Several weeks ago I was in a business in Louisville. The main area wasn’t very large and I was the only customer at the time. At the counter, one of the employees was on the phone with another person sitting next to him. The employee talking on the phone was very friendly to the person on the other end of the line, and his final words before hanging up were I love you man. As soon as he hung up the phone he turned to the person next to him and said that guy is a real ‘so and so’, but I’m nice to him because he spends a lot of money here. (Amazingly, after preaching this message, another person told me they experienced the same thing at the same business). That was discouraging to hear, but it demonstrates how we have robbed the word love of so much of its meaning.
As we continue our series of messages Walking In the Way of Jesus, this morning we come to a message titled Love Over Law.
Someone asked me not long ago what formed my central philosophy of life and faith. This message is my answer to that question. Of all the sermons I have preached in this church, or anywhere else, today’s message is the absolute center of my religious belief and philosophy.
Our Scripture reading, as the others in this series, comes from the Gospel of Matthew. Today we read Matthew 22:34-40.
34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together.
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.”
Matthew says the Pharisees approached Jesus with this question – Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law? because they wanted to test him. The previous passage tells us the Sadducees had also attempted to test Jesus with a question, but they failed. The Pharisees would have been wise to learn from the experience of the Sadducees, but they didn’t; they had to learn the hard way.
I am fascinated by how often people feel the need to test other people to see if they are theologically sound. Some people believe we must meet their belief tests and their theological tests before we are acceptable to them. Someone asked me not long ago my thoughts about a particular issue. The issue is one that is a point of conflict in many churches (it wasn’t anyone here). I am surprised how often I am asked about such issues, but I recognize people ask such questions not because they want to know my opinion, but to see if my answer is, at least in their minds, correct.
My answer is generally the same – I don’t worry about it. Especially as I get older, I find there are many arguments that just don’t stir much interest in me any longer. It’s not that I don’t care; it’s just that I care about something else much more. Some churches, for instance, are totally absorbed in debates about Calvinism, or whether or not they are of Reformed theology, or what passages of Scripture are to be taken literally and which ones are figurative, and on and on such debates go. I don’t mind talking about those questions, but I have to admit I don’t get very excited about them or overly interested in them. I can’t get excited about them because there is an issue about which I care much more, and it is this – we are called, as the people of God and as his church to love God and love others above and beyond every other matter, and if loving God and loving others is not at the absolute core of who we are then we have moved away from what was of the greatest importance to Jesus.
That’s it. That’s the absolute center for me. That’s the absolute foundation, I believe, of who we are to be as followers of Jesus, and if churches continue to be held captive to all their various arguments they will eventually fade away into either irrelevance or oblivion, and rightly so. If love is not central to the life of any church, if anything other than love takes over as the heart and soul of a congregation, it is better for that church to fade into irrelevance or oblivion because it has become nothing but a hindrance to bearing witness of who God really is. When anything other than love finds its way to the center of the life and mission of a church, it becomes, in my opinion, heresy and idolatry.
In my opinion, it’s not secularism that is the biggest challenge facing the church. And it’s not a lack of belief or a lack of faith that has brought about a decline in church attendance in Western society. I believe, as strange as this may sound, it is in great measure the fault of the church itself, because the church, in far too many instances has allowed love to slip away as its foundation and the core of ministry. In too many instances churches have chosen law over love, seeking to control the lives of others, seeking to tell them how to live, how to think, and how to act, when we are called to love.
The love of Jesus was so radical that it can be hard for us to wrap our minds around it. Jesus had an incredible love for people, and not just some people. Jesus loved the most unlovable people of his day and he challenged us to do the same. In Matthew 5:46-47 he challenges us with these words – If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?
This is why there is such an easy pull toward legalism and rules in churches, because they are far easier than love. I can follow a rule that tells me not to kill someone, but that doesn’t require much beyond a little restraint. But it’s much, much more difficult to love some people. Rules and religious laws do not require all that much of us, while love requires a great deal from us.
Now let’s get a bit more personal about this. Let’s take love out of the theoretical realm and put it into the world of everyday life. Notice the pronoun Jesus uses – with all your heart, and your soul, and your mind Love your neighbor. He makes this very personal. Love is not about what someone else is doing, but what I am doing.
The love of which Jesus taught was not just some feel good, mushy kind of love. It wasn’t a greeting card type of love. It was a love that was, in fact, very controversial. Jesus advocated for a love that made some people very angry, angry enough to want to kill him. And it was a love without any qualifications. When he calls us to love our enemies, he means it. How do we love our enemies when we struggle so mightily to love those with whom we disagree? Can a left-wing Democrat and a right-wing Republican love each other? Can a gun-toting NRA member and a tree-hugging environmentalist love each other? Can we love the coworker who took credit for our idea and thus got the bonus and the raise? Can we love the person who broke a confidence and shared a personal detail about our lives with others? Can we love the person who did something to break apart a relationship? Can we love the person who is even now coming to our minds as the person we cannot – or would not – ever dream of loving? I want to be honest and say I struggle mightily in this area. Even as I say this, there are people, and situations, and hurts that arise in my mind that are great hindrances to my ability and willingness to love.
My mother-in-law used to live on Tybee Island, Georgia. After she had lived there for a number of years I had an interesting realization one day. It’s a rather small community and I thought I was very familiar with the community, but one day as I was driving down the street I passed one of the churches on the island. I suddenly realized I hadn’t paid much attention to that church before. Church has been my life, for all of my life. I generally notice every church I pass, and sometimes I stop and go in them and look around, just out of curiosity. I had driven by this church dozens of times and never gave it a single thought. It made me wonder, how many people drive by it and never give it a thought? How many people drive by this church and never give it a thought, or even pay much attention to its existence.
Too many times churches get wrapped up in controversies and issues that just don’t matter, and it’s no wonder, then, that so many people walk or drive by our buildings and never give them another thought. But when we love like Jesus, they’ll notice. They may think we’re crazy, but they’ll notice.