Day: October 25, 2008

Sermon: The Greatest Commandment

The Greatest Commandment

 Matthew 22:34-40 NIV’84

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

The One Thing

Jesus is in a pretty interesting situation here.  He’s just run off a bunch of Sadducees who try to trick Jesus with a question about the resurrection.  Of course, the Sadducees don’t believe in the resurrection.  Which is why they are “sad — you see.”  Sorry, I couldn’t resist.  Not very funny maybe, but true.  So, Jesus puts them in their place.

Seeing an opening, a bunch of Pharisees descend on Jesus, also trying to trick him into giving a wrong answer.  This is “gotcha” journalism, first-century style.  Discrediting your opponent is much older than this year’s presidential race, I’m afraid.  So, they ask Jesus —

“Which commandment in the Law is the greatest?”

My guess is that they expect Jesus to pick one of the 10 commandments — say, Thou shalt have no other gods before me — and say that is the greatest commandment.  And, no matter which commandment Jesus chooses, the Pharisees are ready with 39 reasons why he’s wrong.

But, Jesus fools them.  Instead, he quotes Deuteronomy.  Not one of the 10 commandments at all, but the general instructions that God gives to the nation on how they are to live.  It’s called the Shema —

“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.”

And, then Jesus adds, “And, the second is like unto it — You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Then, Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees and asks them a question, which we’ll have to deal with another time.  Today, we will spend all our time on the one thing that Jesus says is the most important — loving God and loving your neighbor.

What Does Loving God Mean?

For devout, righteous Jews loving God meant keeping the commandments — the 10 Commandments. And, here they are:

1.  Having no other gods.

2.  Not making idols.

3.  Not taking God’s name in vain.

4.  Remembering the Sabbath day.

5.  Honoring your parents.

6.  Not killing others.

7.  Not committing adultery.

8.  Not stealing.

9.  Not bearing false witness.

10. Not coveting the things of your neighbor.

The first four commandments have to do with our relationship with God, and the remaining six commandments have to do with our relationship with others.  So, Jesus sums it up — love God, love your neighbor.

So far, I’m not saying anything you haven’t heard before.  But, here’s where I’m about to begin.  Because in Moses day, and in Jesus day as well, they had a very different view of what “love” within the community meant.

In our 21st century, individualized world, when we hear we should “love” God and our neighbor, we instantly think of “warm fuzzies.”  I’m supposed to have a warm feeling in my heart, and if I’m with a group of like-minded folks, we’ll all join hands and sing, Kum Ba Ya.  But, as you can imagine, that is not what the Biblical writers had in mind.

They didn’t think of love as a subjective, emotional response.  They say love as a verb, not a noun.  Love meant action.  Love meant living a certain way, a way that distinguished God’s people from all other people.  Loving God meant worshipping the One, True God — not hedging your bet by making idols to the sun god, and the moon god, and the god of the harvest, and worshipping those, too.  No, loving God meant throwing your lot in with the One God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Loving God also meant honoring God’s name.  Not speaking it lightly, or profanely, or invoking it to bring down curses upon someone or something.  Loving God meant respecting who God is, and what God has done, and speaking God’s name carefully.

Loving God meant resting on one day to commemorate God’s good creation.  To take time out of the endless difficulty of eeking out a living to acknowledge the God of creation and to worship him.

Loving God also meant that you loved your neighbor, which meant anybody around.  Jesus clarified that with the story of the Good Samaritan.  So, you loved God by loving your neighbor.  By honoring your parents.  By not killing other people — which sounds really strange to us today, but in a brutal world where power was supreme, life was cheap and scores were settled by who lived or who died.  And, to parse this idea of not killing other people into arcane arguments about capital punishment, war, and so on is to miss the point.  The point is that life is sacred, and human life is especially so and love for God extends to the person sitting next to me, because he or she is made in God’s image.

Loving God also meant that I don’t steal from my neighbor, that I don’t lie about my neighbor, that I don’t cheat on my wife, and that I don’t even envy the things my neighbor has, because I might be tempted to kill him in order to steal his stuff, and take his wife for my own.  These are all interconnected.

 Loving God, then, is action.  And our love for God gets expressed in ways that honor God, and honor those who are made in God’s image.

