Tuesday, August 15, 2017

August 13, 2017 The Great Commandments: The Greatest Commandment

This week we complete the series of messages titled The Great Commandments.  Next week we begin a series of messages titled I Love the Church Because…

I’ve done a lot of funerals over the years, and one of the most touching was several years ago.  The person was someone I had known a long time and she asked me some months before her funeral if I would officiate.  I said I would and then she had an interesting request of me; she was going to write her own eulogy and asked if I would mind reading it.  That was the first and only time I officiated a funeral where the deceased had written their own eulogy.  It was really beautifully written, and made everyone there, I imagine, wonder, what would be my final words?

This morning’s Scripture text is that kind of passage.  It comes from the latter part of John’s gospel, at the Last Supper, and these are some of the “last words” of Jesus.  When you get down to your last words, they are words that matter.  You don’t talk about the weather at that moment, and Jesus took his opportunity to share the core of his message with his disciples; it was a summation of everything he had sought to instill in his followers.

Today’s message is The Greatest Commandment.  Our Scripture text is two portions of John’s gospel, both taken from a long passage devoted to the Last Supper.  In that longer passage Jesus is offering his final words to the disciples.  As it is the final moments that he has with them, and the final opportunity to offer teaching, Jesus uses that time to share what is at the heart of his mission, and that is, unsurprisingly, love.  So I have saved the greatest command in all of Scripture for the final message of our series of The Great Commandments, with today’s message The Greatest Commandment.

Follow along with me as I read this morning’s text –

John 13:34-35
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

John 15:9-17
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.
10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.
11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
14 You are my friends if you do what I command.
15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.
17 This is my command: Love each other.

Anyone who has heard me preach for very long knows that I, like any other minister, has particular themes that I favor.  One of my regular themes is that of the primacy of love, which was a theme of Jesus, thus it is mine as well.  In these final words that he offers to his disciples, love is the theme that Jesus really emphasizes.

1.  You Can’t Command Others to Love, But Sometimes You Have To.

I know that sounds strange, and contradictory, but doesn’t it also sound strange to command people to love?  In these passages Jesus refers to love as a command.  In 13:34 he says, a new command I give you:  Love one another. In 15:12 he says, My command is this:  Love each other as I have loved you.  Jesus uses the word command six times in that passage.  Issuing a command is an interesting way to encourage people to love one another, isn’t it?  Is it possible to command people to love one another?  Can we be coerced into love?  Isn’t love, by its very nature, something that must come about through free will, and not a command?  By its very nature, love is voluntary, not commanded or coerced. I am not disagreeing with Jesus, certainly, but I find issuing a command to be an interesting way to talk to people about love.  Imagine if you had to command your family to love you.  If you have to issue a command for them to love you there are some very serious issues in your family that must be addressed.

Here’s what I believe Jesus means, and it goes back to the passage that was our text last week, where Jesus said in Matthew 5:46 – If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  Obviously, there are people we love, and people who love us.  No command is needed to encourage that love; we just naturally and easily love some people and they naturally and easily love us in return.  But what about the people for whom our love does not come naturally or easily?  And what about the people who have no interest in loving us?  That’s where the command comes in.  That’s where we need a command that becomes a push to encourage or compel us to step out of our safety zone, out of our area of security, out of what is known.  Sometimes love needs a bit of a nudge; sometimes love needs more of a push, and that’s why Jesus issues a command.  We don’t need a command to love some people, but we certainly do for others.  If Jesus desires that we love our enemies, we probably need a push to do so.

When we consider the events in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend I think we understand the necessity of a command to love.  Do those white supremacists understand the harm of what they are doing?  Do they understand how their bigotry diminishes the humanity of others, as well as their own?  It takes blunt language to counter that level of bigotry and hatred, and certainly we must say don’t ever use the name of God to justify your hatred and bigotry!  If we ever hope to see such bigotry and hatred disappear in the world it is going to have to come from a command, and this is why Jesus issued a command.  Left to our own ways, it is rare that we will cross the boundaries that must sometimes be crossed in order to counter hatred and bigotry with love.

Jesus certainly knew this.  Jesus faced a great deal of hatred as well.  His enemies had no love at all for him.  No, they had only hatred for him, and that’s why Jesus was so often very blunt with them.  When you confront hatred of that magnitude a command must be put down as a marker that says I’m not suggesting that you love the people you hate; I’m commanding it!

