A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Pentecost 21 ~ Matthew 22:34-40, John 13:35
In today’s reading Jesus is challenged to say what he thought the most important teaching of all was. So he turned to scripture (that would be the Hebrew Scriptures, what many of us would call the Old Testament) and he quoted a beloved prayer called ‘the Shema’ from Deuteronomy 6:5. Matthew’s version is: “You shall love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
(That’s it. The familiar “love your neighbour” part is from Leviticus, not Deuteronomy.)
The Shema is traditionally recited by every Jewish child and adult at the conclusion of each day and at the start of each day – when you lie down and when you rise up. (Interesting that we’d probably say ‘upon rising and retiring’ – but they say when you lie down and when you rise up – and again it’s that biblical rhythm of ending and beginning, dying and rising.) They bookend every single day of their life with a reminder to themselves that their absolute, primary, number one job in life is to love God with their whole being.
This scripture passage is the heart of my favourite theological concept. This isn’t my idea. I didn’t cook it up. Sure, I gave it the catchy expression ‘love, love, love’, and made it into a nifty butterfly logo, but I didn’t decide on my own that this was the most important thing for us to focus on in church. Jesus did.
In all of Jesus’ recorded teaching there are only 3 things that he elevated to the imperative of being a commandment: “Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind,” “Love your neighbour as you love yourself,” and in John 13 he said to his intimate, close friends “love one another as I have loved you.” We are commanded to love – love God, love people, and love one another – love, love, love.
When asked to name the greatest commandment, in Greek the mega commandment of all the known 613 laws, the first, as in the principal commandment – when asked this, Jesus did NOT say ‘love your neighbour’. He said, “Love God with all your heart, and soul, and mind.” Yes, he immediately named ‘neighbour love’ as the second commandment, like the first, but not the first. Interconnected for sure, but somehow also different. And he didn’t say that the first commandment was to “love God with all your heart, soul, and mind THROUGH loving your neighbour” – although that’s exactly what we heard.
(How do you like me so far?)
They can’t be separated, and yet they’re distinct. If I only love God and don’t love neighbour, then I’m an idolater – and so heavenly-minded that I’m no earthly good. If I only love neighbour and don’t love God, I do good, but it’s no longer necessarily related to spirituality or Christianity, or God. I mean, even atheists take casseroles to sick friends! Christians are not the only kind people in the world.
So what does it mean then, to ‘love God’ if I don’t mean by ‘loving neighbour’?
First, we need to remember that ‘love’ here is the Greek word agape which doesn’t mean affection, or emotion, or friendship, but focuses more on the spiritual, the holy. It’s about honouring the sacredness in the other. It’s about honouring the wholeness, the fullness, the depth of who they are. That is how we are to agape love our neighbours, and agape love one another. And it’s also how we agape love God. Sacredness, wholeness, fullness, depth of who they are. It’s not about what you do for them, it’s how you ‘see’ them.
Loving God means to come into union with God. It’s our core spirituality. It’s our primary relationship. It’s the spiritual foundation that everything else is built on. It’s the spiritual root system that everything else in your life grows from. When he grabbed the Shema as the most important commandment Jesus pretty much said that ‘loving God’ is what we’re supposed to be about from our first waking moments in the morning to our last resting moments at night.
The commandment that Jesus gives us that he called the first and foremost – the most essential – is about our agape communion with God. Communion is a movement of the heart, mind, and soul – a reorientation toward the Holy Mystery – a transformation from who you are toward who and whose you are becoming – and it happens not once and forever, but every moment of every day.
What forms does ‘loving God’ take?
We celebrate God’s presence through worship, both corporately and personally, in word, in music, in art, in movement, in sacrament, increasing our awareness of God’s grace and love, accepting and incarnating that love, and joyously expressing how that love transforms us.
We commune with God through learning and discovering with wide eyes and open minds. We read, contemplate, and wrestle with scripture and theology. We grow in knowledge and wisdom through discussions, books, and sermons. And we study, question, and wonder to help to grow in us a deeper understanding of God.
