The way of love - A non lectionary sermon based on Mark12:28 - 34
So one of the experts in the Law asks Jesus what is the most important instruction in the Torah Law, not an uncommon question given that according to rabbinic tradition there are some 613 commandments within the Torah covering a wide variety of issues. So what lies at the heart of this question?
What most scholars believe is being asked for here is not so much the most important commandment but that which sums up the intent of Torah Law, that which demonstrates the principles from which Torah is derived. The prophet Micah had in a sense tried to answer this question centuries before when he had proclaimed;
“And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Indeed the question was very current around the time of Christ. The great Rabbi Hillel had offered the answer;
“What you hate for yourself, do not do to your neighbour.”
Another rabbi, Akiba, offered what might sound a familiar answer;
“You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
Jesus offers a reply that takes two parts. First he looks back to Deuteronomy where we find the Shema which is so important to the Jewish people, the command to love the One God with all our being. Then he visits Leviticus where we find the command to love our neighbour as ourselves.
What makes the response of Jesus of importance to us today is the link that he makes between love of God and love of others. We can easily separate the two but the relationship between them is at the heart of Christian proclamation. Hear for a moment the words of the Apostle John which affirm this connection;
“If anyone says, ‘I love God’ but hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God, who he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
Now let’s be real as to the issue here. Love cannot be commanded. If on my first date with Andrea I ordered her to love me and ultimately marry me, a slapped face is the least I would have got. Emotions quite simply cannot be commanded by another. But that is not what this is about. The Greek word for love in this scripture is agape which is about actions. So what this is about is not romantic day dreaming but the actions of the love that seeks the best for the other party. What matters here is the actions that show an appreciation of the value of God and of others allied to a response to both God and others.
Now at this stage of this sermon I guess I could talk about the actions that can point to agape love of God. But hey time is short and what I want to stress is how this love of God is expressed through our dealings with others.
Now let us be clear that Christians are by no means the only people to love others. I think back to my undergraduate days and recall that most of those who visited the Vietnamese boat people or took part in the other Community Relations activities were not professing Christians. So too many of the people I have seen responding to international disasters through charitable activities would not claim the name of Christ. Likewise earnest people I have met at Nottingham Occupation for Global Change, people expressing serious concerns about the future of vulnerable people, people who talk about the need of a more love influenced politics and economics with great sincerity, come from a variety of faith and non faith perspectives. Claim that we are the only people to show true love and we delude ourselves but make no mistake love is at the heart of being a follower of Jesus.
And yet a warts and all exploration of Christian history shows that all too often those who have been aware of the love of God in Christ have allowed that love to be used as a cause of violent hatred. We see it in the Crusades when the slaughter of Muslims and even the wrong type of Christian was in Eamon Duffy’s words attributed by the highest spiritual authorities as “meritorious violence.” And the slaughters associated with post Reformation conflict were little better with the Thirty Years War being a religious conflict that prematurely ended the lives of close on 20% of the population of Central Europe. Add the killings of possibly millions of people, mainly women, for witchcraft and you get a clear picture that all too often love of God has been expressed in violent hatred of those who are deemed to be the enemies of God.
But Jesus reminds us that this is not how it should be. For when he says to love our neighbour he offers no safe instruction for us to hide behind but as demonstrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan a call for us to love precisely those whom it is not easy to love. As Dorothy Day who founded the Catholic Worker Movement put it;
“I really only love God as much as the person I love least.”
Let’s do a brief case study. Will Campbell is a Baptist minister in the USA. He also has quite a history as an activist being involved in a number of causes including opposition to the Vietnam War in which connection he helped many draft resisters find sanctuary in Canada. He has opposed the death penalty and indeed abortion but most of all he is remembered for his involvement in the civil rights campaign concerning which he was the only white person present at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by Martin Luther King.
All well and good but there came the time when he realised that he was less a minister than a rather doctrinaire social activist. He had begin to write off those who were on the other side of the barricades, even to hate them. And so without surrendering the causes that were dear to him, he began to engage with and to minister to those who had been his enemies even members of that most repugnant of groups, the Ku Klux Klan. I’m not sure that was particularly wise but I cannot escape the validity of his observation, “Jesus died for bigots as well!”
And so he did! You see what Jesus is doing in this scripture is calling us into a way of life where radical love is at the heart of our being. If I were to recommend 5 films that every Christian should consider watching, one of my choices would without doubt be Chocolat. In it there is a rigid religious scene of an oppressive nature. The Comte is at the heart of it and writes the sermons for the young priest Pere Henri. That is until on the eve of Easter he succumbs to temptation and stuffs himself with chocolate. Set free to preach without his mentor the young priest who has observed and indeed been complicit in the culture of exclusion of those whose lifestyle does not fit, finally grasps what faith is about as in a stuttering voice he proclaims to packed church on Easter Day that rather than preach on Christ‘s divinity:
“I want to talk about Christ’s humanity, I mean how he lived his life on earth: his kindness, his tolerance. We must measure our goodness, not by what we don’t do, what we deny ourselves, what we resist, or who we exclude. Instead, we should measure ourselves by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.”
And that is inclusion unlimited even reaching Will Campbell’s bigots. For the way proclaimed by Jesus is the way that declares all to be of value - and that includes ourselves for the love we are invited to show to neighbours is a love we can match to ourselves. We’re alright!
And knowing that we prepare to go to the table where we are reminded of what it is to be accepted by God.