A sermon by Canon Treasurer Sarah Mullally DBE
26 October 2014
Matthew 22: 34-end and 1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8
You may have watched some years ago a television play written by Frank Cottrell Boyce called God on Trial (2008 BBC/WGBH Boston). The play takes place in Auschwitz during World War II. The Jewish prisoners put God on trial in absentia for abandoning the Jewish people. The question is ‘Has God broken his covenant with the Jewish people by allowing the Nazis to commit genocide?’ It demonstrated the Jewish tradition of debating or arguing with God. It is a genre which in Hebrew scripture we often see, argument is central to the narrative with God and through it they find understanding.
So the debating which goes on in Matthew’s gospel would not be unfamiliar as a form of narrative to the Jewish reader and through it they, and we, can find a better understanding of Jesus and his message.
What do we do when people don’t believe what we believe? Well maybe we should take their lead and respect the questions, beliefs and struggles of others and through them seek to increase our understanding of God and as it turns out, this may just be the most powerful witness we can offer.
In Matthew 22, we find Jesus in the middle of a debate. Just before our passage, the Sadducees (the landed aristocracy whose power was based upon the Temple and inheritance, legacy-based traditions) debate with Jesus. In 22:34-46, the Pharisees (those concerned about the people of the land, a more democratic movement) go up against him for the sole purpose of "testing" him. But Jesus demonstrated his single-mindedness.
They ask Jesus: "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"
How does Jesus respond? Not with a media-worthy sound-bite or partisan talking-point, or the latest brilliant, think-tank political or economic theory. No. Jesus merely quotes the scriptures that any Jew of speaking age then or now could probably recite:
"'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
Jesus' first quote comes from Deuteronomy 6:5, part of the prayer known simply as the Shema. The second is found in Leviticus 19. They are for Jesus the bedrock of God’s teaching. They are the foundation of what one must do to inherit eternal life, and they are the greatest commandments upon which hang all the law and the prophets.
And here is the distinct nature of love: it pushes “upwards” to God, and “outwards” to others here on earth. This however, only makes sense within Matthews’ larger picture of Jesus death and resurrection and the message of new life. The commandments are not orders to be obeyed in our own strength but as an invitation and promise to a new way of life, in which bit by bit, hatred and pride can be left behind and love can become a reality.
In an age when the word 'love' is greatly abused, it is important to remember that the primary component of biblical love is not affection but commitment. It is not about kindness, it demands more. Warm feelings of gratitude may fill our consciousness as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that Deuteronomy 6:5 demands of us, but rather stubborn, unwavering commitment. Here in our readings we see Love pushing upwards and outwards.
Loving God of course, is the central point of the Gospel text. This is the heart of both the Jewish tradition and because Jesus speaks of it as the Great Commandment, the heart of the Christian tradition as well.
To love God is to become more and more deeply centered in God, which requires an attention to our relationship with God. How does a human relationship deepen and grow? It deepens and grows by paying attention to it, spending time in it, being present to it. And so it is with our relationship with God and this process of becoming more and more deeply centered in God. It happens through the traditional practices of the Christian tradition, worship being the most important collective practice but for us as individuals, individual prayer is also important and the study of the bible. As we prayed in our Collect this morning – ‘to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them [scriptures] that, through patienc, and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and forever hold fast the hope of everlasting life’. Our prayer and worship are not because God needs them, but they are about our own transformation.
Love pushing upwards and outwards. In addition to loving God, we are to love what God loves. And what does God love? Here the best known verse in the New Testament, John 3:16, provides the answer. "For God so loved the world...." God loves the world, not just me, not just you and me, not just Christians, not even just human beings, but the whole of creation.
And when Jesus explains that the law and the prophets all hang on the commandments to love God and love our neighbours, he is inviting his hearers to see that those around them were created in God’s image.
So we are challenged to re-evaluate our lives, our commitments and our orientation in ways that honour that divine image in others. It requires us to expect to find God’s image in our neighbours–and even in our enemies. To love the neighbour and our enemies is to imitate God by taking their needs seriously. Love is activity for the sake of another. To love others is more than being kind, it demands us to give of ourselves.
As our epistle reading tells us that so deeply caring for others that we share not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because others become so very dear to us. (1 Thessalonians 2:1-8)
This is not theory. It is not paper commitment. It is concrete, on the ground, "stubborn, unwavering" hard work. But it is also complex.
What does it mean for us to love those who hate us? What does it mean for us to love those who are different from us? What does it mean for us to love those who are addicted? What does it mean for us to love those who have murdered? To love is not always straight-forward and if we are to love in these complex relationships we cannot do this in our strength, but in lives deeply centered upon God.
Loving upwards and outwards is about living within the Christian tradition and Christian community, with the aim of bringing the Kingdom of God to earth – it is about transformative love.
Being a Christian demands us to become involved in this process of transformative love in our communities and society, where the hungry are fed, the stranger is welcomed, the sick are healed and justice, mercy and righteousness are seen. This is about our relationships and actions, our ability to influence our community and national infrastructures and it is about the need for us to speak out and into situations which fail to demonstrate our love of God and of our neighbour.
Loving upwards and outwards is about sharing in God's passion for the world. So, ultimately, being Christian is about loving God and loving the world. It's simple yet challenging and it is the way of life.
Let us pray that we may have the stamina to walk the way of love.
Take my love, my Lord, I pour
At Thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself and I will be
Ever, only, all for Thee.