(Leviticus 19, 1-2 & 15-18; Matthew 22, 34-40)
If you wanted a simple statement of the Christian faith, two verses from today’s Gospel reading would provide it: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: Love your neighbour as you love yourself.”
And this creed would be an acceptable summary of the essentials of the faith for many of the other great world faiths too – after all, Jesus took them from the Torah, the Jewish Law, and said the whole understanding of the Law, and the sayings of the prophets, depended on these laws; and the Muslim faith sprang from the same roots.
But how do we put this, the Great Commandment, into practice?
When we say we love God, what image do we have of the being we are loving? Is it an angry old man with a beard, who is constantly spying on us, and judging us unworthy; punishing us with disease and natural disasters when we fail; forever oppressing minorities and women, supporting war, armies and big business, happy with the destruction of the planet; guarded by minions who won’t allow us access unless we can answer a whole host of doctrinal questions correctly?
I think that’s the very opposite of what God is. God is spirit, neither male nor female. God is the Ground of our Being, revealing Godself in the loving relationship of the Trinity. God is Creator, Father and Mother; God is Friend, Redemeer, Saviour, Brother and Sister; God is Sustainer, Comforter, Guide and Sanctifier. God is Love.
The way we love God is not so very different from the way we show love to another human being, particularly one with whom we have an intimate relationship, like a parent or a spouse. We spend time with them, getting to know them; so we move towards God in prayer and meditation, saying ‘I am here’ and we enjoy doing so. Loving God should be a pleasure, not a duty. We read what people believe God has revealed to them, especially through the scriptures, and particularly through Jesus. We make ourselves open to the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes that means communicating, speaking and listening. No relationship of love can grow if communication ceases. But sometimes it may mean just being silent together. Those who love each other don’t always have to use words to communicate.
If we love God, we will share God’s interests and work to make God’s dreams come true. We will say and mean “Your Kingdom come, your will be done”. We share God’s concerns and care about those things and people and causes that God cares about, bringing them before God in intercession.
We will show our appreciation of God, expressing gratitude for the good things that we have been blessed with in our lives. But we will also have the confidence to share our anxieties and our doubts, our needs and our fears, and even sometimes our anger.
We should not have to pretend in front of someone we love.
We will respect God, and honour the divine in our lives, saying and meaning ‘Hallowed be thy name”.
And we will say sorry! Do you remember the line in the film Love Story: ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry’? That’s nonsense in human relationships and it’s nonsense in our relationship with God. Love means always saying sorry when we need to, always seeking to rebuild the relationship when it’s been damaged, always being honest with one another.
If we practise loving God with every part of ourselves, heart, soul, mind, and strength, we will grow closer to God, until we are more and more filled with the fullness of God, and our love for God, our neighbours and ourselves will grow and deepen.
Then we will find it easier to love our neighbour. The rules we heard in our Old Testament reading from Leviticus are a guide to how we should show love for our neighbour, reflecting the Ten Commandments and the guidance of the prophets.
But this gives us only the basics, something like ‘primary school level loving your neighbour.’
To those for whom the rules in the Torah were first written, neighbours were restricted to fellow Israelites. Neighbours were ‘people like us’ and ‘people we like’. Jesus gave us a different definition. He taught that our neighbours were also people who were very different from us, those whom we’d been taught to dislike and fear, even our enemies. Neighbours are anyone and everyone: not just our own kind, but all of humankind.
As Paul taught us in Galatians), in Christ there are no differences which justify us treating each other differently. Differences are no longer a threat, but a gift, enabling us to work as a body or a team, with each person contributing their own skills and talents to the unity of the whole.
This means that, whereas once upon a time, it might have been necessary for us to cling to our own kind, and fight those who were different to survive, we now recognise that we need to find a way to live with those who are different from us in our crowded cities, crowded countries and crowded planet. Otherwise, we will not survive.
And the way to live together is to love our neighbours. The Scriptures don’t just leave that as an ideal; they translate it into practical action. The Ten Commandments and the law codes of the Torah give us a base from which to start. Jesus drew the Great Commandment from them: from the Shema in Deuteronomy, which commands love of God; and from the passage we heard in Leviticus, which teaches love of neighbour. But the teaching of Jesus and the Holy Spirit in the Gospels and the Epistles take it further: serve one another, wash each other’s feet, carry one another’s burdens, be at peace with one another, do not judge one another, encourage and edify one another, offer hospitality to one another, do not grumble against one another, be humble towards one another, and so on and so on.
But rules can only take us so far in showing love towards our neighbour. The example of Jesus guides us to look beyond the rules, towards a deeper sympathy and empathy for those we are called to love in God’s name. That is the beginning of wisdom, and a love for God and neighbour that is no longer limited by rules and law codes, but which truly reflects the love of God for all humankind.
Then, there is a third part to the Great Commandment to love, which is often neglected. That is, we are commanded to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.
I am sure that makes many of us feel very uncomfortable. We have been trained that we cannot be good Christians unless we deny ourselves, reject our own pleasure, and that self-love is a sin. But there is a good sort of self-love, holy, healthy and Spirit-led, as well as a bad and unhealthy sort, a good enjoyment of God-given pleasure as well as an addictive and destructive enjoyment of it. And we won’t truly be able to love our neighbours, or God, unless we first learn to love ourselves.
God gave human beings senses to enjoy the world which was created by God, and meant to be enjoyed. But if we concentrate only on our own pleasure, and particularly if it takes over everything and begins to rule our lives, we are no longer experiencing it in a healthy way. Often people try to escape from themselves, and from their own misery and dissatisfaction with themselves, into excessive enjoyment of food, or drink, or possessions or sex, and that becomes destructive of themselves and of those around them.
Healthy self-love involves honesty about ourselves, our good points and bad, not self-deception. It involves self-control, not self-indulgence, self-giving, self-development and self-examination. It involves self-acceptance, and the rejection of bitterness, jealousy, and the projection of the bad parts of ourselves onto our neighbours through racism, sexism and religious prejudice.
The self-love taught by the Spirit means loving ourselves, warts and all, the way God loves us, so we can join ourselves to God in the one self-giving love that upholds us and all creation.
Loving God with all our being, and loving our neighbours as we love ourselves is, Jesus said, the key to understanding all the Law and the prophets. It is the lens through which we must read and interpret the Scriptures and the tradition, and through which use our reason and interpret our experience. Loving God comes first, and as we nurture that love through prayer and worship and wrestling with our faith, we will be enabled to love ourselves as God loves us, and love our neighbours as God loves them – with all our heart and mind and soul and strength.
Love God, love neighbour, love self.
As the Beatles sang:
This sermon was inspired by chapters 42, 43 and 44 of ‘We make the Road by Walking’ by Brian D. McLaren. and you will find many echoes of those chapters in it. In the children’s address which preceded this sermon we looked again at the Ten Commandments; and after the sermon, we said the Lord’s Prayer together slowly, thinking particularly about love for God, our neighbour, and ourselves.