Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Sermon: Summarizing the Law

Matthew 22:34-46

A few weeks ago we looked at the 10 commandments and we talked about how they summarized the law, and brought the community of Israel together. But now the question is brought to Jesus – what is the greatest commandment? What is the most important thing that we are supposed to do? And Jesus answers with what some call the vertical and the horizontal rules. Love God (the up and down law) and love each other (the side to side law). Jesus then says that all of the law and the prophets hang upon these two things. What is interesting about these two particular statements is that they don’t sound much like rules or laws; rather, they sound like statements about our heart.

Which is interesting because normally we would say that you can’t command people’s attitude. For example, that little asterisk in the bulletin that asks you to stand up during certain parts of the service – we could make a law about that – we could create a command that says, “Thou shalt stand during the hymns.”

But we could couldn’t really make a law that says “Thou shalt stand reverently during the hymns.” Because you can’t really command that internal state, you can suggest it, you can encourage it, but that doesn’t mean it will happen. In fact we have no real way of knowing if it is happening, because we can’t see what is going on inside the person. All we know is that they are standing – the heart and mind are invisible to us. In fact, “Directing a person to be reverent in no way assures that they will or are even capable of doing so. Reverence is not something you can simply conjure up in yourself at will, your will or that of another.”[1]

And we would probably say that the same is true with love. Imagine that two of you break into a fist fight after church. I can run up to you and tell you to stop. I can command you to shake hands and make up. But I can’t really command you to shake hands with love in your hearts. Truth is, you would probably be too angry to do so, even if commanded. And yet, Jesus says that the two greatest commandments are not about our actions, but about our attitude and our hearts. He has the audacity to claim that God commands love. Even after a fist fight.

I find that pretty fascinating for many reasons. First it seems to suggest that we as human beings can actually control who we love.

Love is not some mystical force beyond our understanding and outside of our control, but that we have the ability to say to ourselves, “I will love that person, I will love my enemy.” When I shared this with praise team on Thursday, Emily said that she imagined Jesus saying that in the way our parents told us to try broccoli. Try loving them you might like them. And I replied, I don’t want to love them, they’re yucky. But you get the idea, Jesus is saying that such an emotional and irrational act is possible for us.

I admit, this is relatively new thinking for me. For a long time I have read this command to love, and what I have interpreted Jesus saying is that we must treat people with love. That when we do the actions eventually the heart follows. But I believed that Jesus wasn’t really talking about or commanding our emotions.

However, having recently been reading various books, I have come to realize that our emotional state is much more under our control than we normally admit. That we can actually change our own feelings, but it takes practice and work. With training, you can teach yourself to be more joyful. With training, you can teach yourself to be more compassionate. And so perhaps, what Jesus is saying to all of us, is that with training, and with God’s help, we can be taught to be more loving: to love God and love people at will.

If that is true, then most of us have work to do! It means that we need practice in compassion, that we need to work on ourselves so that when God commands us to love, we can actually change our hearts and love will come forth from us. Not just actions, but actually deep and real love.

Having thought about it, I think it is true. As I look around the world, I see people who have learned that. They clearly have spent years working on their ability to love others. When you are with them, the compassion in their hearts is evident. You know they care deeply about you. And when they go to the next person, they love that person fully and completely too. They have cultivated that ability. The suggestion is that we can learn that—let me take that back, it isn’t a suggestion, the commandment is that we learn that kind of love.

So if these are the commandments, to love God and love each other, and it is possible to actually do it, why don’t we? I mean, if these really are the most important two laws in the church, why don’t we act like it? Why does it seem like we are often more concerned with other things?

Those questions led me to my second interesting observation from the passage. That Jesus has told us that our faith is about love, and for some reason we don’t believe him. For example, In the book Churchless by George Barna and David Kinnaman, 3 in 5 Christians said that the most important thing in follow Jesus is following the moral rules of God; in other words, the law (p. 80). They didn’t say it was about loving God or loving others, but about moral rules. Now maybe they say that because they think that the way you love God is that you follow God’s rules, which makes a little sense. Unfortunately that then gives people outside the church the wrong impression that the church is about legalistically following the laws, and not about a real change of heart toward God and toward other people.

And so if you were to ask people outside of the church what the two most important laws of the church were, do you think they would answer these two: love God and love one another? I doubt it. I would guess based upon what is in the news and the public arguments that they would respond quite differently than this. They might answer closer to what is in the book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou where she tells us Momma’s two most important rules were Thou shall not be dirty and thou shall not be impudent! Yep, the church is often more concerned about dirtiness and impudence than love. We get all fussy over moral dirt, because we can see that. But we forget about the state of our own hearts.

Now, I don’t want to diminish the importance of these other laws, because quite honestly, the rules are often intended to help us do the right thing. And our arguments within the church on how to apply the rules often center on what is the best way to show our love for God and our love for others. Should we be accepting or should we show tough love? Should we emphasize grace or holiness? But the fact of the matter is that we are not communicating the underlying principles to others the way we should. We aren’t communicating it well enough to ourselves if 3 in 5 Christians didn’t realize that loving God and loving others are the most important things in following Christ.

We are a church built upon love. Love that sees the way God sees, love that cares the way God cares, and love that reaches out to help and strives to be the very hands of God in service of the world.

As much as we like to talk about getting rid of dirt, as much as we like to cure impudence, those are secondary to the change that comes in here. [point to heart].

So why don’t we want to believe Jesus when he tells us that our faith is about love? Honestly, I think because changing our hearts is harder than changing our behavior. It is easier for me to stop punching my neighbor in the nose than to love him or her. It is easier to obey a list of laws than it is to truly and deeply fall in love with God. In a recent book, James K. A. Smith writes that, You are what you love. Not what you believe, not what you think, but what you love. This has profound implications for us as Christians – suddenly it isn’t about our head or our intellect, but about our deepest desires as human beings. Advertisers know this. They don’t try to change our minds, they try to change our wants. Likewise, in the end, love is what God wants and expects of us. “Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves. He isn’t content to simply deposit new ideas into your mind; he is after nothing less than your wants, your loves, your longings.”[2]

Because love is what God has for us. Our commands are to love God and love others because God loves us and God loves others. God only expects us to do what God is already doing. We are to love because God loves. God is capable of loving us when we are dirty. God is capable of loving us when we are impudent. So God says, “Love others when they are dirty, love them when they are impudent. If you struggle to do it, let my love fill you. Learn to love like I do, learn it from me. In fact, I command it. All of the law and the prophets hang upon this. So love me, and love others.”

So unlike other times when I have read this and thought Jesus meant act lovingly toward others, this time I read it and I thought, Jesus really is calling us to change our hearts not just our actions. And it is time we acted like we believe him.

[1] Mark Radecke, In Christ a New Creation, CSS Publishing Company
[2] James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit

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