Listen: Click to listen
(to save a file simply right click the link and select 'Save Target As...' or 'Save Link As...')
“What’s love got to do with it?” was once asked. The answer is, apparently, everything. What does this mean though? It seems like it can become almost trite - love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and you shall love your neighbour as yourself. We may say “Yes yes I’ve heard it hundreds or even thousands of times.” Perhaps it’s we who are being trite in that case though. The greatest commandment and one like it. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbour as yourself. The answer to a questioner who was trying to test Jesus, to trap him even. What are we to take from these words as we finish our 10 week look at the life and death and resurrection of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. Could it actually be true that love has everything to do with it? Can you command love? What do Jesus’ words mean as we seek to live as post-Easter people? Let us look at the text this morning and see what God has to say to our hearts.
Anyone who knows me well enough knows that I have no answer to the question – “What is the best song in the world?” What is my favourite song? I’d need to break it down by genres first and then maybe I could come up with a top ten list, maybe even top five if I were pressed. It would be hard though (I must say that I think Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown” is the “perfect” song in terms of how it blends lyrics, melody, arrangement, singing, background singing etc.) It’s a tough question though.
People were posing tough questions to Jesus. When we get to this part of Matthew, Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem and he’s being questioned. A group of Pharisees ask him about paying taxes, hoping that he will give a wrong answer. Matt 22:15 “Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.” They had an ulterior motive you see. This was not an open and honest exchange of ideas we’re talking about. He’s asked a question about resurrection by a group of Sadducees. They’re trying to get him to say something wrong. I want to stay on this just for a few moments. If we’re talking to people about matters of faith with an agenda or a desire to trap them or prove them wrong I think we’re approaching things from the wrong angle. I would ask “Where’s the love in that?” I remember talking to a friend of mine, we were just getting to know one another. I was a seminarian and he taught in a mosque. He was asking me questions about Christianity and we were talking a lot about the similarities - how we viewed prophets and so on. “Do you believe in Moses?” “Yes, we do!” That kind of thing. As this progressed we were coming up to Easter was coming and I was thinking “This is where we’re going to diverge big time!” That was all fine. Then one day my friend said to me “I read that Jesus never actually claimed himself personally to be the Son of God.” I thought “Oh no you’ve been reading something about how to convert Christians!” We both had our beliefs you see, and it was of much more interest to me to share what my beliefs meant in my life and find out what his meant in his life than for us to try to prove to one another why we were wrong. To trap each other, as it were.
Lawyers don’t often ask questions without an agenda, it’s their job. It’s not always bad or anything. This Pharisee, however, wanted to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” There are 613 laws in the Torah. There was a belief held by some in 1st century Judaism that it was sinful to try and put more importance on some because they were all given for God’s glory and were all equally important in God’s eyes. What would Jesus say? Jesus gives his own top two list, starting with the words of the Shema – the centrepiece of morning and evening Jewish prayers from Deuteronomy 6. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The second is like it – You shall love your neighbour as yourself. This was not a new idea. One Jewish writing went like this “But love the Lord and your neighbour, and have compassion for the poor and the weak.” In Luke’s version of this story, the lawyer who asks the question provides the answer himself. This teaching wasn’t new exactly. What then is the new thing that has come about?
We always need to start with God. Look at the one who is answering the question. The Messiah, the Son of the Living God. We’re enabled to love because God loves us. Look at what Jesus is on his way to do, the work he is to accomplish, the fight he is to fight and win over sin and death. John puts it quite simply like this – “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:119) What’s love got to do with it? Everything. Everything is predicated on God’s love for us, God’s love for the world, God’s love for God’s creation as in Christ God was reconciling (bringing back) all things to himself.
The question then becomes what is the proper and fitting response to this love? To love God back with all our heart, soul, mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. Everything that we are, in other words. A lot of people talk today about our best self, our authentic self. To follow Christ is to be caught up in Christ’s story. The way this story goes is that we find our best self, our authentic self in Christ. We become the people that God created us to be in and through Christ. This is our faith and we invite others into this faith. If you’ve been following Christ for any length of time you’ve known what it’s like to be changed by God’s love for you and the work of the Holy Spirit within you. Look for an attitude, a thought, an action that is a direct reflection of God’s love that you know could not have come from you and you are looking at the work of the Holy Spirit. We should share these stories and we do!
