“All You Need Is Love”
October 7, 2012
Throughout his ministry Jesus did many new and surprising things. To this day we remember when we gather together.
Jesus ate with tax collectors and other social outcasts. He spoke with despised Samaritans and treated women as equals and friends. He often astounded his listeners with his unique perspective and his authority. Through what Jesus did and said, the people around him realized that something new was happening!
This morning, however, we hear something old, something familiar.
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord.” So begins the basic affirmation of Judaism. With this sentence the service of the synagogue began and still begins. These verses were worn in leather boxes on the foreheads and wrists of the devout as they prayed. They were put on the door posts of houses, in obedience to the commandment, to remind the Israelites of God at all times, even as they went between the rooms of their homes.
So when Jesus says: “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one; and 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,” he is not saying anything new.
And he certainly isn’t saying anything controversial. Many religious leaders argued with Jesus when he arrived in Jerusalem. But the questioning scribe can only agree when he speaks like this.
The words that we hear from Jesus are familiar to many in the church. Maybe you learned them in Sunday School. Many know these words so much by heart that we scarcely know them anymore as words spoken to the heart out of a mystery beyond all knowing.
Where are these words trying to take us?
“You shall love . . .”
Not, first, your neighbor—yes, we will, and we do, love our neighbors.
But Jesus puts the love of God first. And we are to love God with all that we are and all that we might become—whatever that means, whatever that involves. These words are about commitment. Indeed, the difference between philosophy and religion has been described in this way: “Philosophy is ultimate concern. Religion is ultimate commitment and nothing less.”
Think about your own commitments—to your family, to your friends, to your work, to the various organizations and institutions that are a part of your life. What is ultimate? What demands your all? And where in all of this is your love of God?
Loving God does have its problems, doesn’t it? You’ve probably discovered that over the years. Certainly we have problems loving our neighbors, but they at least can be seen, they can be heard, they can be touched.
How are we to love God who is not seen, not heard, not touched? When we look around in faith, seeking God’s presence, God’s comfort, and find only a void, whom or what do we love?
Frederick Buechner describes what happened to him in his fear and distress over his daughter who was hovering on the edge of death. “When the worst finally happens, or almost happens, a kind of peace comes. I had passed beyond grief, beyond terror, all but beyond hope, and it was there that for the first time in my life I caught sight of what it must be like to love God truly. It was only a glimpse, but it was like stumbling on fresh water in the desert. Though God was nowhere to be clearly seen, nowhere to be clearly heard, I had to be near God. I loved God because there was nothing else left. I loved God because God seemed as helpless in might as I was in helplessness. I loved God not so much in spite of there being nothing in it for me but almost because there was nothing in it for me.
“This was not because, God knows, I was some sort of saint or hero. It was not because I suddenly saw the light (there was almost no light at all) or because I hoped that by loving I would persuade God to heal this young woman I loved. I loved God because I couldn’t help myself. I loved God because the one who commands us to love is the one who also empowers us to love, as there in the wilderness of that dark and terrible time I was, through no doing of my own, empowered to love God at least a little. At least enough to survive.”
You have probably known times in the past when it was easy to love God, when the way was clear and smooth. Maybe you know such times even now. When life is good, we love God with thanksgiving.
But just as the limit of our love for our neighbors is found in our love of our enemies;
just as the limit of God’s love for us is loving us at our worst;
so the edge of our love for God is responding to the words “Hear, O Israel, . . .love your God . . .” in times of darkness.
At such times the witness of others who have been able to do just that can give us encouragement. Because there are times of darkness, we must listen to these words again and again.
Yes, our love of God is filled with problems.
But it also creates new possibilities for our lives.
The love of God can overwhelm and overcome our hearts, so that every heartbeat attempts to keep pace with God’s love for us.
The love of God can inform our minds, making love the mainspring of all our thoughts.
The love of God can fill our souls, making our every prayer a plea not just for ourselves and our own desires, but an offering formed by love.
The love of God can flow through the strength of our bodies, making every step a step toward love in action.
The love of God is our ultimate commitment, with all its problems and possibilities.
Jesus does not stop with the command to love God, however. “The second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Again, there is nothing new in what Jesus says. Indeed, here he is quoting the book of Leviticus. And another great Jewish teacher put it this way: “To love your neighbor as yourself, this is a great general principle of the law.” Nothing new here.
Love your neighbor as yourself. We’ve heard it before. And there are many times in which we are able to do just that—to show the compassion, understanding, and forbearance toward others that we would like to be shown toward ourselves.
We’ve heard this before. But we can never be reminded of it too often.
Remember the love that you have been shown.
Remember the love you have received from others.
And continue toward others in that way.
Love your neighbors. You know who they are.
Love your neighbors. You know what that would be like.
I said that there’s nothing new here—but that’s not quite the whole truth. What is new is the way that Jesus connects our love for God with our love for our neighbors.
It becomes clear that our love for our neighbors flows from our love for God. And so the great theologian Augustine could say, “Love God, and do as you please,” knowing that if we are truly loving God we will be led to truly loving our neighbors.
We also begin to see, from what Jesus says, that whoever does not love the neighbor, who is seen, cannot love God, who is not seen. If we take this seriously, there is no room left for racial hatred, for the ostracism of others because of sexual orientation, for excluding any group or any person from our love.
The second is like the first. That is to say the command to love God and the command to love our neighbor are wrapped up together.
Can we pause for a moment and turn our attention from Jesus? Listen to the scribe, because he is doing the work that each of us must do. He receives the answer of Jesus. And then he interprets those words in his own way. He takes what he is offered and turns it into his own.
“You are right,” he says to Jesus. “You have truly said that ‘God is one, and besides God there is no other’; and “to love God 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.”
The scribe agreeing to this new interpretation of old commands is told, “You are not far from the realm of God.” And this, in a sense, points to the end of these commands. The words “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” ultimately become, as Frederick Buechner put it, “less of a command and more of a promise. And the promise is that on the weary feet of faith and the fragile wings of hope, we will come to love God as God has loved us. And loving God, who has known our sorrow, we will come at last to love each other.”
I recently heard someone say, “Christianity isn’t complex, it’s just hard.” That thought meshes nicely with the way in which this congregation has been described: “What might be called the seriousness of the church arises from a belief that Christianity is demanding and a desire to understand its demands and to be encouraged and supported in responding to them.” Christianity is a demanding way of life. It requires much and gives even more. A liberal, open-hearted Christianity calls for the best in us as individuals and as a congregation.
It’s not rocket science. It’s not brain surgery.
It’s nothing new.
All you need is love. John and Paul said it. Jesus said it. Moses said it.
I’m just passing on to you, once more, what you have heard before. What will be new, what will be novel—what will change the world, however, is taking these words to heart and living them in a love-lost and often hateful world.
In Jesus Christ, God’s love is shown to us. God loves us enough to know our sorrow and weakness. May we find the promises of God fulfilled as we love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.