2.  We Must Choose Love Over Law.

When Jesus talked about love, which was so often, I also think he meant that we need to choose love over law.  There are two elements within faith, and often those two elements are in conflict with one another.  Those two elements are love and law, and we must always tip the scale in favor of love. Laws and commandments, as important as they are, must not be the preeminent aspect of our faith; that is reserved for love.

That is the message at the heart of the conversation Jesus had with some Pharisees when one of them asked, teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?  In answering that question Jesus gave his famous answer, love the Lord you God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it:  love your neighbor as yourself.  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments (Matthew 22:36-40; a text I referenced two weeks ago).  That last sentence is particularly instructive, as Jesus says that all the law and all the words of the prophets are filtered through the primary command of love.  In other words, laws and commands are not of much meaning if they are not subservient to, and based upon, love.  Jesus never intended to diminish the importance of the Law, but he did seek to put it in its rightful place.  In Matthew 5:17 he says do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  The Law, unfortunately for some, was raised to a level above love.  This is seen in the exchange Jesus had with some Pharisees, when they criticized the disciples for picking grain on the Sabbath.  Jesus reminded them that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  When we forget the intent of the Law and elevate it to a place where it is place above love, we have become trapped in legalism, and Jesus always railed against legalism.

Paul echoes this sentiment in the book of Romans, as he struggles with the way in which the Law does not bring righteousness to him, but merely demonstrates how unrighteous he is.  He reminds us that Abraham was justified not by his works but by his faith, saying that whatever we do, in terms of trying to fulfill law, is only what we should have done in the first place (Romans 4:4 – when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation).  This highlights the difficulty for those who fall into legalism and who want to raise laws and commandments above love – there is never enough that we can do in order to satisfy laws.  Laws, commands, and regulations, as helpful as they can be in giving us a framework of how to live, will ultimately fall short because we can never do enough to satisfy those commands.  Love, however, is the better guide, because it does not makes us subservient to rules and regulations and all of the frustrations and failures that come with trying to be perfect in following them.  Seeking to follow laws ultimately becomes a dead end for us because it does not lead us to love, but only into legalism.  Jesus wants us to act out of love, not legalism.  Paul highlights this in his letter to the Galatians, when he writes in chapter five about not being so bound to the law that love is forgotten.  In 5:6 he writes, the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love, and in 5:14 adds, the entire law is summed up in a single command:  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

It is a great tragedy that some churches are known more for their pronouncements about law than about love and their attitude of judgment than acts of mercy.  Such behavior and attitudes are absolutely contrary to the way of Jesus.  I understand the temptation to make those pronouncements about laws and commands, because we like the security they offer in times that are anything but secure.  The more uncertain our world becomes, the more we crave certainty, and laws and commands can provide us with a sense of certainty.  Laws and rules also make life simpler in some ways, as they attempt to give an answer for what to do in every conceivable situation.  Read the Old Testament and you will find the laws there cover a multitude of possibilities.  Love does not do that.  Love says, basically, work it out.  It’s easy to prefer the specifics and the security of a law over the complications that come along with love, but that is not the way in which we are called to live. 

Our church is not a legalistic, law-bound church.  We are not a church that pronounces judgment upon people; rather, we emphasize love.  Where some churches desire uniformity, we do not.  Some churches want everyone to be a square peg, and if you are not a square peg you will not find a home there.  Some churches want everyone to be a round peg, and if you are not a round peg you will not find a home there.  We’re not a church of only square pegs.  If you are a round peg, that’s okay; you are welcome here.  We are not a church of only round pegs.  If you are a square peg that’s okay; you are welcome here.  You are welcome if you are an octagonal peg.  Or any other kind of peg.  Or even if you’re not a peg.  And, to be honest, sometimes that costs us, and that’s okay.  Not everyone wants a church like us.  Some people want a church of all round pegs.  Some people want a church of all square pegs.  Some people come and check us out and decide we are not what they are looking for in a church, because we recognize that not everything is black and white; sometimes there is a good deal of gray.  Some people want more certainty than what we offer.  We sometimes ask more questions than we offer answers.

I am growing more and more disturbed with two developing trends in our society, the first of which is that we seem intent upon tearing ourselves apart and the second is that we are dividing into factions and groups that insist upon accepting their particular orthodoxy and their group to the exclusion of other groups and other ways of thinking.  Too many people are succumbing to the pressure to align with a particular group and not veer from it, and once a part of a group one cannot associate with someone in another group.

