Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
The church in which I was baptised and went to Sunday school had, behind the altar, the tables of the law: week by week the congregation stared at the 10 commandments, and they in turn told us what we should and shouldn’t do. The message at my grandparents’ church was less wordy, but pretty stark: ‘fear the Lord’ it instructed us. And I did. Or at least, for quite a while I considered God someone I should be afraid of, and whose commandments I needed to keep if I was to stay on the right side of him.
And it’s a tempting belief, because it at least gives us a way of measuring where we stand with God. How do we know that God loves us? How do we know that we are right with him? Well, if you’ve got a list of dos and don’ts against which you can measure your life, that’s an easy way of knowing. That despite my best efforts I still felt not all right with God gave me a clue that there was more to faith than this, but it took me years to discover a way of living in accordance with God’s will that springs from freedom, not fear. Now, though sometimes I lapse back into acting from fear, I am much better able to see God’s commandments as an invitation to freedom, to living in him. They are not ways of behaving that earn his approval or avoid his displeasure, which would be an abusive kind of faith. They are ways of acting that flow from the freedom of knowing I can’t earn God’s love. So I don’t covet my neighbour’s property because coveting makes God angry with me. I do my best not to covet my neighbour’s property because I have begun to learn that just as God’s love is poured out on me, entirely unmerited, so it is poured out on others. To begin to see ourselves, our neighbours, and all that we have as gift is to begin to move away from possessiveness.
The status of the law is at issue in today’s Gospel reading. It comes at the end of a series of encounters between Jesus and the different religious factions of his day. The chief priests, the elders, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Herodians have all had a go at trying to trick Jesus into saying something blasphemous or seditious. Today the Pharisees come back for one last go: ‘Teacher’, they ask, ‘which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ There are 613 commandments in the Jewish Law, and the Pharisees had done pretty well out of being seen as authoritative interpreters of it.
Jesus’ reply draws on verses in Deuteronomy and Leviticus: the dual command to love God and neighbour. ‘On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets’, he says. They do not replace the law and the prophets, but they act as an interpretative key. The giving of the law and the teaching of the prophets both serve to help us love God and our neighbour.
And that helps, because it means we don’t get to make up what love means. In a culture that is often tempted to sentimentalise or idealise love, or to treat it solely as a matter of affection, there are concrete actions and practices that help us learn to love God and neighbour. Love is seen and grows in practical action: it is not taking your neighbour’s cloak in pledge overnight so he has nothing to keep him warm. It is not gleaning every last inch of your field so that there is something left for the immigrant, the orphan and the widow. It is keeping the sabbath day because to do so reminds you that you are not God, that you are more than the product of your labour, and that all you receive comes to you as gift.
Like the tables of the 10 Commandments, there are practices that shape our relationships with God and with each other. To love is an act of commitment that goes beyond how we feel. In the verses that precede the commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves in Leviticus, the people are enjoined to be holy as God is holy. And that means some very practical things: it means not taking vengeance or bearing a grudge. It means acting justly, not nursing hatred, and not slandering your neighbour. And in this we see that love of God and love of neighbour are not separate: if we love God we cannot help but love our neighbour, because to love God is to have our hearts and minds and souls shaped after his love. It is to be drawn into his reconciling love, which wants to draw all people to himself.
We may start out keeping the commandments out of a sort of fear of God, as I did. But as they shape our lives, so we find ourselves keeping them not because we ought to, because we are afraid that somehow if we don’t we will forfeit God’s love, but because we want to: because our desires are being shaped in accordance with God’s desire. Loving our neighbours in practical actions helps us to see them as equally loved by God.
And this is where the Church, as the body of Christ, is really important. Here we learn to love God in worship and prayer, scripture and sacrament. But here, too, we are taught to love God in each other. We may want a God who comes to us unmediated, a direct illumination of our minds and souls. But often God turns up in other people. And belonging to the Church presents us with the challenge and the joy of being in community with people we don’t choose. Churches should not be communities of the like-minded. To be part of the church is to commit ourselves to living with each other and learning to depend on each other for our growth in holiness. When Leviticus spells out that being holy as the Lord their God is holy means not gossiping and doing each other down, not treating each other unjustly or seeking vengeance, we can see that this is not written for a community of already perfect individuals. There will be temptations to outdo one another in piety and then smugly judge those who don’t measure up. There will be temptations to get one over on each other, to cheat and try to get ahead at another’s expense. There will be all the temptations towards separation that come from living together as a community of imperfect, finite people seeking to live out the perfect holiness and goodness of God.
Those temptations are ever present. To be part of a community seeking to live out the love of God in our own day brings similar challenges. We are brought into one body with those we like and those we find difficult. We are made one in Christ with people who are too quiet, too loud, too similar to us, too different from us; with those who take it all too seriously and those who don’t take it seriously enough; with those who want to change everything and those who don’t want any change at all; with those whose theologies we agree with and those we find deficient.
And this is where we learn how to love. For in so doing, we learn that love isn’t about loving those who are like us (which is just another form of self-love), and that love isn’t primarily a matter of affection. It is about commitment: to these people, to the image of God in them, and to all that leads to the growth and revelation of that image. To be a part of the body of Christ is to learn that we depend on each other for our growth in holiness – as the bits of me that are awkward and judgemental and resentful and impatient and irritable gradually get chipped away as they rub up against the reality of you as brothers and sisters in Christ. I confess this happens imperfectly, and you know as I do that there is plenty of chipping away still to do. But what I learn from you, again and again, is that we depend on each other as well as on God for our growth in holiness. ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,’ says Jesus. And ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ We can’t do one without the other. And both depend on the prior love of God, the one who in Christ shows himself as the authoritative interpreter of the law and the prophets; the one whose whole life shows us what it means to love.