We immerse ourselves in regular and intentional spiritual practices, the most common being prayer in its myriad forms and styles. Like musician’s scales and athlete’s drills investing significant time in spiritual practices is absolutely essential to grow deeper as a disciple of Jesus.
And so, committed to these practices, we ‘love God’ and grow deeper in communion with God
- Through worship and sacraments
- Through scripture study and learning
- Through prayer and spiritual practices
Job #1 is growing ever deeper in communion, in relationship, in oneness with God.
‘The Message’ translation says to love God with all your passion and intelligence and prayer. From daybreak to nightfall, be worshipful, be learning, and be prayerful – that’s job #1 – that’s loving God.
And now we can really hear what Jesus is saying:
And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39)
Jesus’ second commandment is to broaden our compassion to others – To love people as we love ourselves. We do that by listening, by being present, by being available, by being willing, by responding to those nudges of the Spirit, by discerning our gifts. We love through serving, helping, and reaching out, and through addressing causes, advocating for change, and enacting justice. We love through inviting and nurturing others into their own journey of discipleship. Indeed, perhaps the most profoundly loving thing we can do for someone is to help them learn to know and love God more deeply, which is evangelism, because that sets everything else in motion.
And so, committed to these practices, we ‘love our neighbour’ as we grow broaderin compassionfor others
- Through outreach and service
- Through justice-seeking and justice-making
- Through evangelism and disciple-making
That’s the stuff our Church loves to focus on, right? But it doesn’t have to be an either/or. It’s not a binary choice.
It’s about the 1st commandment empowering, and enlivening, and animating the 2nd.
It’s the inward journey inspiring the outward journey.
I love that language. The inward journey inspiring the outward journey. Theologian Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman uses that language too. Howard Thurman was something like a spiritual advisor to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King, and other leaders of the civil rights movement, would consult with Thurman to help them empower their cause. Thurman was always pushing them on the inward journey, on who they are, and their encounter to find — in his words, “the sound of the genuine” in you.
That emphasis that Thurman had on the connection between interior life, inner life, and outer action, between loving God and loving neighbour, was part of what was so revolutionary and part of what was so powerful. Thurman taught that as you constantly attend to the inner journey (loving God) that you can find what is truly genuine in you, and what is most important. He said once you find that, then you come alive. That inner encounter with the Spirit, the encounter with silence, the encounter with God – the God of justice, to be sure – that inner encounter helps you discover and become passionate about your purpose. And then you begin to work outward. So, you work inward to work outward.
The 1st commandment empowers, enlivens, and animates the 2nd. The inward journey fuels the outward journey – not once, but in an ever-flowing cycle of inward and outward – like breathing – loving God, loving people.
And then, into that mix, we add the 3rd commandment of Jesus, from John 13 – to love one another. Another word for that is mutuality. It’s the love that church folk share to strengthen our common journey.
Last week we talked about being a Jesusy church – about how Jesus is the centre of our understanding of what a life of faith is. We talked about living like him – which gets the fancy term Christ-likeness. Growing ever deeper in his Way – striving to be more and more Jesusy in our day-to-day lives.
How do you achieve this Jesusy-ness? Obviously, you dedicate yourself to a life of love. Well, more specifically, a life of love, love, love. To become a more Jesusy church we need to ground our faith in being a loving church. And yes, being more Jesusy and being more loving are absolutely synonymous.
A loving church has a robust sense of loving God, and loving others – while loving one another. Next week we’ll talk about being a serving church. A Jesusy church, a loving church, and a serving church are all really the same stuff – just with a different emphasis. But that emphasis matters.
Love God with all you are. Love others by honouring their sacredness, their wholeness, the fullness of their being, the depth of who they are. And supportively love one another as you journey together in faith. These are the ways of a loving church.
And like those wise prophets, Paul, John…George and Ringo said: All you need is love! Ba-da-da-da!