Love, however, does not divide us in that way.  Our orthodoxy should not be the Republican or Democratic parties.  Our orthodoxy should not be liberal or conservative.  Our orthodoxy should not be urban versus rural, or north versus south, or east coast versus west coast, or, if I could be so bold, UK or UofL, or any other.  Our orthodoxy should always by Jesus and his love.  And I’m not saying that if you favor any of those aforementioned categories you are not following Jesus; what I am saying is, don’t put any of them above Jesus; don’t let them become points of division.

3.  Love Is Super Tough.

When I’m driving in my car, which is quite a bit of the time, I am always listening to the radio.  I used to spend a lot of time pushing the buttons to see what songs were on.  I might like a song, but perhaps there is a better song on another channel, so I would keep pushing buttons.  Now that SiriusXM radio has a Beatles channel I push the buttons a lot less.  I love the music of the Beatles.  Yesterday evening, as I was driving, one of my favorite Beatles songs came on – All You Need Is Love.  Isn’t that a great song?  I love that song.  But let’s be honest, on one level it’s not really true, is it?  Try taking love to the bank when you’re behind on your mortgage and see what happens.  Try applying some of that love to a down payment on a car and see what happens.  Will it work?  Of course not.  Obviously, love isn’t all you need.

But we understand what the sentiment means.  But here’s also a problem with that sentiment – we’ve arrived at a point, I think, where we have so over-sentimentalized and so over-romanticized love that we forget just how tough love can be.  I Corinthians 13:4-7 says that Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.  There is nothing easy about those qualities of love.  They are tough.  They are super tough.

Love never fails, that is true, but sometimes we fail love.  Sometimes we fail love because love is tough.  Love is super tough.  Love is incredibly super tough.  Love is really incredibly super tough.  At least it is if you want to step beyond only those who love you.  Here’s how tough love is.  Love can get you killed.  It got Jesus killed.  That’s a scary thought to consider, isn’t it? 

My older brother Ed, and his wife Jodi, are co-pastors at Old Union Church in Jamestown, Indiana.  Back in the 80s, Ed was the pastor at a church in Lafayette, Indiana.  I still remember a newsletter he wrote back in the mid-80s.  He wrote about our tendency to see faith and love as a bit like a vaccination against a disease.  If you are familiar with biology, you probably now that a vaccination actually gives us some of the cells of the disease that the vaccination is designed to prevent.  Be receiving a little bit of the diseased, our body’s natural immune system can prevent us from receiving the full blown disease.  Ed compared this to how we can be about the power of God’s love.  We want a bit of that love, but not the full blown effects of God’s love.  We prefer an inoculation; enough to give us a bit of God’s love but not enough to make us do anything crazy, such as love our enemies or pray for those who persecute us.

Love is tough.  Love is super tough.  That makes it understandable why we only want a little bit of it, because we don’t want our lives made more difficult by living love in the way that Jesus did; it would simply be too difficult and too complicated to live love to that extent.

But God wants to give us the full measure of his love, and he wants us to live the full measure of that love.  That is, after all, his greatest commandment.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

August 6, 2017 The Great Commandments: The Impossible Command?

As I have been reminding you the past few weeks, I will soon begin a series of messages titled I Love the Church Because… and I have asked you to answer that question for me.  I appreciate the responses I have received and I will ask you again to answer that question for me, if you don’t mind.
This week we continue the series of messages titled The Great Commandments. This week’s message is The Impossible Command?  I’ve added a question mark because I want you to answer that question for yourself – is it impossible to follow the command to love our enemies?  It seems pretty tough to me.  When we read these words of Jesus, I think it is very easy to think of that verse as containing an impossible command because, to be honest, I don’t know if anyone really takes this passage to its complete expression.
I also doubt that this is anyone’s favorite passage of Scripture.  You won’t find it on a greeting card.  We don’t put it on a wall hanging or on the front door of our homes.  It if was on the front door of your home you wouldn’t need to put up a No Soliciting sign!  It does not adorn pieces of jewelry.  I will readily admit that it is not my favorite passage of Scripture, although I have read it many times over the years.  I would much rather read – and preach from – passages such as the Beatitudes,
(Matthew 5:1-12 – 1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.)

or John 3:16,
(For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.)

or the 23rd Psalm,
(1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.)

or the Lord’s Prayer.
(Matthew 6:9-13 – After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. 10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.)

or Philippians 2:1-11,
(1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:  Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.)

or the fruits of the Spirit,
(Galatians 5:22-23 – 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.)

But we cannot overlook the difficult passages in favor of the ones that make us feel good.  Our text for this morning, especially, is one that must be read and taken to heart because it is what we might call the heart of the heart.  If the Sermon On the Mount is the heart of the Gospel, which I believe it to be, then this morning’s text is the heart of the heart.  It is a passage in which we truly see the depth of the love of Jesus.

