Tag Archives: Pentecost 23

The Greatest Commandment: A sermon for Pentecost 23 (25 October 2020)


Readings: Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Matthew 22:34-46

Being remembered

What are you going to leave behind?
And I don’t mean houses and bank balances. But how will you be remembered?

Of course, we don’t like to answer that question, because we know all too well what some people in our lives are going to remember. So, we prefer to answer a slightly different question: ‘How would you like to be remembered?’ No doubt we’ve all got ideas about that.

But that suggests another question, doesn’t it?
What are we doing about it? How are we living and engaging with people so that they will remember us as we want to be remembered?
What really matters? What should we be focussing on?

Moses

Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt and through the desert for 40 years. He brought them to the banks of the Jordon river and the edge of the promised land. Over ‘there’ was home.
But not for Moses. His job was to get them there. The task of conquering and settling the land was for the next generation led by Joshua.

How would Moses be remembered? He was certainly remembered as the one who brought them out of slavery and into a covenant relationship with God. But what would they do with that legacy? Would they remain faithful to the covenant, or would they abandon all that Moses had taught them?

Perhaps Moses wondered about that as he gazed across at the promised land.

How will you and I be remembered?

The greatest commandment

Jesus tells us that the best thing to be remembered for is loving God and loving others.

The Sadducees had failed to trip Jesus up, so the Pharisees wanted to have a go. One of their number asked Jesus:
‘Which is the greatest commandment in the law?’

We often ask about the best thing to do.
‘What’s the best decision I can make in this situation?’
‘What should I study first for my exams?’
‘What’s the best car to buy?’

And in Pharisee school, the students and their tutors were always arguing about which commandment was the most important. Hence the question to Jesus:
‘Which is the greatest commandment?’

Now we might have different opinions about that.

If you were to ask a parent which is the greatest, most important command they might say, ‘Honour your father and mother, that you may live a long life.’

A judge would say, ‘Do not give false testimony.’ And your boss: ‘Do not steal.’

Your neighbour might point to the tenth commandment: ‘Do not covet your neighbour’s wife, house or anything that belongs to your neighbour.’

And, with churches closed during the Covid-19 lockdown, perhaps church treasurers might say that the most important command is, ‘Bring your tithes and offerings into the House of the Lord.’

Love God and love your neighbour

When Jesus was asked, he did not choose one of the Ten Command­ments. It is as if he were telling the Pharisees, and us:
‘These ten commandments cannot be split up. You can’t pick and choose. One is not more important than the other.’

‘The greatest command is found in Deuteronomy 6:5, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.”
Then he said, ‘The second is like it (Leviticus 19:18): “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.”
‘The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on (can be understood in the light of) these two commandments.’

If you want to know what is right and wrong, what you should or shouldn’t do in a particular situation, you could check against the Ten Commandments, or you could check through the list of 613 commandments the rabbinic tradition held to. But Jesus said that we should rather ask, ‘Will this action or attitude be an expression of my love for God or for my neighbour?’

Whose son is he?

Then Jesus asked the Pharisees a question of his own:
‘What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?’

Of course, ‘whose son is he?’ was a question that had been asked before about Jesus:
In Mark 6 and Luke 4, Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth, and he preached in the synagogue. The people said: ‘But, isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph …? Aren’t his sisters here with us?’‘Whose son is this?’ And they rejected him.

And the way Jesus answers his own question suggests that where we come from, our family background or where we live, or even what we have done or failed to do, is not particularly important. What matters is how we live: how we relate to God and how we relate to others.

Rules

None of us is any good at sticking to the rules.

The Psalmist says, ‘There is no one who does good, not even one.’ (Psalm 53:3)
And Paul writes: ‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.’ (Romans 3:23)

It doesn’t matter whether we take the Ten Commandments or the 613 from the rabbis, or any other list of dos and don’ts. We are going to fail. And if that is how we are remembered, our friends will say, ‘He kept 527 of the commandments.’
While our enemies will say, ‘He failed 86 of them.’

But is that what really matters?
Jesus says, ‘No.’

