John records some of Jesus' last long talk with his disciples, in which he sets out some of the guides they will need to continue his work after he has ascended. This part of that talk offers up the relationship between loving God and obeying God, and although Jesus says it pretty simply, much of the time we manage to get it wrong.
In a lot of cultures, obedience to authority wins approval from that authority. I don't even mean a dictator or a totalitarian regime, either. In school, following the rules earns good conduct or good citizenship awards. Eating your vegetables means you can have dessert. Cleaning your room means you can go play outside (and after all of the whining you did about it, your outdoor activities can't come fast enough, if I remember right).
And the flip side, of course, is that if you don't obey the rules, you earn disapproval. "Does not work and play well with others." "You can have just as much dessert as you had Brussels sprouts." "You don't need to go outside to play, because this room already looks like a tornado hit it."
Now, most of the time our parents and teachers showed us they cared about us in spite of our messy rooms, uneaten tasteless squash and inability to refrain from visiting with our neighbors. Most folks grow up with at least one or two people who model unconditional love in some degree. Not everybody does, though, and the conditional nature of the affection they received can really mess them up later in life.
But even though we were shown we were cared for no matter what, we still have the example of how our obedience earns even greater approval. And we will too often translate that child-level understanding of what it means to be a good person to our relationship with Jesus. We believe that if we act right, Jesus will like us better. Some folks hold that he will not only like us better, he will bless us materially as a reward for our obedience. Pray two hours a day and get a Cadillac. Pray three hours a day and get a BMW. Pray six hours a day and get a Lamborghini Countach. You can't afford to put gas in it because you lost your job from praying all day instead of working, but it looks great in the driveway.
In this talk with his disciples, though, Jesus is clear. Our obedience does not cause God's love. God's love just is. Our proper response to that love is obedience to God -- and in fact, obeying God's commands enables us to love each other all the more!
When he tells the disciples that they are no longer servants but friends, he highlights the difference. Servants obey commands because they have to. If the boss decides to explain why the command is given, great. If not, the command is still there and obedience is not optional. But friends have a choice.
We might question whether or not we "obey" friends, but think of it this way. We all have friends who are smarter than we are, at least in some areas. If one of those friends gives us advice in one of those areas, we are likely to do what they say. They have indeed told us what to do, but our obedience is not a matter of obligation. It's a matter of knowing that this friend knows better than we do and following their direction. We understand enough to know they understand more.
So Jesus says that we are his friends -- we understand enough about what he's doing to know he understands a lot more and we'll do well to follow his advice. We aren't required to obey him, but we know it's the better path and so we do. We know he loves us, and we trust both his love and his wisdom enough to do what he says.
And as it so often turns out, our lives follow the better path because of it.