Monday, 27 October 2014

Loving God and loving our neighbour

Sermon preached at Abington Avenue URC, 26 October 2014. Recording available (misses first few minutes) on church website. Main text: Matthew 22:34-46.

Love. It’s a four letter word. And like a lot of four letter words of everybody’s acquaintance, it’s dreadfully overused and largely misunderstood. Our culture is saturated with trite little songs about love. All you need is love. I love you baby. Love is all around. The power of love, a force from above. And so on and on. It’s perhaps a good thing I’m not preaching this sermon around Valentine’s Day.

Because what Jesus was talking about, and likewise what the writers of Deuteronomy and Leviticus that he quoted and we’ve heard read this morning were talking about – it’s a very different kind of love from the trite songs. It’s about something quite different from romantic love. You’ll probably know that the Greeks had multiple words for love, and the word here is agape, the kind of love that God is described as showing throughout the New Testament. It’s the love that CS Lewis described as the highest level of love known to humanity, a selfless love, a love that is passionately committed to the well-being of the other.

And it’s that kind of love that the Shema, the words we heard from Deuteronomy, calls us to love God with. To me, that’s why it’s so very important. I think as Christians we do a disservice to this kind of love by trying to bracket it into a quasi-romantic framework. Let me put it plainly, at the possible risk of offending some people. There’s a lot of expressions of worship, in prayers and especially in modern praise songs, which some people have called “Jesus is my boyfriend” worship. They take the trite emotions in the pop songs and apply it to the deepest possible relationship that any human being can have, with our triune God, creator, redeemer and sustainer. They bring Jesus down from the cross and into the soft focus of a teenage crush.

But we are called to something very much deeper than those teenage crushes. And it’s deeper even than the love we have for a partner, or for a child or a parent. The love between human beings and God that we are called to is an experience of the divine. It’s a taste of heaven in the here and now. It’s what Jesus meant when he promised us life to the full, and eternal life. Because God is love, as the epistle of John reminds us. And so by loving God we are coming face to face with God in the very fullness of God’s self.  As the epistle of John also says, “God is love, and those who in abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them”.

How do we do this? Well it’s not easy. Love never is. Relationships of any kind are not easy. They have to be worked at. God doesn’t have to work at loving us, God is complete as love in himself. Speaking for myself, I think God must have quite an effort to love the likes of me, with all my imperfections and all my faults and all the things I do wrong. I could make you a list of all the things that make me unlovable, but it wouldn’t teach you much because everyone here could probably make a similar list for themselves. But God loves us, and remarkably that gives us strength to love God in return.

A few years ago, some of us in this church read Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. Some people like it, some people can’t stand it. I’m not going to address the central tenets today. But Rob Bell has a marvellous turn of phrase at times. He writes: “God is love, and love is a relationship. This relationship is one of joy, and it can’t be contained. … Jesus invites us into that relationship, the one at the centre of the universe. He insists that he’s one with God, that we can be one with him, and that life is a generous, abundant reality. This God whom Jesus spoke of has always been looking for partners, people who are passionate about participating in the ongoing creation of the world.”

Love is a relationship. We are enabled to love God because he first loved us. He has inscribed us on the palms of his hands. We can respond by loving him in return, with all of our being, by bringing everything we’ve got to him. I really find the song Bring It All to Me very powerful in the way it expresses that invitation.

So how do we strengthen that love for God? The 17th century bishop of Geneva, Francis de Sales, put it this way: “You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, to work by working; and just so you learn to love God and man by loving. All those who think to learn in any other way deceive themselves. If you want to love God, go on loving Him more and more.”

And there’s another way that we have to follow, and that brings me on to the second half of what Jesus said we should do – not just to love God, but also to love our neighbour as ourselves. To me, this is one of the most important things Jesus says. It goes to the very heart of his teaching, his insistence that while love for God is just as important as it had always been in the Jewish faith, but that to be fully worked-out it also requires love for those around us, for those referred to here as our neighbours.

Now, this passage is so well known and widely perceived to be central to Jesus’ teaching, that it’s sometimes perceived as being quite radical, an extension of Jewish teaching. I have to say I’m not convinced by this. There’s plenty of evidence that what Jesus was saying was a familiar idea in his day. Both his phrases were quotations from the Torah, and we heard them read earlier from Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Others seem to have also made the connection between the two phrases, and to have suggested that they summarised the Torah in these two ideas. Indeed it’s striking that when Luke tells of this scene in his gospel, he puts the ideas not into Jesus’ mouth but into the mouth of the person he’s talking to. In Matthew, it’s framed in terms of the Pharisees trying to catch Jesus out. It’s said that there were 613 commandments in the Torah. How could Jesus bring these down to just two?