How much better to say of someone, ‘She didn’t always get it right, but you could see her love for God, shining in her face.’
Or ‘He wasn’t a saint, but you knew that everything he did, he did because he really loved people.’

Jesus makes it clear that the rule that holds everything together, that demands our absolute attention is ‘Love God’, and tied up so closely with it that they become one thing: ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’

‘Love your neighbour, not as somebody who is different from you, not as someone who is separate from you; love your neighbour as if they were you.’

Rules are about what I can do and what I can’t do.
Love isn’t about me at all. Love is about what God wants and what my neighbour wants.

Love matters

Loving God means we put aside our lives and become involved with what God is doing. And Jesus makes it clear that our love for God and our involvement in his work can only be expressed in our love for others.

He said it again in the upper room in John 13: he gave his disciples a new commandment, to love one another. He said, ‘By your love for one another, the world will know that you are my disciples.’
And later he prayed, ‘that they might be one, so that the world will believe.’
In his first letter, John made it even more clear: ‘How can you say you love God whom you have not seen, if you do not love your brothers and sisters whom you have seen?’

Friends, there are many things we as Christians can do in the world to make the world a better place. But if we do not love each other, if we do not find a way to work together, we will not be doing the work of God.

We will be doing good things, certainly, but we will not be living as Christ followers. What we do will not turn the world upside down. What we do, however great, however important, will not bring people into the Kingdom. It is how we do it, how we live and how we love, that will transform our neighbourhoods, our communities and our world.

When we make Christianity more about rules, what we are allowed and not allowed to do, we burden ourselves with guilt because of our many failures. And we dare not let anyone know, because everyone else seems so perfect.

Masks

So, we put on masks, then no one will know what we are really like. Not the Covid-19 masks that just mask our face, but those that mask our nature, that cover our failure.

Social media, such as Facebook and Instagram, tends to be one big rollercoaster of health, happiness and all-round success. Very much like the way we present ourselves in church, where we keep smiling and pretending all is well.

One writer put it: ‘Sometimes, church is the last place where people feel free to be themselves. They cover up with Sunday clothes and Sunday smiles.’ [Sarah Young (2004), Jesus Calling, October 19]

How can we love each other if we don’t know who we are, if we don’t know whether the person we are engaging with is a real person or just a façade?

Barriers

We create so many barriers between us: Race, gender, age, culture, wealth, where we live, even how we worship. We use these things to divide us, to help us decide who we like and who we will mix with and listen to.

Our differences are not the problem. God has given us our differences as a gift to enrich our lives and the world in which we live.

The problem is that we have chiselled our differences into the concrete walls we build between us. We might not know quite what we believe, but we know what we don’t believe and who we don’t believe and what we don’t like and what we won’t put up with.

When we hear about the confrontation at Senekal or protests around the country, it is easy to take sides. Based on our experiences, our preferences, and which side of the wall we are on, we assume that we know who is right and who was wrong.

Your neighbour needs you

But Jesus says, ‘Your neighbour needs you.’
Our neighbour on the other side of that concrete wall needs us. And it doesn’t matter whether it is our wall or their wall, our neighbour needs our love. Not our wisdom, not our clever remarks, not our solutions, and not our opinions. Our neighbour needs our love.

But we are afraid of what is on the other side of that wall. So, we start asking the questions that the opponents of Jesus asked him, like:

‘Who is my neighbour?’
‘Which is the greatest commandment? What should I be doing first? What’s the most important thing?’

And the answer Jesus gives us reminds me of a question Phillip Yancy refers to in one of his books: ‘What would grace look like now.’

As we peer over the concrete wall between us and our neighbour, between us and our children, our spouse, our colleague, what would love look like. How can I offer grace?

And if we are not sure what the loving thing to do might be, perhaps we will find inspiration in a basket of fruit, which is always well received: ‘The fruit of the Spirit,’ Paul tells us, ‘is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’ (Galatians 5:22-23)

Pick one and offer it to your neighbour today.

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. And love your neighbour as you love yourself.’

Amen

For the prayer, see: The Greatest Commandment: A prayer for Pentecost 23

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