Follow along with me as I read the passage.

Matthew 5:33-48

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’
39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.
40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.
41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.
42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?
47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Now I’m going to read the passage again, but with a difference.  This time I want to bring it into the real world a bit, so to speak.  As I read it this time I will leave some blanks, and when I come to a blank, I want you to insert a name; the name of someone with whom you have had a conflict.  Or it could be a group, or a political point of view.  Insert someone or something that would fall into the category of enemy.

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’
39 But I tell you, do not resist _____  . If _____ slaps you on the right cheek, turn to _____ the other cheek also.
40 And if _____ wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.
41 If _____ forces you to go one mile, go with _____ two miles.
42 Give to _____ who asks you, and do not turn away from _____ who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate _____.’
44 But I tell you, love _____ and pray for _____ who persecute you,
45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on _____ and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and _____.
46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?
47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

I have preached on this passage a fair number of times over the years, and I’m sure I will plenty more times in the years to come.  I continue to refine what I think about this passage and how it should be implemented in our daily lives, and yet the more I study it and the more I preach or teach about it, it remains a passage that haunts me.  It haunts me because I cannot explain it away or temper it, because I believe Jesus is not speaking in symbolic terms or using hyperbole as he offered these words.  When I read commentaries on this passage, I find that almost all of the writers offer the same basic interpretation – first, they describe the type of slap of which Jesus speaks as being one of insult, not attack.  Assuming that most people are right-handed, to strike someone on the right cheek means it would be a backhanded strike, which is generally one of insult, and Jesus means we are not to take an insult to heart but offer forgiveness.  Second, the taking of a shirt is interpreted as taking advantage of someone who is poor, or of very modest means, and that person should not claim their right to legal redress, but instead ought to give up what is their right.  Third, going the extra mile was an action that could be imposed by a soldier of an occupying army on any member of a civilian population, forcing the person to carry their equipment for a distance of up to one mile, and if such an act occurred one should not be bitter, but offer assistance with kindness and gentleness.
Personally, I don’t really buy into any of those interpretations.  I think the third one – that of going the extra mile when ordered to do so by a soldier – has historical accuracy but I’m a good deal skeptical about the first two.  I am skeptical because I think they too easily explain away what I think is a very direct – and very difficult – command of Jesus.  It’s very easy to say in light of the historical context…(which is a very legitimate tool of interpretation) and then go on to explain away the fundamental message of what Jesus has to say.  While I don’t believe every passage of the Bible is to be taken literally (Matthew 5:27-30 is, for example, an example of Jesus using hyperbole to make his point – 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.)  In today’s text, however, I believe that Jesus meant for his words to be taken literally, and that is very tough to do.

This morning, I want to present three ways of considering this passage, and these represent where I’ve arrived in relation to this passage.  There is much more to say about these verses, but for the sake of time we will consider the following –

1.  We Must Deal in the “What Is,” Not the “What If.”
Part of the problem we have with this passage, aside from interpreting it away, is that we too easily make it about what might happen, that is, we imagine an absolute worst-case scenario that would make a loving, graceful response seem impossible to offer.  For instance, we construct a scenario such as what if someone broke into my home and…(insert worst-case scenario here).    While that could happen, it is very unlikely that it would happen.  When we talk about what might or what could happen, we place these words in a hypothetical situation, so let’s take the discussion about loving our enemies out of the hypothetical and place it in reality, in the here and now, which puts it in an entirely different light.

While it is unlikely that we will have to confront such a difficult situation, I don’t believe Jesus was presenting hypothetical scenarios to his listeners. Jesus spoke about they types of situations that many of his listeners had confronted.  While we are so blessed that the words of Jesus, when it comes to dealing with enemies, are mostly a hypothetical to us, they were a reality to many of his original listeners.  Many of his listeners had experienced horrific acts that few of us can imagine.  Many of them had seen friends, neighbors, and family members abused by an occupying military power – the Roman Empire – and many had seen them forced to go the extra mile.  Some, no doubt, had seen people with whom they had some connection be crucified.  It is very rare that any of us have – or ever will – experience what the audience of Jesus had experienced.  But some things are likely to happen to us, such as hurt, betrayal, and conflict.  Because of those experiences we will find some people are hard to love and might even come to the point of considering them our enemy.