Now, this is the most important thing Jesus ever said.  Love God, love your neighbor.  Jesus thought this was so important he explained that all the law and prophets hang on these two simple ideas.

The New Testament Echoes Love of God and Neighbor

So, if that isn’t enough to make us sit up and take notice, Jesus begins to do a lot of things to show us what this means.

·       To the woman caught breaking the commandment not to commit adultery, Jesus extends love, not wrath, by telling her “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.”

·       To those wanting to know where to draw the line on who my neighbor is, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, which erases all racial, ethnic, cultural, and spiritual boundaries to neighborliness.

·       To those who thought that their neighbors were not the afflicted, Jesus touches lepers, makes blind eyes see, and lame legs walk.

·       For those who don’t understand what it means to love, Jesus foreshadows his own sacrifce by saying, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

·       John picks up the refrain connecting loving God and loving others in 1st John 3:14 — “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.  Whoever does not love abides in death.”

 So, this is it — love God, love one another.  But, what does that really mean?

 Well, it means that we as followers of God show love to others in ways that they get it, that they know we love them. For after all, if the person you love doesn’t know it, then your love is not having the intended effect.  We understand how this works in romantic love.  When Debbie and I were dating, I let her know in every way I could think of that I loved her.  I bought her gifts, I took her to movies she wanted to see, I wrote her letters (this was way before email), and I told her I loved her.  Forty years later, we’re still doing some of that same stuff.  Only we do it slower now, but we eventually do get around to it.  Why?  Because unexpressed love is unrealized love.

And, this extends to churches, too.  Churches like ours that want to show love to the community, and people within the community, have to do it in tangible ways.  James wrote about this, criticizing those Christians who told the hungry and cold, “Go, be warmed and well-fed” without lifting a finger to give them something to eat or something to wear.  Love expresses itself in ways that are understandable.

Let me give you an example.  Outreach magazine recently published an article I wrote.  I found out about a church in inner-city Detroit that was doing some remarkable things.  Military Avenue Evangelical Presbyterian Church is located in a very depressed part of Detroit.  When the pastor, Dr. Randy Brown, toured the area for the first time, he noticed that graffiti covered the building next to the church.  Spray painted in larger than life letters was the message, “Satan is Alive!”

Now, I must admit that if the BB&T bank building on the corner had been painted with the words, Satan is alive! I might have had second thoughts about coming here to Chatham.  But not Randy Brown.  He believed that God was calling him to Military Ave Church, a church that in its heyday had been a thriving congregation in what was then a solid middle-class neighborhood.  But times changed in Detroit.  Auto plants closed.  The solid middle-class neighborhood fell into disrepair and neglect.  Drug dealers and gangs moved in, and the church was about to close.

But Randy Brown saw an opportunity to love this neighborhood back into God’s arms.  That was 1989, and now, almost 20-years later, the church has built two new buildings.  One of the new buildings is a full-size gym.  In that gym on every weeknight, school children line up for a chance to be tutored by members of Military Avenue Church.

Once a month, families file into the sanctuary of the church for words of encouragement, and a box of free groceries to help them make through another month.  The church operates a clothing ministry, and other outreach efforts to the community, including a gang intervention program.  The pastor told me that one of their most faithful members came in off the street, a drug addict, who found Jesus, and whose life was transformed.

Oh, and remember the building that had been spray painted with the message “Satan is Alive!”?  Well, the church bought it two years ago when the seedy business that was there went broke.  Now the building houses “The Solid Rock Cafe” where teens can come and play games, get something to eat, and talk to adults who spend time there as mentors.  That’s love.  That’s the kind of love that Jesus was talking about, the kind of love that Deuteronomy encouraged, the kind of love that acts in the best interests of those who are loved in ways that they know they are loved.

