A new love

Week of Sunday October 23 - Pentecost 19
Gospel: Matthew: 22:34-46

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ 43He said to them, ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
44 “The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet’ ”?
45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

(This sermon concentrates on two verses. For a fuller treatment of the text go here.)

I have a problem. "They" tell me I have to love God and love Jesus. They sing songs of love in church and, to be honest, it doesn’t work for me. Some of those songs are soppy; they have an high “ick” factor; they are cringe worthy. It’s not just the hymns. When I listen to some preachers, I feel like I should have this close personal relationship with Jesus, where we talk during the day like the closest of friends. Or I pour my heart out to the Father who listens and loves me.

I’ve been a Christian for something like 35 years. I’ve spent my whole working life supporting the church in one way or another. I’ve studied, I’ve sacrificed, and I’ve copped some heavy flak for my commitment. But when I sit in church and listen to these preachers, or we sing the same saccharine chorus over and over, I am left cold.

This way of loving God just doesn’t work for me. It has no reality for me. I know that for many people, it makes sense. That’s great. But I’ve spent a lot of time in the past wondering if maybe I’m not a real Christian. I’ve wondered if I really, as the say, “know Jesus.” I’ve gone to charismatic and pentecostal churches, and I’ve prayed at length, and studied my bible in depth... and yet, somehow, it just doesn’t work. It does not ring true. If this is the only way to have faith in God, then I do not have it.

I know from talking with many people, that I am not alone. The deep, emotional feeling of love for God that some churches preach as the norm, and as the way all Christians should be, just doesn’t happen for us.

What does it mean for me, and people like me, then, when Jesus says “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind?”  It sounds like we need to get our act together!

Let’s look at the verse. We could do word studies on heart, soul and mind, this morning. Really, though, that’s not necessary. The meaning of the verse is plain:  love God with everything you’ve got. That is the greatest commandment, said Jesus, although there is a second one like it.

The issue for me... is what is this word love? Where can I find this feeling of love for God?

In English, we think of love primarily as a feeling. It is an internal feeling we have about someone. This takes two common forms.  There is erotic love, which is sexually charged. And there is a second love which is a deep emotional attachment. Perhaps we see it most easily in the love we have for our children. The eroticism is not there, but there are deep feelings of concern, and deep emotional attachments. We never stop worrying about our children, even when we are old and they worry about us! These deep emotions may also exist towards our own parents, and to a few dear friends.

So, in the common English of today, I love my wife and I love my children. But I do not love John, here in the front row. There is nothing personal about this John; I like you, respect you, and value you, but I don’t have the same feelings for you that I have for Wendy. You may be pleased about this!

When we read “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind?” in the sense of our common English, it is telling us to love God like I love Wendy. That’s where we can get hung up. It’s not going to happen for me. I am not married to God, to start with.

In the culture of Jesus, the word used for love (agape) in today’s verse had a different connotation; a different flavour. It was not an internal feeling. Agape-Love was what you did.

I’ll say it again. Love is, first of all, what we do, not what we feel.

The culture was similar, in this respect, anyway, to the Pitjantjatjara culture where I used to live.

The first thing that happened to me when I arrived at Ernabella, was to be made a member of a local family. I was given a father, and a grandfather and grandmother. It was very obvious. It didn’t happen behind my back; I was almost formally inducted into the family.

I met Wendy in that year and we got married by year’s end. The town rearranged our family a bit, so that her mother became my mother! Everything was sorted out again despite our disrupting things!

This stuff wasn’t window dressing.  Relationship was everything. Family was crucial. We Europeans were given a lot of slack to allow for our general ignorance, but our social connections; who we went hunting with, our work relationships; who wouldn’t work with us, and so on, were all affected by the Pitjantjatjara families to which we belonged.

If we met aboriginal folk from out of town, the conversation started differently from when we meet Europeans.  “Howdy. Where do you come from?” we Europeans say. “Nice weather today. What do you do for a living?”

But with aboriginal folk, almost the first item of conversation would be some variation of, “Who are your relatives?” And then they would work out what relationship we were to them.

All the world falls into place when you know who someone is related to.  You know your obligations. What you must do for this new person you’ve just met, and not do, is obvious.

These obligations were serious. Imagine  John, in the front pew here, is in my family. I am obliged to look after him and help him if he is in trouble. I am obliged to watch his back. I might not like John at all, but that does not matter. In healthy Pitjantjatjara society, I will look after him anyway. I am attached to him by family; by my connection to the group. It has nothing to do with feelings.

That is the agape- love of the New Testament. Who am I attached to? Who am I devoted to? Well, I am totally attached and devoted to God. I will do what is appropriate. I will do what this family relationship requires of me. And I will do it as best I can.  That is loving the Lord my God with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my mind.

Jesus said there was a second commandment like this one:  You shall love your neighbour as yourself. I do not have feelings for John, but I will treat him with the same care and concern I show myself. He is my neighbour; the story of the Samaritan teaches us that whoever we meet is our neighbour. So I will relate to John with the best respect and the best care I can manage. I will never be all gooey and soft inside about him, though—

except.... when we devote ourselves;  when we seek to fulfil our obligations of compassion, the doing of it changes us. There is a kind of fondness grows; a new appreciation of a person; and even a new appreciation of God.

I can tell you, I will never be comfortable singing “I just love you with the love of the Lord” with two guitars and a pretty girl on the microphone, but in doing my love of God, there has been a certain fondness grow in my heart. I have begun to love God in that other way which has always mystified me.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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