day were known for their exactness in keeping, not just the ten commandments, but over 600 commandments contained in the Torah. But Jesus pled with those He taught to do something more, to see something deeper. He wanted them to understand that, when we keep the commandments, we should do so out of love, not duty or fear: “if a man love me, he will keep my words”--the love is the motivation for the obedience. He wanted them to know that by keeping the commandments out of love, they would invite into their lives a power beyond their imagining. He wanted them to know that loving discipleship brings us into sacred communion with God, and makes us more like our Heavenly Parents. Keeping commandments was something his people could do with distinction--but Jesus’ “new commandment”s weren’t commandments in the traditional sense--Christ didn’t give His followers something new to DO, He gave them something greater to BECOME. “Blessed are the merciful,” He said, “blessed are the peacemakers.” And then, tucked in among the beatitudes, the definition of Christian discipleship: “blessed are those who do hunger and thirst after righteousness.” (See Matthew 5:3-10)
Do we do that, brothers and sisters? Do we hunger and thirst after righteousness? Notice that he didn’t say, “blessed are those who have 100% home teaching this year,” or “blessed are those who attend the temple every month,” although I’m sure he smiles on both those activities. He asks us to feel the desire for righteousness as deeply and as strongly and as viscerally as we feel hunger and thirst. And remember that He was talking to Judean peasants--those who were not as well-fed as we are, in a time when starvation was the kind of problem that obesity is today. These were people who often went to bed hungry. And Jesus asked them to become the kind of people who felt the desire for righteousness, for communion with God, in the same way they felt the pangs of hunger--and to seek righteousness, to seek God, in the same way a hungry man seeks food.
The prophet Enos, before his “wrestle” with God, said that his “soul hungered,” which caused him to kneel down before God and “[cry] unto Him in mighty prayer and supplication.” Then he records the voice of the Lord which came unto him, filling him with the only thing that can satisfy that kind of hunger--the peace and light that come only through the Atonement of Christ. His hunger filled, he sought the welfare of his people, and even of his enemies, as Jesus would later command, “bless them that curse you, and pray for those who despitefully use you and persecute you.” (See Enos 1, Matt 5:44)
The Lord modeled prayer for His disciples, and for us: His most famous prayer begins: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” It’s called the Lord’s Prayer, and it’s one we’re all familiar with. It’s a beautiful prayer, both simple and profound. It is, I believe, a pledge of discipleship--a plea for the Lord to forgive us, a promise to forgive those who hurt us, a declaration that we will allow God to lead us away from the temptations that trouble us and that we will give all the glory to Him. (See Matt 6:9-15)
The Lord’s Prayer is instructive on many levels, but the most beautiful part, I think, is in the first line. Whereas the traditional Jewish prayers of His day began with “Baruch ata Adonai Elohaynu Melech Ha’Olam,” “Blessed art thou, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe,” Christ addressed God very intimately, calling Him “Father.” And He went a step further--Jesus could have addressed God as “MY Father,” or simply “Father,” as He had in every other recorded prayer He had offered. But instead, in a beautiful illustration of His mercy and love, He brought His disciples into His circle, and together with them prayed to God, calling Him simply, “Our Father.”
This simple act is, to me, one of the greatest demonstrations of the condescension of God. That the great Jehovah, creator of worlds without number, would come live among us, born as a helpless infant to the peasant daughter of a captive people, to experience with us the trials and pains and sicknesses of mortality is miraculous. But that He, the only perfect, sinless soul, would look at the world, and the mess we’ve made of it, the sheer awfulness of the way we’ve hurt ourselves, each other, and this world, and still join with us and say, “Our Father,” that He would allow us, through His perfect Atonement, to address the Almighty God in the same familiar tone, that He would extend to us what Paul calls “the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father,” that He would allow us to “come boldly unto the throne of grace and obtain help in our time of need,” this love, this generosity, is astounding. (See Romans 8:15, Hebrews 4:16)
And, I believe, it has everything to do with discipleship. I believe that, most fundamentally, discipleship means joining with Christ in calling God, “Our Father.” Not just my father, or your father, or His father, but “our father,” with everything that entails. Discipleship means consenting to our adoption into the Family of God, mediated by Christ. It means leaving neutral ground and becoming “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with the saints and of the household of God,” and heeding the call of the spirit that “bears witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God. If children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ.” (See Ephesians 2:19, Romans 8:17)
Discipleship means we do what Christ has asked because we desire to be like Him. It means that we worship God as Our Father, that we become brothers and sisters, and treat each other that way. As we, together, strive to become like the Master we worship, we come to understand and keep what Jesus called His “new commandment,” “love one another as I have loved you...by this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” Discipleship is about love--love for God, love for the Savior, love for God’s children--love for each other. (See John 13:34-35)
Discipleship is about obeying the commandments, not simply because they are commandments, but because we love the one who gave them. We keep the commandments because they are written, not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not in tables of stone, but in [the] fleshy tables of the heart. (See 2 Corinthians 3:3)
Brothers and sisters, I am far from the disciple of Christ that the Lord wants me to be. I still have much to learn and there is still much that needs to be be written on the fleshy tables of my heart. But I know and bear witness that the Lord is patient and full of grace and mercy, mighty to save, arising with healing in His wings, and that as I have sought him dilligently, He has begun to take from me my stony heart, and give me a new heart, a heart of flesh, and make me more worthy to be called His disciple. And I, with Moroni “would commend you to seek this Jesus...that the grace of God...may be and abide in you forever.” (See Ether 12:41) His arms are outstretched, He still calls disciples, and when we heed that call and follow Him out of love, the Father and the Son will come unto us and abide with us forever. I so testify in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
“Oh dearly, dearly has He loved
And we must love Him, too
And trust in His redeeming blood
And try His works to do.”
--There Is A Green Hill Far Away