I am preaching at St. Mark's in Port Hope this Sunday.
Readings: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
They are out to trap Jesus again. This time it is a lawyer who asks, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus turns the trap into a teaching opportunity by reminding him of the two great commandments, to love God and to love neighbour.
Jesus makes it clear that 'loving action' is the ultimate authority. Love is beyond the claims of the law. There is ultimately one law alone, and that is the law to love. It is a law, first and foremost, to love God, to love totally in all that entails, to commit our lives to God. And the reality of our love of God is part and parcel of our love of neighbour. If we love God, that cannot help but result in loving action towards others. It cannot be lived out in our lives without looking at neighbourly love and at the question of social justice. It is a call to examine our responsibilities, not only to our next-door neighbour, but also to our global neighbours. It is no mistake that it is an integral part of our Baptismal covenant. Love of neighbour provides a simple guideline by which we can test our lives.
When asked, "What is the most important commandment?" Jesus did not have to think about it. His immediate response was that it was to love God with all your heart. He went on to add that you must love your neighbour as yourself. He knew it was not a question of how to accomplish such love; the real question is why. The answer is that it is because we are in this creation all together. We as well as our neighbour are the dwelling place of God. We may not feel God's presence all the time, but that does not mean God is not with us. Our neighbour may not feel God's presence, but that does not mean that he or she is not carried by God's love. We belong together, God, you and I. When we are one, we can see God and Christ in everyone. We ourselves are then in the heart of everyone. What we do for another is done to ourselves. When another is hurt, we are hurt. Our heart is not limited to the size of the one in our chest, after all; it is as large as God's heart. The more you love yourself, the more you see who you are, the more Jesus' directive to love neighbour as self, to do the loving thing, will become a blessing for all humanity.
All of this requires having a good theology about love. In his book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” Stephen Covey writes the following about love.
“In the great literature of all progressive societies, love is a verb. Reactive people make it a feeling. They’re driven by feelings. Hollywood has generally scripted us to believe that we are not responsible, that we are a product of our feelings. But the Hollywood script does not describe the reality. If our feelings control our actions, it is because we have abdicated our responsibility and empowered them to do so.”
“Proactive people make love a verb. Love is something you do: the sacrifices you make, the giving of self, like a mother bringing a newborn into the world. If you want to study love, study those who sacrifice for others, even for people who offend or do not love in return. If you are a parent, look at the love you have for the children you sacrificed for. Love is a value that is actualized through loving actions. Proactive people subordinate feelings to values. Love, the feeling, can be recaptured.”
His thoughts about love have so much to say to us about the call to love God and to love neighbour. For the great commandment is a call to proactive love. It is a call to recognize that love is more than Hollywood romanticism. Love needs to reflect the love of God. God loves neighbour, us, as God loves self. It is not we who love God first, but God who loves us, who creates us, who sanctifies us.
The most proactive love, it seems to me, is that which results in forgiveness. Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch woman who worked in the Resistance and was sent along with her family to the infamous concentration camp at Ravensbrook, went on to tell her story and to bring a spirit of reconciliation to her people. In one of her books she recounts an encounter after the liberation with a particularly cruel guard. She was speaking about forgiveness at a Mission. She was shocked as she recognized the former guard in the congregation. Later he came back to speak to her. It was obvious from the conversation that he did not recognize her. However, he told her that he had been a guard at Ravensbrook. He asked her forgiveness for all that had happened. He held out his hand to her. It took every ounce of courage for her to take his hand, as she remembered the death of her sister Betsie, just a few days before they were freed. But somehow God gave her the courage to forgive, and it truly liberated her. That is real love of neighbour. That is the love that God shows us in giving us Jesus. That is the Gospel in action.
Paul's ministry to the people of Thessalonica is a beautiful example, is it not, of what happens when one continues to lovingly minister even in the face of opposition. Paul's story is no fairy tale. His early ministry often took him to towns where he was stoned for his preaching and driven out. Ultimately he lost his life for the faith. Opposition to Paul in Thessalonica was particularly unpleasant. Yet he discovered something important about himself, about ministry, and about the faith from the experience. Despite the opposition, there developed a real sense of commitment from many people. The communities became places of loving action and the beginning of a strong worldwide community of faith, one for which he was able to truly give thanks.
We can put that Gospel into action every day of our lives. To know Christ is not something I think or intellectualize. Christ is a person to whom I respond by loving. And that love is shown by my loving action in the world. The Gospel calls us to more than words.
"We are determined," Paul says "to share with you not only the Gospel of God, but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us." It is easy as Christians to be in the business of getting things organized, of busily doing good, and of sharing tasks. To share ourselves is harder. Yet that is the Gospel call. That is the loving thing to do.
The wonderful thing about good ministry is that you know when you have done it. We may see it as a tragedy that Moses did not reach the Promised Land. But Moses did good ministry. Moses is the one who stood before God and said "Not me! Get someone else to do it. I'm no speaker. People won't listen to me. Aaron will do a better job." He is also the one who is remembered as the greatest of the prophets, as more than a prophet – as priest, ruler and judge, as interpreter of the will of God.
Paul may have become discouraged by the lack of response he received in delivering the Gospel message. But he saw the loving actions of the people of Thessalonica. He saw their sense of commitment. He saw them as they shared in the Gospel message even when there were differences of opinion. You see, doing ministry, really doing it, really sharing ourselves, brings us into the very presence of God. It opens up a channel into the kingdom that is totally unmistakable. And it is as simple as remembering that Jesus loves me. Amen.
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