Seven Traits of Real Love

In his paper, Unlimited Love: What It Is and Why It Matters, Dr. Stephen Post cites the work of Jean Vanier,

founder of L’Arche, a faith-based ministry of 100-communities in 30 countries for people with intellectual disabilities.  Vanier says that love has 7 components to it —

1.  To reveal value in the other person.

2.  To understand that other person.

3.  To communicate with the other person.

4.  To celebrate the life of the other person.

5.  To empower the other person.

6.  To be in community with the other person.

7.  To forgive and be forgiven.

So, that’s what love looks like to Jean Vanier, and his vision gives us some food for thought.  These are the tangible expressions of love that are so sadly lacking in most of our preaching and teaching in churches today.  Love doesn’t mean that we all become best friends, spend all of our time together, and go on vacation with each other.  Love means I see value in you and tell you I do; I listen to you enough to understand what you are saying; I communicate with you and receive communication from you; I celebrate the wonder that is your life, no matter the difficulty of its present circumstance; I empower you to act on your own and to take responsibility for living up to your potential; I move within a community that includes you and others who are all seeking to love in the ways that Christ loved; and, I forgive you and ask that you forgive me.  (1)

To Vanier’s list I would add an eighth characteristic of love — sacrifice.  For that is how “God showed his love for us, in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”

A Story of Love Expressed

Here is a story that nicely captures aspects of unlimited love’s gratuitous freedom, told by a Mr. Barry Schlimme

of Louisville, Kentucky.

At a fund -raising dinner for a school that serves learning-disabled children, the father of one of the school’s students delivered a speech that would never be forgotten by all who attended. After extolling the school and its dedicated staff, he offered a question.

“Everything God does is done with perfection. Yet, my son, Shay, cannot learn things as other children do. He cannot understand things as other children do. Where is God’s plan reflected in my son?”

The audience was stilled by the query.

 The father continued. “I believe,” the father answered, “that when God brings a child like Shay into the world, an opportunity to realize the Divine Plan presents itself. And it comes in the way people treat that child.”

Then, he told the following story:

 Shay and his father had walked past a park where some boys Shay knew were playing baseball. Shay asked,”Do you think they will let me play?”

Shay’s father knew that most boys would not want him on their team. But the father understood that if his son were allowed to play it would give him a much needed sense of belonging. Shay’s father approached one of the boys on the field and asked if Shay could play. The boy looked around for guidance from his teammates. Getting none, he took matters into his own hands and said, “We are losing by six runs, and the game is in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and I’ll try to put him up to bat in the ninth inning.”

In the bottom of the eighth inning, Shay’s team scored a few runs but was still behind by three.

At the top of the ninth inning, Shay put on a glove and played in the outfield. Although no hits came his way, he was obviously ecstatic just to be on the field, grinning from ear to ear as his father waved to him from the stands. In the bottom of the ninth inning, Shay’s team scored again. Now, with two outs and bases loaded, the potential winning run was on base. Shay was scheduled to be the next at-bat. Would the team actually let Shay bat at this juncture and give away their chance to win the game?

Surprisingly, Shay was given the bat. Everyone knew that a hit was all but impossible because Shay didn’t even know how to hold the bat properly, much less connect with the ball. However, as Shay stepped up to the plate, the

pitcher moved a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shay could at least be able to make contact. The first pitch came and Shay swung clumsily and missed.

The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly toward Shay. As the pitch came in, Shay swung at the ball and hit a slow ground ball to the pitcher. The pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could easily have thrown the ball to the first baseman. Shay would have been out and that would have ended the game. Instead, the pitcher took the ball and threw it on a high arc to right field, far beyond reach of the first baseman. Everyone started yelling, “Shay, run to first. Run to first.” Never in his life had Shay ever made it to first base.

 He scampered down the baseline, wide-eyed and startled. Everyone yelled “Run to second, run to second!” By the time Shay was rounding first base, the right fielder had the ball. He could have thrown the ball to the second baseman for a tag. But the right fielder understood what the pitcher’s intentions had been, so he threw the ball high and far over the third baseman’s head. Shay ran towards second base as the runners ahead of him deliriously circled the bases towards home.

As Shay reached second base, the opposing shortstop ran to him, turned him in the direction of third base, and shouted, “Run to third!” As Shay rounded third, the boys from both teams were screaming, “Shay! Run home.” Shay ran home, stepped on home plate and was cheered as the hero, for hitting a “grand slam” and winning the game for his team.

“That day,” said the father softly with tears now rolling down his face,”the boys from both teams helped bring a piece of the Divine Plan into this world.” (1)

And the greatest of these is love.

(1) Unlimited Love: What it is and Why it matters.  Stephen Post, pgs.14-16