So what if something happens?  What if someone betrays you?  What if someone hurts you?  What if someone turns against you?  What do we do in those situations and any of the other types of situations that happen to us in the course of life?  Well, we certainly should not become prisoners of anger, hurt, and resentment.  And we don’t become prisoners of a desire to strike back or the thought of planning revenge. How do you stop the cycle of violence, revenge, and hatred?  By not participating in it, and that is what Jesus is asking of us.  Holding on to anger and resentment will eat you alive.  I’m not saying it’s easy to offer forgiveness; it’s the hardest thing we are called to do.  What I am saying is that it gives us a freedom where bitterness and hatred and a desire for revenge with only bring bondage.

2.  Enemies Are Large Scale and Small Scale.

One of my bigger questions about this passage is this – was Jesus talking about how we deal with individuals only, or does this passage have some bearing upon how groups – such as nations – deal with one another?  We have very real enemies in this world, and I am not na├»ve enough to ignore that reality.  Members of groups such as ISIS would love to bring harm to us. The regime in North Korea would love to strike at our country.  Those are kind of distant to our everyday lives.

To be honest, I have always struggled to come up with an answer about how these words of Jesus can be implemented on a large scale, in terms of some kind of foreign policy or how we approach military action, but I can say a few things.  First, Jesus is, in this passage, affirming love as the absolute core of his ministry.  Love was central to everything about the life and ministry of Jesus, it is the center of all he said and did, and in this passage he is showing how powerful and how outrageous that love is.  Love, as defined and demonstrated by Jesus, is something that is far deeper and far more consequential than an emotion that can be expressed in a greeting card saying, or in compassion for kittens and puppies, or even as a way of describing the relationships we have with our friends and family. Love, Jesus says, is something that extends beyond the typical, human categories of love.  Love is a wonderful thing, when it deals with people I already love and people who already love me.  I find love to be fairly easy when it involves people who love me.  I find love fairly easy when it involves people I love.  But when I am asked to love those who do not love me, when I am asked to love those who work against me, to love those who seek to harm me – that’s when I begin to wonder if that’s the kind of love I want.  But that’s how Jesus defines love.  In this passage Matthew uses the Greek word agape for love.  Of the four Greek words for love it is the one that expresses a divine love, a love that is deeper than any other expression of love.  Anybody can love those who already love us, but Jesus is asking do you want that agape love of God?  Do you want the kind of love that goes deeper than any other kind of love we have ever known?  Do we want the kind of love that is more powerful than any other force in the world?  If we do, he says, then we must be willing to love even those who hate us.

Second, I’m not sure there is any way to bring these words of Jesus into a discussion of foreign policy and military force.  I believe Jesus was a pacifist who would never condone the use of force in any circumstance.  Jesus lived in a world in which he saw the muscle of military force on a daily basis.  He lived in an occupied land and witnessed firsthand the power of Rome and the way in which that power was often used against his fellow countrymen, but he never remotely expressed any support for the use of force in return.  So what does that mean for us, in our context?  I believe it means we should remind our leaders that force is not always the answer, and that force should never be used lightly.  We are to remind our leaders that many innocents are often the victims of military force and there are no such things as “surgical” strikes that will avoid harm to civilians.  Augustine, many centuries ago, gave us the theological framework for what we now call the Just War Theory, which is a very helpful guide but even that has its faults and limitations (and is, most of the time, erroneously applied). 

Third, there is an inherent conflict between a desire for security and the love of Jesus.  The love of Jesus, to which we are called, is risky, even dangerous at times, because it is interested less in security and more in expressing what the love of God represents, such as grace and forgiveness.  Living according to that kind of love means that security is not the first priority, which can be very difficult to accept.

3.  How Did Jesus Deal With His Enemies?

What is one of the most common objections we hear when studying this passage?  Jesus doesn’t want us to be a doormat is a phrase I have heard many times as an objection to this passage.  But can we really think of Jesus as a doormat?  I certainly don’t think so.  He challenged the religious and political leaders of the day and did not hesitate to do so.  When he entered the Temple after the Triumphal Entry he was certainly no doormat.  To cast the money-changers out of the temple and to boldly proclaim that it is written, my house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers (Matthew 21:13) is someone who did not hesitate to challenge those in authority.  When Jesus confronted the teachers of the law and Pharisees (27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.  Matthew 23:27-28) it is clear he is not a doormat.  And when Jesus entered into Jerusalem at the Triumphal Entry it was not just a sign of humility and Messiahship; it was also a direct rebuke to Pilate, who would have entered Jerusalem at about the same time as Jesus, although Pilate would have come not on a donkey symbolizing humility and peace, but on a war horse and surrounded with soldiers and implements of war.  Does that indicate a doormat?  I think not.

