1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-end
We heard read just now from the gospel of Matthew. Matthew, the hated tax collector who was summoned by Jesus to leave behind his shallow life of avarice and greed, called to his life’s true vocation as a disciple of Jesus with the simple words, ‘Follow me!’ (Matt 9:9). Why did Jesus do that? Out of love, of course. And why did Matthew follow him, share 3 years of his life with him, write a book about him and ultimately give his life for him? Out of love. It is in his gospel, Matthew’s gospel, that we read of the Pharisees who asked Jesus the question: which is the greatest commandment in the law? And Jesus replies with those words we know so well, quoting from the OT in Deuteronomy and Leviticus: ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets’ (Matt 22:34-40). I wonder how Matthew felt on writing those words as he reflected on his own conversion to love.
How do we hear the command to love? How does it sit with us? I feel a bit uncomfortable with the idea of being commanded to love. How does that work? Does it sound a bit like the sergeant major? ‘Pull yourself together, Croft! Stand to attention! Polish those boots of yours and put your cap on straight! And love God and your neighbour!’ This came up in conversation with Hamish Preston one day and he pointed out to me the way that it really does sound quite military and therefore it jars a bit. It’s more like this, to love God and neighbour is the absolute heart of the matter. You cannot, you must not miss this. Jesus said it himself, on this hang all the law and the prophets – that is, everything you know about God in the Bible is focussed here. If you want to live life right, properly ordered, aiming in the right direction, it will begin and end with the love of God. Get this right and the rest will follow. And God isn’t some slave-master, demanding our servitude; he is not insecure, somehow needing our love; no, in fact if we catch the faintest glimpse of God we can’t help ourselves.
Every morning an email from Christian Art plops into my inbox and I read it as part of my prayer. Reflecting on the greatest commandment, this is what Philip van der Vorst, who is training for the catholic priesthood in Rome, writes: ‘Today’s reading goes to the very heart of all Scripture. Jesus tells us what our central duty, responsibility, and even privilege in life is: ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.’ Jesus doesn’t mention the soul, the heart and mind as if they were separate categories of love, it is one love. But by spelling out heart, mind and soul, Jesus stresses that we are to love God with every part of our being. The depth of our love for God should sit in each of these areas. To love God with our heart means that our life revolves around Him. He is the center of our daily life wheel. He is at the forefront of all that we think and do. To love God with our soul means there is genuine emotion and passion towards God. This doesn’t mean that our love for God is to be controlled by our feelings. But it is yet important to find God in our emotional nature. And then to love God with our mind, does not just include the intellectual life, but also a sense determination, active choice and using our free will to seek God. Loving God with all our mind balances out our emotions and steers the direction and path on which we walk, pursuing God.’
The love flows both ways, of course and we can only love at all because God loves us. The apostle John put it like this in his first letter: ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). I have a book by Brother Roger of Taizé entitled, ‘God is love alone’; the title says it all! At the very heart of God, in all his awesome power is something that we too share: love. This is true of God since mysteriously, the One God is Three: Father, Son and Spirit: the community of God, the Trinity, bound together by love and in love. Our communities: families, friends, neighbourhoods, churches are all reflections, images of that love that spreads out so generously from God Himself.
How do we begin to love God? It must be something that comes from our hearts, although the outworking of it will be in our actions. Coming to love God isn’t so much something we do, as something we allow to happen. What I’m going to say now has been said so often in this church that it almost feels like a cliché! I refer to Jeremy’s sermon of a couple of weeks ago when he spoke of finding time for prayer; and Mark’s sermon on 24th August when he talked about contemplative prayer. It’s about deliberately putting ourself in a place of stillness, gently letting go of worries about yesterday, today and tomorrow and being quietly present with God. Allowing God to slip in gently into our lives. It’s about noticing – noticing the beauty of an autumn day; not just an idle glance, but a long look, and allowing the thought to come in, that this is an expression of the love and beauty of God and allowing that to warm our hearts. It’s about taking precious words of scripture and lingering over them, perhaps even memorising them, repeating them to ourselves, allowing them to soak in and move us. As I said earlier, it’s about allowing ourselves to catch a glimpse of God: once we do that, we can’t help but love him.
The outworking of the love of God in our hearts (which is the same as the presence of Christ within us) will, indeed must show itself in love of our neighbour – and indeed, in love of ourselves, for Jesus tells us that we should love our neighbour as ourselves. I’m proud to say that we are pretty aware of this at St John’s and there is a lot of love being shown in various ways: helping with shopping, doing the decorating, giving lifts, delivering prescriptions, visiting, supporting, involvement in Communicare, Hope into Action and so on. I’d like to reference another sermon that was preached recently, a very moving one by Ian Maynard when those of us who have white skins, like me, heard what it can be like not to have a white skin, and felt very uncomfortable in the process. I was powerfully reminded that all forms of prejudice and racism are the opposite of love.
I’m guessing here, maybe wildly, that Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is not one of those places that your well-thumbed Bible opens itself to. But I was struck by our first reading today and the way it revealed the tender heart of Paul as he spoke of the way he conducted himself among the men and women of Thessaloniki: ‘…we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.’ (1 Thess 2:8,9). Isn’t that beautiful? The scary apostle Paul himself knew love.
Sir Paul Nurse is a Nobel-prize winning biologist. Recently, on a podcast I was listening to, he described the pot plant sitting on his desk as his relative! In the sense that all living things on the earth, whether plant or animal, insect or fungus, fish or tree, human or pot plant are biologically related. We are all related! Did you know that we share 25% of our genes with plants?? What would it mean to regard the whole created order as our relatives – or perhaps as our neighbours. Because that’s exactly what they are!! And in so doing, love them. In saying this, Sir Paul was, probably without knowing it, echoing the words of St Francis of Assisi, who named all created things as Brother, Sister, Mother or Father and thus related himself to them. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, humanity has increasingly regarded the planet and living things on it as a commodity to be exploited – and we are now reaping the whirlwind of that, quite literally. Maybe if we, as a human race, can come to regard the creation as a relative, a neighbour, a loved brother or sister, we can begin to turn back the tide of climate change. So let us see our planet and everything on it as our relatives, our neighbours, our friends, gifts, and love them.
I’m going to end with a poem. I want to balance the command to love with an invitation to first of all receive love. A child cannot learn to love unless he or she first receives love: then it’s possible to return it. In the same way, we will not be able to love God or our neighbour or indeed even ourselves if we don’t first receive the love of God. So sit back and listen, and maybe even go back to this poem and let it feed you. It’s ‘Love’, by George Herbert. You’ve heard it before. In this poem, think of Love as God.
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat. Richard Croft