Whether or not this was something original to Jesus, it’s certainly an idea that’s absolutely central to Jesus’ thinking, that we can only love God if we love those around us.

So we come to the question that was put by Jesus’ interlocutor in the gospel of Luke: but teacher, who is my neighbour? This was something the scholars of his day discussed at length. Who are we obliged to love? What is the boundary upon which we should place our love? In Leviticus, the phrase appears as part of what we might call social teaching – the establishment of a fair and just society, of right relationships. The book of Leviticus has a rather bad name today, as a set of rather harsh and unbending rules, applicable to the people of the day but not to us who live under grace rather than law. Indeed, in just the previous chapter of Leviticus to our one day, we find the text which has been used by some Christians to justify prejudice against same-sex relationships. It’s not an easy book to like. And yet we can see in this passage the start of a very clear statement: for society to work, it needs us to treat those around us well, in the same way that we’d like to be treated.

Jesus answered the question about who is our neighbour, as so often in the gospels, by telling a story, the parable of the Good Samaritan. Now there are many ways to interpret that parable, but to me it’s clear that Jesus is saying that the answer is: everybody, who is in need of help. Our neighbours are not just those who live next door, or in our little area, or in our town or our country. Nor are they just those who are like us. We are called to love everyone, regardless of their politics, or their skin colour, or their nationality, or their wealth, or their sexuality, or whether we even like them very much. We are called to love everybody.

Going back to loving our neighbour, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes this wider still – we are called to love our enemies. Now I used to believe quite fervently that I didn’t have enemies, that even if my country chose to fight wars in my name it didn’t make the people of those countries my enemies. But as I’ve got older I’ve come to understand that there are those I disagree with at such a fundamental level that I would have to say that I hate them, at least in terms of the ideas they represent. I hate racism, I hate homophobia, I hate those who seek to choke off immigration, I hate those in power who destroy people’s lives in the name of austerity. My list goes on, and you’ll have your own list. It’s not too big a stretch for me to call those who embody and champion those beliefs my enemies. I was a teenager in Scotland in the 1980s, and we really did hate Margaret Thatcher for what she was doing, or letting happen, to the Scottish industrial economy. Of course, in some ways that was a nice safe hatred. Elsewhere in Glasgow there were Protestants like me, who would have counted me among their number, who hated other Christians simply because they were Catholics, and vice-versa of course. It might not have been as violent as in Belfast, though woe-betide you if you wore green in Ibrox. Loving those neighbours is something that took a long time coming, and it’s not entirely healed. The Orange Order is still marching in Scotland, and they’re really horrible and frightening even if you’re a Protestant. And even if you reckon you’re above all those things, there are those who may well choose to define you as their enemy.

We are called by Jesus to love all these people, to love them to the same extent as we love God, as part of our loving of God. The first epistle of John again puts it clearly:  “Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

So who does Jesus call us to love as our neighbours? Everyone. And how does Jesus call us to them? Fully, abundantly, in just the same way that God loves us. Ignoring their faults and even ignoring whether we like them or whether they like us. And by coupling it with the Shema, the central idea of Jewish thought, Jesus says clearly: this really matters. How you treat others really matters. If you treat others badly, you’re not just failing in the code of reciprocity, of the self-interest in treating people as you’d like them to treat you – you’re failing in a religious duty.

How you do it – that varies, of course. For some people it might involve campaigning against injustice, or volunteering at a practical project such as a food bank; for others it might simply be about the way we relate to others, about treating everyone with respect and as a child of God, made in the image of God. And indeed it might involve how we relate to those nearest to us. Knowing how we can and should love our neighbour is a matter of discernment. There’s a Quaker phrase, part of a longer passage, which has been in my head this week preparing for this sermon: “attend to what love requires of you”. Love might require very different things of you to what it requires of me. But it requires us both to see the image of God in those around us, nearby and far away.

Of course we can’t manage it. Loving all these people, all the time, to the extent that God does? Even if they’re horrible, or irritating, or offensive, or smelly, or just because you’re a bit grumpy? Because if this is the summation of the law, then that’s the thing about the law, as St Paul said again and again – we’re going to break the law of God, and yet we’re going to be forgiven again and again. And this applies to loving our neighbour as much as anything else. But we still need to see it as our basic calling as Christians.

Kahlil Gibran wrote that “work is love made visible”. I think it applies to this passage. Relationships take work, and love takes work, but also to show that love, both of God and of our neighbour, takes work, it needs to come out in action.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind; and love your neighbour as yourself. Bring everything you have to him, and he will use it to create unimagined goodness in the world. What a challenge, but what a joy. Amen.