Reflection September 15, 2019

"The Greatest Commandments" by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth

    In a familiar reading from Matthew (Mt 22:34-40), we find an attempt by the Pharisees to make Jesus appear foolish. Jesus was asked whether it was permissible to pay taxes to the Romans. Then he was asked about a woman who married seven brothers in succession and whose wife she would be after the resurrection. Then the Pharisees attack again, asking Jesus which commandment of the Torah is the most important. These attacks come during Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem.

     As we may know, there are 613 commandments found in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. How was one to pick out the most important? Yet this is exactly what Jesus does. He states the most important commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind, and with all your soul.” This is from the Book of Deuteronomy (chapter 6:5). It’s part of the Jewish Shema, which opens every Jewish service to this day.

     Jesus continues his teaching with a second commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This comes from the Book of Leviticus (chapter 19:18). And on these two laws, declares Jesus “hangs all the law and the prophets.” In other words, Jesus says that the entire Old Testament can be summarized by these two commandments. A better way of stating this is to say that Jesus is underscoring the vibrant center of all faith.

     As the Bible scholar Barbara Bowe notes in Biblical Foundations of Spirituality: “Jesus, this strong one of God, is not confined or limited by the boundaries of his Jewish faith, neither by its ideas of what is holy nor by its … boundaries … Above all else, compassion seems to be the hallmark of this strong and holy man.”

     For years, many of the early followers of Christ attended synagogue services and saw themselves as practicing Jews who accepted Jesus as Messiah. As the Harvard historian and rabbi, Shayne Cohen, writes: “The separation of Christianity (from Judaism) was a process, not an event. The essential part of this process was that the church was becoming more and more Gentile (in other words, more and more Roman) and less and less Jewish, but the separation manifested itself in different ways in each local community where Jews and Christians dwelt together. In some places, the Jews expelled the Christians; in other (places) the Christians left of their own accord.”

     But things were not this way when Jesus walked among us. Jesus took very seriously the books of the Hebrew Scriptures, which included at that time the Apocryphal Books. We can be certain Jesus studied the Hebrew Scriptures from a very early age. Jesus was a practicing Jew. Jesus was not the first Christian.  

     When questioned about the Jewish Scriptures, Jesus was able to summarize those Scriptures simply and clearly: Love God first and then love your neighbor. In light of these two “commandments,” we might well ask, what does it mean to love? What does love look like? I raised this question earlier in our summer series on prayer. I imagine most have some idea what love is but it might be difficult describing how we might love God. God seems so remote and hidden at times.

     To help us understand, I turn to an Irish spiritual writer, Pat Collins, and his book, Intimacy and the Hungers of the Heart. He writes: “love (is not) a state of romantic yearning or a sense of union with one’s beloved. It isn’t a state of good feeling, or a common sharing of interests.” Collins asserts the core of love is approval, the approval that means: “I’m happy that you exist.”

     The way I understand this concept is to say that love is basically a profound affirmation of another. I’ve preached on this numerous times over the years.

     The word affirmation is tied to the Latin word for “to make strong.” When anyone affirms us, we are made strong. If we are not affirmed, then it’s easy for us to weaken as we make our way through the world.  

     I believe our Sunday worship is an act of love. I believe our Sunday worship is an act of affirmation. In our worship, we proclaim to God: God, I love you and I show my love by praising you, affirming you, with my words, my songs, my prayers and my presence. And when we praise and affirm God on Sunday mornings, God affirms us in return with the power and potency of divine love.

     We, who come to worship, usually believe in our minds that God loves us. But do we feel it, do we experience it, in our hearts? On Sunday mornings, we come to our beloved church in order to allow God’s love to touch us. On Sunday mornings, we come to our beloved church to allow God’s affirmation to strengthen us. Our Sunday worship is among the most important things we do each week.  

     God’s love is the most powerful energy the universe has ever known. God’s love underlies all creation. God’s love underlies every creature who ever was, is now, or ever will be. There is no power greater than the power of God’s love. This is a fundamental belief we share as believers.

     God’s love is the heart of the Gospel. God’s love is the good news we’ve been commissioned to proclaim to the ends of the earth. And as the spiritual writer, Richard Rohr, rightly attests: “We are called to be good news rather than preach good news.” Oh, that more Christians would take this vital admonition into our hearts!

     How do we become “good news”? We become good news when we allow God’s love to fill us, to affirm us at that deep place where we are most wounded. Many of us live broken-hearted. That’s the nature of being human, the nature of being exiled East of Eden. And sometimes we don’t want anyone to touch us at those broken, wounded places, not even God.

     We sometimes block access to these deep and deeply-wounded places with our consumerism, our cynicism, our lack of civility and even our cruelty. We sometimes block access to these deep and deeply- wounded places with our anger, our unchecked aggression, our hostility, and all our hatreds. We sometimes block access to these deep and deeply-wounded places with our freely chosen isolation and our unwillingness to involve ourselves in our churches and in our communities.

     Too often we’ve limited our care and our compassion to the narrow confines of our families and those who are like us. But the more isolated we become, the more narrow (and partisan) our focus, the less possible it is for God’s love to touch the hidden places most in need of that touch.

     Obviously, we stand in need of God’s touch. Obviously, we stand in need of God’s love. Obviously, we stand in need of God’s affirmation. If we fail to allow God’s love access to every part of who we are, including the parts we most try to protect, then we will be incapable of true love.

     True love necessitates allowing God’s Holy Spirit access to every part of who we are. God’s Holy Spirit needs our permission to bring love and affirmation to the wounded and world-weary parts of who we are. We’re all in need of being deeply cherished!

     Our primary task as disciples of Jesus is to allow God’s Holy Spirit of Love full and unrestricted access to every part of us, individually and collectively. This is what our worship is meant to accomplish. This is what our prayer is all about. This is what being church is all about.      

     As we read from the 1st Letter of John: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1st John 4:7–8) In other words, all love has its origin in the heart of God. There has never been and will never be any true love that does not come forth from the all-powerful, yet tender, loving heart of God!

     Jesus teaches us that we are to love God first and foremost and then our neighbors as ourselves. What does this mean in practice? In practice, it means we need to tell God each and every day that we’re in love with God. This is the root movement of prayer.

     In practice, loving God means we come together once a week to tell God in worship how we love God. This is what we do with our songs, our Scripture readings, our prayers, our praise, our sermons, and our fellowship.

     In practice, loving God means we consciously strive to allow God access to every part of who we are. We might well pray every day the words of Psalm 139: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked/hurtful way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:23–24)  

Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor

Morgan Park

 Baptist Church

11024 S. Bell Avenue 

Chicago, IL 60643