One of the scribes came near and heard the Saducees disputing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question. Mark 12:28-34 ESV
Christians and non-Christians, alike, often read passages like the one we read from Mark’s Gospel this morning and draw all the wrong conclusions.
The one that people most often draw goes something like this:
Christians are loving.
But so are other people.
So, it doesn’t matter whether you are a Christian or not.
If that was all there was to what Jesus has to say, I couldn’t agree more. I would even go one step further and suggest that we turn out the lights, lock the doors, and call it day.
After all – it’s true – there are lots of loving people out there who aren’t Christians. And, even if that weren’t the case, why wrap what we do here in worship week after week, year after year, around the simple affirmation, “be loving”? It’s a straightforward message and it’s not hard to grasp.
The problem, however, is that what Jesus is saying here isn’t that simple.
One, the command to love God and love our neighbors is predicated on a very particular conviction about the state of the human race. And it’s simply this: Left to our own devices, we are not loving.
That is evident from the newspaper on any given day. As much progress as we may think we’ve made, every form of human cruelty that has ever existed, still exists: slavery, the sex trade, concentration camps, genocide, war, murder – you name it. We are surrounded by the evidence that we are not loving, just more efficient. And only a very selective – naïve -invincibly ignorant – approach to the world could possibly reinforce the notion that we are basically good.
Second, Jesus’ command to love God is predicated on the conviction that in a world without God, there is no reason to be loving – not at least one that is written into the nature of the universe.
Yes, atheists and agnostics will offer cogent reasons for moral behavior. They may point to altruism, the value of cooperation or the building of just communities. But these are all contingent reasons for being good – meaning that they are only the reasons one might offer, granted the belief that our existence is otherwise accidental and ultimately meaningless.
I have talked to a number of atheists over the years and I’ve read some of their work as well. And the one thing that stands out is that many – if not most of them – never quite come to grips with the fact that their position is ultimately either tragic, nihilistic or both. You can’t argue that our existence is an accident in an endless vacuum and then argue that any good thing that we do ultimately has any meaning. Not one that is enduring, anyway.
By contrast, Jesus argues that the command to love our neighbors is based upon the existence of a loving God, who creates us with the capacity for love and whose love shapes the deeper nature of life itself. It is that fact which makes love the priority that it is in the Christian life and not any other contingent or utilitarian reasons.
That said, the fact that our love for others is grounded in God’s love for us also has a great deal to do with what we believe about love itself. And without lifting up that fact, we won’t understand why the love that Jesus urges people to embrace is different in critical ways from the love that non-Christians express.
I will focus here on just three critical differences:
One, we believe at the heart of love is an unconditional commitment to the wellbeing of others on their journey into a healing and restored relationship with God.
In popular terms, love can be a sentimental frame of mind and refer to little more than an affection for or attachment to other people. At its dysfunctional worst, love can be about giving someone else whatever that person wants. At its selfish worst, love can be about our own needs or desires. At its best, it can be self-sacrificial.
But – compared with even its self-sacrificial best – the Christian understanding of love is still about something else. It is about the full restoration of the image of God in others. And Christian love attends to that goal – focuses on it – and weighs the choices it makes with an eye to drawing those we love more deeply into the life of God in Christ.
That is why Jesus sets out the love of God and love of others together. That is why they are inextricably related to one another. That is also why one rightly gets the impression from the teaching of Jesus that you cannot claim to love God if you don’t love your neighbor, and you can’t love your neighbor adequately, if you don’t love God.
Two, we Christians measure the demands of love against the greatness of God’s love for us.
If you read the Gospels, what becomes clear is that Jesus is not content with cookbook spirituality. He won’t narrow what it means to follow the law not to murder. He tells his disciples that an acquaintance with God’s love is the thing that should guide their behavior toward others. He won’t tell his followers how often they ought to forgive. He tells them they should forgive, over and over again, just as God does.
And – more often than not – he tells stories or parables to guide people in living out their lives. It’s one thing to be given a list of things to do. It’s a very different challenge to imagine what it means to love like the prodigal son’s father.
This is why we Christians don’t think that it’s enough to sing, “All you need is love.” What we need is to do is become love – and we aren’t loving by nature. Only God is true love. And learning what that means is a lifelong journey – limitless, constantly deepening – a journey that pares away the selfishness, the pettiness, the fear, and resentments that keep us from being what God hopes for us.
And three, we depend upon the goodness and reliability of God’s love to perfect the love that we show to others.
This is why we worship every Sunday, why we receive the body and blood of Jesus, why we read Scripture, why we pray together, why we confess our sins and extend the peace to one another. Life in the body of Christ is a spiritual discipline in which we return, again and again, to Christ’s self-giving example. The kind of love that we celebrate can only take its intended shape if we constantly expose ourselves to that example, and that example can only be received by someone whose life is marked by gratitude and humility.
That is why the word Eucharist has as its root meaning, “to give thanks.” That is why our worship begins with the praise of God. And that is why, after confessing our sins, we offer one another the peace of Christ. The very shape of our worship reflects the logic of Christ’s twofold command.
Now, sadly, I think it is all too common to hear all of this and conclude that the logic of this twofold command is just simple poetry – stained glass language.
But where Christians have taken this message seriously over the last two thousand years, this kind of love has changed the world. Though the church has not always been faithful or consistent, the message of Jesus has continued to challenge, judge, and correct both the world and the church – even when neither one has been listening as closely as it should.
And it is this two-fold command to love God and one another that has been at the heart of that challenge. It is this kind of love that destroyed the slave trade – that insisted women be treated as full partners in the life of God and not as the possession of men – that changed the conditions in which children live – that battled the forces of racism – that eroded dangerous forms of tribalism – that insisted on care for the handicapped – that made friends out of enemies after wars – that gave rise to the 12 step program – and that feeds the poor.
But it is also the commandment that transforms individual lives. And as we have learned, over and over again, it is the individual transformation of lives that makes these larger transformations in the world possible. The only questions, then, are these: Do we believe the power of that command exists? And, if we do, will we choose to be found alongside God as advocates of the love that Christ has unleashed in the world?