This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Love Is Everything.


Matthew 22.34-46.

I.
Occasionally in this business I encounter people who rationalize their lack of involvement in the church by saying things like, “Since God is everywhere I believe I can worship God on the golf course on Sunday morning as well as I can in church.”  There are many other ways this sentiment gets expressed.  Often it is an excuse for skipping church: “God wants me to spend more time with my family,” “I am worshiping God when I read the newspaper,” “God is glorified when I sleep late after a hard week at work,” “I worship by watching a preacher on TV while I’m making pancakes.”  That sort of thing.
At that level it is relatively harmless.  But by this reasoning any human activity becomes worship simply because we say so.  And that can become a huge problem, and often has. 
A couple of centuries ago, some Americans actually claimed they were glorifying God by owning slaves.  Others have claimed they were expressing their obedience to Christ by dropping high explosives on people from 30,000 feet in the air.  Many Germans during the Second World War thought killing Jews was a way to glorify God.  Some are very overt in their belief that making money glorifies God.  I have heard it said that exploiting natural resources — from meat, fish, and fur to water, wood, coal, and oil — actually glorifies God.
Thus, while the commandment calls upon us to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind, our interpretation and behavior drains those words of all meaning.  We have turned this commandment on its head so that anything we want to do is by definition an expression of our love for God simply because we want to do it.
So, to prevent this kind of abuse, Jesus, like many other wise rabbis of the time, appends a second great commandment to the first.  He says we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Thus it is impossible for us to say we love God while expressing hatred, violence, exclusion, or anything else that would be offensive to us, against other people.  Our love for God must be made real, can only be made real, in terms of our love for others. 
Of course, we have found many ways to get around this as well.  We justify and rationalize our violence towards our neighbor by saying it is really a form of tough love.  Thus we may say, when we inflict suffering and injustice on people, that we are assisting them in developing their own self-discipline, or that we are helping them see the error of their ways, or that we are aiding them in cultivating their own entrepreneurial spirit, or that what we do to them will aid them in character-building.
The real meaning of what is going on here has nothing to do with love for God.  In fact, God is out of the picture entirely.  All we have are our own desires, needs, fears, hopes, and dreams.  These have become our god.  The bottom line of this reasoning is that “God wants me to be happy, so whatever I do to make myself happy right now must make God happy too.”  In other words, if we think like this I wonder if any God larger than our own ego exists for us at all.

II.
To counteract even this rationalization, Jesus goes further by reminding the Pharisees that the Messiah is not dependent on David or any other human lord.  Rather all human lords and purposes are dependent on the Messiah.  Even the great King David is not superior to the Messiah.  This means that we do not get to decide how to love God or how to love our neighbor.  It is not up to our ingenious reasoning.  What we think doesn’t matter.  Loving God and loving our neighbor are not morally relative things that we get to define according to our present needs and desires.
No.  The criterion is not us but the Messiah, Jesus Christ.  He gets to decide and inform us about what is real love for God and what is real love for others.  The Messiah is our Lord; he is the One who defines what these things mean for us.  He shows us what real love is.
And once we consider the example of the Messiah we realize that all rationalizations and convenient explanations are empty and false.  For the example of the Messiah is of one who emptied himself for us even to the point of giving up his own life, even to the point of dying humiliated and cursed on a cross.  That example, and not our self-serving, self-indulgent sentimentality, is what love really means.  The Messiah, Jesus, defines love for us.  We do not get to decide this for ourselves.
God does give us the world... but not to do with it as we see fit.  God does give us each other in relationship... but not to exploit, abuse, manipulate, and control.  Rather, we are to do with the world and with others only what God wills, and only what brings glory to God, and only what expresses love for God as we see this love revealed in Jesus Christ.
That is to say, we are to express our love for God in our love for others by following the example of Jesus.  Only by living according to what he says in the Beatitudes, to which we have repeatedly returned, can we truly say we are living in his love.  Only by purity of heart and poverty of spirit, only by righteousness and mercy and gentleness, only by peacemaking and even suffering persecution, can we truthfully say we love God and our neighbors.
Jesus shows us that love is a sacrificial, self-emptying movement in which we die to our own selves, our own agendas, our own desires, our own need to control and possess.  And in so dying we find ourselves reborn to eternal life, a life of profound abundance, a life of connection and unity with all things and with God.

III.
This kind of love is impossible for us.  On our own, we should not even attempt it.  Even the example and explicit teachings of Jesus are subject to misinterpretation.  More horrible atrocities have been committed in Jesus’ Name than I care to think about.  Following Jesus is impossible for us.  It is not something we can decide to do on our own. 
But God can do this.  And we can do it when we are united in purpose and spirit with God in Jesus Christ.  In him, by the power of the Holy Spirit, because we are one in him and with him, it is now possible for us to follow God, and even more.  The only way to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, the only way to love our neighbors as ourselves, the only way to love with the love God gives us in Christ is to become one with Christ. 
This why God gives us the church, the communion of believers, the gathering of those who place their trust in Jesus Christ, to function as Christ’s on-going Earthly Body in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The church is here so that we may support each other in the work of discipleship.  For the calling we have, to love God and to love our neighbor, is something that requires mutual listening and encouragement, criticism and prayer.  We become one with Jesus Christ when we enter into true communion with others and gather together in his Name, to hear his Word, to do his will, and to celebrate his Sacraments. 
This is why God gives to us the Sacrament of Baptism, so we may symbolically, spiritually share in Christ’s death and experience rebirth in him.  He shows us what love is in coming into mortal existence to dwell among us.  In this he shows his love for the whole creation by becoming one of us, even to the point of death.  Therefore, it is when we express the same kind of love, a love that empties ourselves of our own prejudices and biases, that we share in Jesus’ love.     
This is why God gives us the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, so that we may actually participate in Christ’s own Body and Blood, remembering his sacrifice and anticipating his return.  He loved God fully and completely and in so doing showed his love for us.  
Everything we do in the church serves to remind us of the basic purpose for which we are placed here on the Earth, which is summed up in those two commandments: love God with all our being, and your neighbor as yourself.  Christ gives us this ability.  It is something we do in him, and together with each other.

IV.
Every so often, God sends a tsunami of change into the world and into the church.  The point is to blow away our complacency and our self-satisfied attitudes, and return the people to what the prophets call the love they had at first.  Periodically we are called back to our original calling to love God and our neighbors.  These are times of reformation and renewal in the church.
I think we are in one of those seminal periods now, when God is thrusting aside the old order and something emerges that really expresses in our own time this eternal good news.  It is a time when we are being brought back to face very basic questions, and to remake very basic affirmations.  Like loving God with all our being.  Like loving our neighbors as ourselves.                 
But in the church, the essence of reform has always been a return to basic and essential truths, practices, beliefs, and spiritual experience.  They may explode into each generation in new ways, but the basic core is always to tap into the original energy, the original spirit, the original message of God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ.
I would like to be a part of that.
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