Jesus was anything but a doormat, and demonstrating love is not at all a sign of being a doormat.  There is power in love, and the Romans learned of that power.  For all their might and power, the Roman Empire has long ago fallen.  What remains of the mighty Roman Empire?  Well, there’s some pretty good literature, a language that we still study, and some concepts we have found worthy of adopting into our system of government.  And there’s a bunch of rocks.  They’re impressive rocks, forming the remains of aqueducts, the Coliseum, the Forum, and other structures, but it’s a still just a bunch of rocks, symbolizing the once mighty, but now fallen, Roman Empire.  It’s a reminder that power and force have the illusion of strength but they never, ever have a lasting strength.  Power and force may conquer people, but it will not win them over.  The Roman Empire conquered the known world but it didn’t last.  Love proved greater than the power of the Roman Empire.  And the love of the church is one of the reasons why the Roman Empire persecuted the church.  The Romans understood that if people really took these words of Jesus seriously it would weaken the Empire, and they couldn’t stand for that to happen.  In spite of the violence inflicted upon the church, though, the love of the church outlasted the Empire.  In the Coliseum in Rome there is now a cross that stands where the emperor once sat.  The emperor, who oversaw the persecution of Christians in the Coliseum is long gone, and his seat has been replaced by a cross, the symbol of his attempt to vanquish the faith.

If we want to be like Jesus then, truly like Jesus, here is the way.  It is not an easy way, but it is The Way.

Monday, July 31, 2017

July 30, 2017 The Great Commandments: The Foundation of It All

Last Sunday we began a new series of messages titled The Great Commandments.  During the worship services last week I also asked that you help me with the next series of messages I will present.  That series is titled I Love the Church Because… and I would love to hear from you.  Would you finish that title with a few sentences, or perhaps a paragraph or two, and send them to me?  I will not use any identifying characteristics if I incorporate what you send to me, but I would love to hear how you finish that title.

As we began our current series of messages last week, I used a passage from the Old Testament prophet Micah, and this week travel further back into the Old Testament to one of the most foundational of all passages.  The passage comes from the book of Deuteronomy and is commonly called the Shema.  The word Shema is actually the Hebrew word for hear, and is the first word of verse 4.  Though shema is simply a Hebrew word, it also becomes a title for what is, in essence, a prayer, which is all of verses 4 – 9.  Taken together, these verses become a prayer that has for centuries been offered each day in the morning and evening.  This would be, if it is an apt comparison, the Hebrew version of John 3:16, in that it is a passage that children would learn from a young age and would be almost universally quoted from memory.

This passage certainly would have been one of the first pieces of Scripture that Jesus learned as a boy.  He would turn to this passage later, during his ministry, quoting it in Matthew 22:35-40 (35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?"  37 Jesus replied: "`Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38 This is the first and greatest commandment.  39 And the second is like it: `Love your neighbor as yourself.'  40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.") and Mark 12:28-34 (28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” 29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” 32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him.  33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions).  Jesus also quotes this passages in Luke 10:25-37, and then tells the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Follow along with me as I read our Scripture text this morning from Deuteronomy 6:1-9 –

1 These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess,
so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life.
Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.
Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.
Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.
Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

I will take a few minutes this morning to speak to those three expressions of love that Deuteronomy mentions, but I am going to substitute one of them in the same way Jesus substituted.  Deuteronomy says to love God with all of our heart, soul, and strength.  Jesus uses the words heart, soul, and mind.  I think it’s a good idea to use the phrasing that Jesus used.

1.  Mind.

I start with the mind because it is one of the overlooked components of our love for God.  I find it interestingly ironic that, in our modern, technology obsessed, scientific age, we are not really people of the mind.  We talk about the importance of education, and even base much of our education upon science and technology.  Many colleges and universities, and an increasing number of secondary schools, build their curriculum around STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) to the exclusion of the liberal arts and many of the traditional educational curricula.  But even with this increasing move to the sciences, we are people who remain more oriented towards the experiential and the emotional, which are represented by the heart.  How many times do we hear ourselves say, or how often do we hear in entertainment – romantic movies, in particular – that we should stop using our head and start following our heart?    

