Toorak Uniting Church

Previous Page

Next Page

Reviving Christian Practice

Matthew 22: 34 - 46
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
Pentecost 20
26 October 2014

It seems increasingly remarkable to me that people continually come up with ways in which they can exclude others from the Christian community. We have doctrines developed over 2000 years; regulations on who is in and who is out and an attitude that can come across as somehow superior to your common street level person. But why I see this as strange is because we have embedded at the heart of the New Testament the very essence of what we call Christianity and it was read this morning. One of the religious leaders asks Jesus:

"Rabbi, which is the greatest commandment in the law?" Without hesitation Jesus answers, "'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 just like the first: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' It is on these two commandments that all the law and the prophets are based."

Is there any more to say? Other than just do it! So the sermon is over, let’s sing the last hymn…. Well it is as simple as that and yet it is perhaps the most profound and difficult thing to do. What this couple of verses of Matthew’s narrative does, is put an action at the centre of the Christian Way and that action of course is love.

Love Takes Practice
But believe it or not love takes practice. Yes, it is an emotion, something we feel in our bodies (we often say our hearts), but we all know that the emotion must be expressed in actions. After many years of marriage, a wife says to her husband, "You don’t say you love me anymore." "Well," he replies, "I said it on our wedding day and if anything changes you will be the first to know!"

I prefer the line from the song, "Don’t tell me you love me, show me." And that is the meaning of the passage read earlier. To love God and neighbour is an activity that takes practice. And I want to add to that that they are not separate things. To love God is to love your neighbour and to love your neighbour is to love God.

The emotions that are raised within us toward what we name as God are valid. I know in the mystic tradition many people have had emotional and ecstatic feelings of love toward the divine, or just that comforting presence. Teresa of Avila, the Spanish Saint, Born 1515, had intense mystical experiences of God’s love and her love for God. But she also wrote

"Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours."

I know it has been said before that "Love is a verb, not a noun." It is a doing word.

Loving God and loving one’s Neighbour - the same thing?
Let me be a bit controversial here and repeat that loving God and loving one’s neighbour are the same thing. As Paula D’Arcy said, "God comes to you disguised as your life." Now I don’t want this to be misinterpreted. Loving God with mind, body and soul should not be reduced to a "moral imperative." That is, we only encounter God when we are doing the right and loving thing. But I do believe that Jesus was indicating that these two commandments, as he called them, are inter-related. If fact you can’t have one without the other.

So it is in the everyday living of life that we love God with our entire being. In fact it is not so much an activity as a way of being. Archbishop Desmond Tutu suggests that "Like when you sit in front of a fire in winter — you are just there in front of the fire. You don't have to be smart or anything. The fire warms you." That’s living in the presence of God and being present to God.

I think that good "Christians" should have their head in the clouds and their feet firmly placed on the ground. I have being reading John Tarrant’s book The Light inside the Dark. Tarrant was originally a Tasmanian who now lives and teaches in the United States. (Tasmania does seem to produce its fair share of writers.) The book makes a distinction between Spirit and Soul. Now, he is using these as metaphors that help us understand our inner life. Spirit, he suggests, takes flight and wants to fly. It is the light within us. But also he suggests that there is soul, which is the ground part of our being; and that can be a dark place, but a very important place where we grow and mature.

If God does come to us disguised as our life, as Paula D’Arcy suggests, then God comes and is present in both the light and the dark; in the flights of spiritual joy and the heavy darkness of soul sorrow and grief. To love God and neighbour with our whole being demands that we recognise that love is not merely an emotion associated with pleasure, bliss and elation. Love reaches down to the depths of our being and embraces the pain and ache of living.

Like last week’s story on paying taxes to the emperor, "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s", this narrative is also a response to an attempt by a religious leader to trick Jesus into saying something heretical that would put him on the wrong side of the religious authorities. And as in last week’s story, a rich wisdom comes from Jesus that baffles the listeners.

But through Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus never strays from his central message and that is the relationship with and the centrality of the presence of God. Nevertheless, that is often problematic for us because we have 2,000 years of theological discussion, argument and opinion on the nature of God; and most often the call is to be more religious and do religious things, when the message of Jesus, as we see in this story, is to do less religious things. He reduces the Ten Commandments down to two! In fact he does more than that, he reduces the 613 laws in the Hebrew Scriptures down to two. And those two commandments, if you want to call them that, I think they are rather pathways to life in all its fullness and are central to the good news. But, and I will finish on this, they can be turned into a religious programme. That is, to love God with your whole being cannot mean church on Sundays, not cussing, smoking, drinking and dancing, as our friends in other traditions may say. Nor can loving one’s neighbour be a formula for a political and social reformation. Now please don’t get me wrong: there are social projects that must be done. There are political reforms that are imperative. And no cussing, smoking, drinking and dancing may lead to a better life. (Well except for the dancing. I think that is part of the better life.)

No, it is that sense in which contemplation and reflection on these words will do their work at a deeper level – at an inner place within our being. I have used Martin Luther’s quote before and it is central to the Christian practice and way, "Love God and do as you please…" I know that it may take a lifetime to live into those words and to unshackle ourselves from notions and images of God that are infantile, immature and unhelpful. I think we are liberated from such images when we embrace the great truth, and see God as present and coming to us in every part of our lives.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2014

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.