Have you ever found yourself talking to somebody who thinks that because you’re a Christian you should necessarily be able to answer – off the top of your head – every curly question about life, the universe and everything that they can think of? Things like – well, if God created the universe then who created God? If God was there before anything else then what did he do? Why did God create flies? Can you prove God exists? Did God know about the tsunami before it happened? And if so, why did she allow it? As though if you personally haven’t worked out the answers to all these it’s really quite irresponsible of you to claim to be a Christian. A bit like telling you you’ve got no business getting married unless you know how your kids are going to turn out.
The thing is, people don’t generally ask questions like these because they are really looking for the answer. Quite the opposite, in fact. The real reason for asking questions like these is so you don’t have to think seriously about the answer – you throw up a thick enough smokescreen of argument and you never have to come face to face with the reality and the challenge of what Jesus is actually saying – you keep firing off impossible questions and you never have to ask yourself what things you maybe should be changing about yourself.
So Jesus gets a lot of questions like this, mostly they’re from people who feel threatened by the utter simplicity of what he is saying. God loves you. God made you and God knows you through and through. God knows all of your weaknesses, all of your petty faults, yes, and your big ones too, but you are not small or wicked or useless in God’s eyes. God’s forgiveness is absolutely unconditional, absolutely unlimited. God’s kingdom becomes a reality just as soon as you learn to take the risk of loving God back – it’s not a complicated message, is it? You wouldn’t think it was that threatening – but to the religious professionals and the theologians of the day it was very threatening indeed.
So in today’s gospel reading Jesus is fielding tricky questions. Not that there’s anything wrong with the question - when you think that according to the rabbis the Law consisted on 613 dos and 365 don’ts it’s not such a bad idea to have an executive summary. What’s the heart of the matter – what’s the bit I’ve actually got to remember! But as the hearers of the story, we know even before the question is asked that it’s not sincere. This is a question being asked by people who are hoping Jesus is going to give the wrong answer so they can publicly discredit him for holding unorthodox opinions and leading people astray.
“Oh, Teacher,” – butter him up with a little compliment first. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?”
Well they must have been horribly disappointed with Jesus’ answer. You could not imagine a more thoroughly orthodox and uncontroversial answer. “This is the greatest and most important commandment, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ And the second most important commandment is like it, ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’
Every Jew listening would know that Jesus had given the right answer. Every Jewish kid can recite those two commandments since kindergarten. Deuteronomy 6:5, known as the “Shema” from its first word in Hebrew, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one God. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Every religious Jew repeats these words every day. And the second bit – “you shall love your neighbour as yourself”? Straight from Leviticus, chapter 19. It’s not only Jesus who comes up with this answer - all down through history the rabbis have agreed that these two verses together are a near perfect summary of the whole law of Israel. It was probably the most non-controversial thing Jesus said in his entire life. This is Jesus at his most Jewish. And we know from the story of the Good Samaritan, Luke chapter 27, who Jesus thinks our neighbour might be. That’s nothing new either. Straight from the same chapter, Leviticus 19. The alien who lives among you, the poor and the dispossessed – those are your neighbours.
That’s what makes Jesus so dangerous, not because he’s coming out with something brand new but because he’s coming out with something absolutely straightforward, absolutely familiar – something the Pharisees know all too well - the real question is not how important you think the commandment to love God might be compared to the commandment to love the people around us, but how you actually live it – how do you “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind?”
I mean, how do you? Is it just me, or does anybody else find it a bit hard, in the abstract, to love God?
Loving the idea of God is one thing. Finding security and purpose in the thought of a loving Creator who has a particular purpose and a soft spot just for me – I love that. Loving talking about God isn’t too hard either, for anybody like the Pharisees – or me – who finds a particular pleasure in theological argument. But how do you love God – particularly a God who insists on having all your love, all your attention, all your energy and your time? This God who insists he is indivisible, take it or leave it, no room left over for anything else – how do you do that?
You do it, says Jesus, by loving your neighbour. That person who you bump into by accident, who maybe looks and sounds different to you, who maybe has a different language and a different religion to you. The person who is made in God’s image. Right from the start, loving God means loving other people, and even loving those people who most challenge your ability to love. It means radically rethinking who we are, and how we live, and how we relate to others, and what we value and devote our heart, mind and energies to. Loving the indivisible, take it or leave it, all or nothing God means loving your neighbour. You love and serve God – who you can’t see – by loving the grumpy, the difficult, the exasperating – who you can see.
And that’s just within your own family!
How do you love people like that? Even harder – how do you love people you aren’t related to? I find it easy enough to love some people – in theory – for example when I read about issues like poverty and racism and injustice in all its forms – but loving the idea of justice and equality isn’t really the same thing as loving people, is it? And how do you love people who seem to be part of the problem – those who commit acts of violence, those whose greed and power causes others to suffer? Aren’t they our neighbours also? How do you love them?
Here’s the oneness thing, the indivisibility thing, again. Because Jesus, the orthodox rabbi schooled in the wisdom of the Law, refuses to separate these two great commandments. The way you love your neighbour, who exasperates and challenges you but inconveniently is also made in God’s image, is by loving and responding in faith to the God who creates you. By following the commandments, by studying the scriptures, by learning how to pray, by being attentive to the everyday movement of the Spirit within you. By paying attention to God’s self-revelation in Jesus himself, by measuring your own life against the model of Jesus’ own life, and by looking to Jesus’ relationship with God as the foundation and the example for your own. That’s why it’s so dangerous coming to church! Did you know that? Church is a construction zone, a hard-hat area, ‘Danger! Men and women at work!’ We don’t actually come here to get our prejudices confirmed! We don’t come here for a private warm fuzzy or to hear the hymns and prayers that take us right back to the security of our childhood.
Church isn’t a cocoon of personal spirituality, in fact, exactly the opposite. Come here to get your prejudices challenged. Come here to be disturbed, to be broken open, to hear uncomfortable truths and to learn the art of give and take with God’s other people who just might see the world, and God, a whole lot differently to you. Come here, in short, not to stay the same but, by creatively allowing God’s love to percolate and bubble away inside you, to be fundamentally changed. Into somebody who loves people.
In John’s gospel Jesus prays that his disciples may be one, just as he and the Father are one. Jesus and his Father are made one in love, and he prays that we – his disciples – may also become one by loving each other as he has loved us. As Jesus puts it, “so that they may live in us, and we in them”. Again, it’s the oneness thing – the indivisibility of God. The more we love one another, the more we participate in God’s own life – the more we move into the circle of what gives us life. The more we love God, the more we grow in love for one another, and for all who Jesus tells us are our neighbours.