But is that always the best of advice?  Not always.  As one person reminded me this morning, follow your heart, but take your mind along with you because you’re heart is an idiot.  Very sage advice, indeed!  Our mind is a necessary balance to our heart, which doesn’t always make the best of decisions.  Sometimes, for instance, we will say my heart just isn’t in it.  But just because my heart isn’t in something isn’t an excuse to forsake responsibilities.  There are some Sunday mornings when I might be particularly tired and my heart tells me to stay home and in bed, but my head reminds me that there are people who will be here and they will be waiting on me to stand up hear and bring a message.  My head tells me that I have a responsibility as the minister of this church to show up, and to not only show up here but show up in hospitals, and nursing homes, and funeral homes, which are not places that I always enjoy entering, but it is important that I do so.  My heart is often attracted to all the nice guitars hanging on the wall of a music store, and as much as I believe they need a good home I know that if I followed my heart our basement walls would be covered with guitars.  My head tells me that as much as my heart wants to take some of those guitars home, I have bills to pay.  I need to pay the mortgage, and the electric bill, and the insurance bill, and lots of other bills as well.

It’s a wonderful thing to follow our hearts, until it’s a bad idea because our hearts might lead us somewhere unpractical and harmful to us.  That’s why God gave us a mind; so that we can make a good and logical decision.  We can’t be ruled by emotion.  We can’t be ruled by impulse.  We can’t be ruled by every wind that blows our way.

Jesus warned us that we should be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16).  He called us to use our minds and in his brilliance he was such a great example of how to use our minds.  Jesus was brilliant in his teaching, constructing those amazing parables that drew people in and then drove home his point.  He was brilliant in the way he dealt with his opponents, as there were many times they presented Jesus with what they believed to be an unanswerable question, and believing they had effectively trapped him.  But they did not, as Jesus came back with a brilliant response and left them speechless, and often wary of challenging him again.  As we read the Gospels it is truly impressive to see the ways in which the mind of Jesus worked.

I have spent a lot of time over the course of my life studying.  And while I wasn’t always the most ambitious of students, and not always the best student, I always liked the classroom and I love to learn.  I have a lot of years invested in classes and degree programs, and in spite of all the time and work invested there are many days when I feel as though I don’t know very much.  There are many days when I wish someone would ask me a question I have the answer to.

There has too often been, in the history of American Protestantism, especially, a spirit of anti-intellectualism that has permeated too many churches.  It is an anti-intellectualism that sometimes seems to glory in ignorance, and that is not, I’m certain, what God would desire.  We do not check our minds at the front door of the church; instead we sharpen our minds and we feed our minds, and we challenge our minds.

Verse 7 says to impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  That’s an entreaty to take seriously the call we have to spiritual education.  I believe that, as followers of Jesus, we ought to use the minds that God has given to us.  The mind really is a terrible thing to waste, as the old commercial said.  When the Hebrew people taught their children to recite this prayer it was part of a larger piece of spiritual education they provided for their families.  I am grateful for the opportunity churches have to provide spiritual education, but we need as much spiritual education in the home as we can have as well.  When you children, or your grandchildren, ask you a spiritual question and you don’t know, take the time to study and seek an answer.

2.  Heart.

There were times in history – the Enlightenment, for instance – when the mind took precedence over the heart.  At that point in history, they would have puzzled over our insistence to follow our heart rather than our head.  During the Enlightenment, they would have been people who would follow their heads rather than their hearts.

But we don’t want to be ruled by the head, do we?  We don’t want to be a Mr. Spock, all logic and no emotion.  Because of the power of love, we are people more oriented to the heart, and as much as I like to learn and as much as I like to think and ponder over things, I’ll take the heart. The heart and its accompanying emotion are beautiful gifts.

But I should add that it doesn’t have to be an either/or.  In verse 8, the command to tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads, was practiced quite literally, as the ancient Hebrews wore items called phylacteries, which are small leather boxes which contained the verses of the Shema (and they are still used today).  Phylacteries are worn on the forehead and left arm during times of prayer.  I really like the symbolism in the way phylacteries are tied to a person’s body.  One was tied around the forehead, as if to symbolize the mind and our call to think and meditate and be thoughtful.  The other phylactery was tied around the wrist, where it would nestle against the heartbeat, as a reminder that we are not people of the mind only, but of the heart as well.  There is a balance to being people of the mind and the heart, but if I had to choose, I would choose on the side of the heart, because it represents love.

It is love that binds us together, and that love also informs our language of how we speak of ourselves and it selects the metaphors we use to describe who we are as God’s people.  We often use the word family as a metaphor for the church.  We are like a family here, people will often say about their church.  One metaphor of the church, in the New Testament (often overlooked) is the church as the Bride of Christ.  The image of the church as the Bride of Christ is particularly powerful, I believe, because we can’t conceive of a love more powerful than the love that joins together two people in marriage.  It is a powerful, powerful force, and a beautiful force in life.