A second commandment is like it. You shall love your neighbour as yourself. In other words the second goes with the first like two things that go very well together. One writer puts it like this – “We should probably see ‘like’ as meaning more than ‘similar in structure’ or even ‘similar in importance.’ Implied is a similarity in theological depth and an interrelationship.” You can’t have one without the other. Again 1 John 4:20 – “Those who say ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. The whole law was always about loving God and loving your neighbour. So were the prophets. Prophecy is never simply about telling of future events but also speaking of present events and calling for repentance – calling for a turning to toward God. Bear fruits worthy of repentance! This was the prophetic message of Jesus’ cousin John. The law was never meant to oppress people and make things more difficult for them. Some of Jesus’ harshest criticism was for religious leaders who were so fastidious about tithing dill and cumin and laid burdens on others that were too heavy for them to bear. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” (Matt 23:23) This was Jesus’ message for such religious leaders. The message of the prophets is summed up by Micah this way – “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:8)
What’s love got to do with it? Everything. God’s love for us. Our love of God. Our love of people. Our love of God’s creation. Everything. We need to sit with this. To dwell on it. To not let it ever become trite or axiomatic.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength and your neighbour as yourself. Is this simply a theological statement? Am I to say that while this is ideal it’s kind of impossible? Is it simply a call to ethics? Am I to simply say “Go out and love more, love better.” Is it a command? Can we command love? This is why our small groups are such a blessing yes? J
It’s all of these things. It’s a statement about God that speaks a fundamental truth about how God loves us. Of how Christ died for us while we were God’s enemies. It’s a call to a Christ centred ethic – that is centred on Christ who died for us when we were far away from him and who prayed for his enemies even while they were killing him. It’s command but with the command comes the enablement. With the command comes the fulfillment of the promise found in Ezekiel that we talk about so much – I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
Ethically speaking it’s a command to justice, mercy, faithfulness. Not being a jerk. Not getting angry when people disagree with us. I would say this to any person of any faith – If your love of God is not resulting in a love of people, particularly people who disagree with you or even hate you, something is going wrong there. We get it wrong of course. I have had it wrong. I get it wrong. Do you know how often someone says to me something like “Don’t get mad or anything, but I’m an atheist.”? Now I don’t think is because I project an air of “I’m about to fly off the handle at any moment”. At least I hope not (though maybe at my worst moments this might be true!). Could this be because people have had experiences of Christians who have become angry when they have disagreed with them? I often say that unless people have the unmistakable impression that we love them, care about them, are committed to their well-being, then all our talk about God loving them will be essentially meaningless.
We are continually faced with situations in our lives which should cause us to ask “What does love call for here? What does grace call for here?” Remembering always that this love and grace is enabled because of the love and grace shown by our deliverer in his death and by the new life that we know through his rising and the fact that he is alive and active and with us.
What does love call for here? We talked about this when we looked at the Sermon on the Mount. It matters what we do. It matters what we do as individuals. It matters what we do as a faith community. As we go through our lives, and our life together, this question will constantly come up. Do our regulations get in the way of justice and mercy and faithfulness? In Matthew 12 Jesus gives new life to a man in need of healing. He does it on the Sabbath. The question was “Is this lawful?” What did love call for? What does love call for? An unwed couple comes to us and wants to dedicate their child. They’re not part of our faith community. In fact we’re meeting them for the first time. What do we do? A church with a list of questions that must be answered correctly by baptismal candidates has a young man who has learning challenges and wishes to be baptized. The young man is unable to answer the questions by says “I know that Jesus loves me and I love Jesus.” What do they do? An employee at a homeless shelter tells a pastor who volunteers there that she would like to give God thanks for her child and have him bless her child in a public way. Her husband would like this too, though they don’t feel that they’re ready at this point to be involved in a significant way with a church. What does the pastor do? This is real life. For real.
What’s love got to do with it? Everything.
As we finish this morning I want to say we’re not simply talking about a feeling. Our feelings wax and wane after all. They ebb and flow right? We know this from how we feel sometimes about those closest to us. We’re not simply talking about emotion, second hand or otherwise. God is committed to us. God is committed to you. This I know, that God is for me. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ has shown that. This call to love the Lord our God and neighbour is a call to commitment. One writer calls it “stubborn unwavering commitment.” We’re called to hold fast to this love commitment, sometimes in spite of our feelings. We don’t always feel good about God do we? We question God. We get angry at God. In the midst of this we’re called to remain committed to him. To seek his face. To maintain a prayerful posture of dependence and trust. We don’t always feel good about people. We’re called to remain committed to them and their needs. To take these things seriously.
Friends as we live together as post-Easter people, may God’s call and enablement to love never become trite. May it become ever truer in each and every one of us. Amen.