This morning we have an invitation to be connected to the awesome power of God; an invitation to let it transform our lives. I believe that is why we meet like this: not so much to keep good habits, or get a better handle on morality, or even stay in touch with friends; we’re here to be connected to God, to let God change everyday life outside of this building.
Jesus is in a debate with some religious leaders who have been trying to trick him with questions about religion. “Teacher, which is the most important commandment?” The rabbis of Jesus’ day counted 613 commands in the law — 248 positive commands, which corresponded to the number of parts of the body, and 365 negative commands, which corresponded to the days of the year. According to these folks, if he picks one as most important, then he makes the other commandments less important, which is a problem. But Jesus makes the choice to stand above this religious discussion and ask the question not being asked: “What’s the point of it all?” Let’s listen to the whole exchange:
Matthew 22:34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ 43He said to them, ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
44 “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet’ ”?
45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
Just make that last part a little clearer, if Jesus is the Messiah, and the Messiah is God, then this person (Jesus) standing in front of these religious leaders should be a focus of love and not debate.
Let’s take a step back and look at who we are wand what we do. What’s the point of it all? Why are we here? I would say relationship. Relationship defined by love. Love of God. Love of people.
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-37)
That described a church that lived in Jerusalem for a little while after the resurrection of Jesus. When you hear that story, I wonder if you can picture it. Would you like to have been a part of that church? Why?
Personally, I would have loved to hear the apostles give testimony to the resurrection of Jesus with “great power.” Do you need to have “great grace” come upon you? I know I do. That comes from loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength. Grace is defined as undeserved forgiveness. And this was “great grace.” A major sense of forgiveness. Do you need that? What flowed out of that great grace was everyone having their basic needs met. “Not a needy person among them.”
It occurs to me that if we need guidelines for church, you just heard them. Love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. Give testimony to the resurrection of Jesus. As we experience great, amazing grace, we will feel compelled to make sure that there isn’t a needy person among us.
Maybe it’s a little simplistic, but the laws of Jesus had more to do with the things we should do instead of the things we shouldn’t do.
But Jesus was quoting Jewish law when he answered the question. He was quoting part of the “shema.” (6:8) Faithful Jews say this every day:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.
Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)
In Old Jerusalem near the Temple Mount, praying at the Western Wall, you’ll see Jewish men, young and old wearing phylacteries with this passage inside, literally following the scripture: “bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead.”
The straps leave a mark that reminds them of those words throughout the day. Maybe you’re looking at that and thinking, “Okay; that’s interesting. I wouldn’t do that.” I do see lots of people wearing scripture quotes on t-shirts, though. The point of that scripture is to be so in-tune with God on the inside that God’s word can be seen on the outside. So, exactly how do those words get inside any of us ?
I regularly hear people say to me, “You know, I just can’t get into organized religion.” The first thing I think is, “So, you prefer disorganized religion.” I really do know what they mean. It’s totally ironic that we get together for what many of us think is an exercise of religion to talk about the most important thing God has to say, which has nothing to do with religion!
It’s so simple it’s hard: Love God. Be in relationship with God; be as close to God as you possibly can. Each of us has a different way to live that out, but I would say that it begins with simple surrender. With arms open, “God I love you, I am yours.”
I have heard people say, well, I do the neighbor loving thing (good deeds) more than the God-loving thing. Just to be clear, loving neighbors springs out of loving God first; it isn’t a substitute.
But maybe the second thing Jesus says is the harder part. He says the “second” commandment is like the first. Think about that. How is it like it? Could it be that loving your neighbor is also loving the presence of God? Can you see God in other people and love them too? Could it be that in order to do either one of those things, love God and love others, you have to put yourself aside (and your opinions and attitudes, fears and distrust, hatred and grudges) ? And how hard is that?
To peel it back just a little more, Jesus assumed that we would love ourselves. I have a feeling that for many of us, that’s the root of the problem. It really is difficult to love others when you don’t love yourself. Do you love yourself? Do you need to have someone tell you how valuable you are? If you get nothing else out of church, you should get that. That should be a rule: every person here is required to hear from someone else how they are loved and valued – and then repeat it back! Love yourself!
Love God, love neighbors. It’s more than affection, it’s more than tolerance. This is not about religion; it’s about life. Agape is the word. English doesn’t really have a good translation for it. It means pouring yourself into others. Sacrifice.
It may be best to think about these commands in terms of their opposites. I just read this story, which is so typical of childhood:
“When I was about five years old, I demanded my mother buy me a certain toy. She refused, explaining she didn’t have the money. I recall flying into a rage and screaming, “I hate you!” My mother was utterly unperturbed. She didn’t spank me and send me to my room, though that would have been understandable. She didn’t break into tears. She didn’t drag me to a therapist. She most certainly didn’t buy me the toy. She simply said, “Well I love you, and your hate can’t change my love.” Philip Gulley/James Mulholland http://www.nocckc.org/stillpoint_30.htm
One of the constant themes of the Star Wars movies is the Force. Not that George Lucas is known as a spiritual leader, but those movies do leave you with some things to think about. There is a dark side of the Force. How does the dark side consume you? You let hatred –expressed by anger – own you.
Did you hear the message this morning? God is inviting you home. Love the God who brought you here this morning. Before you can follow those two commands of Jesus to love, let go of that grudge. There is someone in your life that needs that from you. Let go of that the opinion that grew into an attitude. Let your eyes see the ones – or the one – who need the sacrifice God is calling you to make.
O God, in our limited human way, we seek to love you with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength. It is very hard, and we need your help. We hear you call to us through the words of Jesus, and open ourselves to you. Forgive these limitations; help us love you more. And as we love you, change us.
Loving our neighbors as ourselves is not easy either, God. We have a very limited idea of our own worth and potential. It’s hard for us to love our neighbors, our families, our friends, our fellow members of the Body of Christ, when we don’t love ourselves very much. So, recreate us, God. Live through us, so that we see others – and ourselves – with your love. Amen.