We need the heart because it is the seat of our passion, and we need passion in life.  My mind will tell me, logically, that I need to step out of my own life and do something for others, but when my heart is touched by the sight of someone who is suffering, or someone who is hurt, or someone who is treated unjustly, that’s when passion will fill my heart and I will be moved and motivated in a way that the mind cannot accomplish.  When Jesus observed what was going on in the Temple and saw the way that the moneychangers and others were taking advantage of the worshippers, he could have walked around and said, thoughtfully, you know, I’ve been walking around here and observing what’s going on, and I’d like to make a suggestion about how we can make this an experience that is fair to all involved.  Is that what he did?  No!  When Jesus saw what was taking place his heart was about to explode out of his chest, his passion was aroused, and his righteous anger rose within him as he fashioned a whip and began to knock over the tables of the moneychangers and drive them out while proclaiming my Father’s house is a house of prayer but you have turned it into a den of thieves!  (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-46; John 2:13-16).  In that instance, certainly, the heart trumped the head, and rightfully so.

In John 11 we read of the death of Lazarus.  Jesus traveled to Bethany, where Lazarus had lived with his sisters, Mary and Martha.  Jesus could have turned to Mary and Martha in their heartbreak and offered them a theological treatise on death and resurrection, but he did not.  Instead, Jesus went to the tomb of Lazarus, and what did he do?  He wept (John 11:35).  Isn’t that a beautiful, powerful image?  I don’t know about you, but I feel so much better to think about the fact that Jesus wept.  I’m glad that the heart of Jesus was sometimes so touched and so broken that he wept.  I am moved to think of Jesus, there at the tomb of Lazarus, with tears streaming down his face and into the dirt and dust of that land.  It makes me feel better when my heart is touched or broken.  Sometimes I weep because I am so overwhelmed with fears or struggles and I don’t know what to do but the fact that Jesus also wept gives me strength.  I can’t always reason myself out of fear and struggles, but I can weep and allow those tears to cleanse my soul and when they have cleansed my soul I can feel the strength of God welling up within me and I know I can make it another day.  Maybe nothing has changed, but I feel better, because I know that God is a God who weeps with me and a God who has had heartbreak, just like each of us.

3.  Soul.

The mind and the heart are a little bit easier in terms of what they represent.  What about the soul?  I have to be honest and say that, while the mind and heart were relatively easy for me, the soul was a bit tougher.  After a good deal of thought this is what I came to think – the soul represents that upon which we stake our lives.  The soul represents what it is that we have built our lives upon, and what kind of foundation we have for our lives?  In Matthew 16:26, Jesus says, What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

It is very easy to trade away our souls for something much less valuable.  Sometimes we use the term Esau trade to describe a very bad decision.  Esau, you will remember, traded his birthright to his brother Jacob for some food (Genesis 25:27-34 – 27 The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. 28 Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob. 29 Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. 30 He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!”  (That is why he was also called Edom.)  31 Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.”  32 “Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?”  33 But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob.  34 Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left.  So Esau despised his birthright.)  It has become too easy, in our modern world, to make an Esau trade for our souls.  We can easily trade away that which is of far great value – our soul – for something new, shiny, bright, and attractive, but ultimately of far lesser value.

In Luke 12:13-21 Jesus tell the story of a rich man, who did just that.  Jesus tells us that the man committed the very error of which Jesus warned – he gained everything, but lost his soul in the process (13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” 16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ 18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ 20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ 21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”).

The heart and mind are important for many reasons, but one of the most important of reasons is to protect our souls.  The mind helps us to filter out the false claims to our souls and the heart will guide us to the true loves in life that will attach us to what will ultimately nourish our souls.

It is very common for people to wear items of jewelry or clothing that symbolize their faith or, perhaps, remind the wearer of their faith and its importance in their lives, much as the ancient Hebrews wore phylacteries.  I wear two items on my right wrist for that purpose.  One is a leather strap that wraps three times around my wrist.  Tanya and I bought a few of these when we were at the Vatican two years ago.  It has the Lord’s Prayer printed in Latin on the leather.  I also have a bracelet with the word peace on it, and the symbol of a dove engraved on it, which is the symbol of the Holy Spirit.  I wear it because peace is a hope and a prayer not only for the world, but for my own heart and the heart of others, and it serves as a reminder to me of the peace that Jesus is the source of that peace.

The heart, soul, and mind are great gifts of God to us, and are, ultimately, to be the guiding stars in our love for him.