Now one of the experts in the law came and heard them debating. When he saw that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is: ‘Listen, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
That’s it. In a sweeping simplification of thousands of years of Jewish teaching, Jesus summed up God’s law in a way that anyone could understand. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. That’s it. That’s the “Bible for Dummies.”
Now, if that is really it then I shouldn’t have to explain anything more, right? If we really understood what it means to love God and love your neighbor, then God’s kingdom would be here on earth. But it isn’t, yet, is it? So, what does “it” mean?
First, how do we Love God?
Just before Jesus left this earth, He instructed Simon Peter to care for the dearest object of His love—His sheep.
Three times Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love Me?” Peter answered, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” Each time, Jesus answered, “Feed My sheep.”
Jesus wanted Peter — and all of us — to be servants to each other, and to others as well. Jesus had often talked about Him being the “Good Shepherd.” Jesus wants us all to be good shepherds, and to carry on his work among the lost sheep. He wants us to do it by caring for them, feeding them, loving them, just as He had always done.
Remember, Jesus did not ask Peter if he loved His sheep, but if he loved Him.
If you love Jesus, if you love God, love His sheep.
So the next question is who are His sheep and how do we feed them? Which brings us to the next part of the scripture “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
How do I Love Neighbor?
If we want to understand how to be ‘good shepherds’ we need to understand Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. That’s the parable says that all the nations will be gathered before the Son of Man and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
Richard Stearns, President of World Vision, USA, in his book, “The Hole in Our Gospel”, says:
“but what is perhaps most surprising [about this parable] is that the criterion for dividing the two groups is not the sheep confessed faith in Christ while the goats did not, but rather that the sheep had acted in tangible and loving ways toward the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, and the vulnerable, while the goats did not. Those whose lives were characterized by acts of love done to ‘the least of these’ were blessed and welcomed by Christ into His Father’s kingdom. Those who had failed to respond, whose faith found no expression in compassion to the needy, were banished into eternal fire.
“Surely this is one of those passages that would be easy to cut from our bibles. We would much rather believe that the only things needed for our salvation are saying the right words and believing the right things—not living lives that are characterized by Christ’s concern for the poor.”
To paraphrase the parable for today’s reader: “For I was hungry, while you had all you needed. I was thirsty, but you drank bottled water. I was a stranger, and you wanted me deported. I needed clothes, but you needed more clothes. I was sick, and you pointed out the behaviors that led to my sickness. I was in prison, and you said I was getting what I deserved.”
“Christ’s words in this passage cannot be dismissed out of hand. We have to face their implications no matter how disquieting. God has clear expectations for those who choose to follow Him...However, I don’t want to [sic]suggest that all true followers of Christ must forsake everything to bring comfort and justice to the poor. I only propose that a genuine concern for ‘the least of these’ that finds tangible expression must be woven into the pattern of their lives and faith. That expression might involve small but regular gifts to compassion ministries, advocating on behalf of the poor to government representatives, or regular volunteering at a soup kitchen, the local nursing home...”
Dave Andrews in his book “Not Religion, But Love” writes:
“The shock in the story for the people of Christ’s time, and for most Christians today, is that he insists that we will not be judged on the basis of whether we have subscribed to the right set of doctrines, or obeyed the right set of code of behavior. We will be judged solely on the basis of whether, or not, we have done the right thing by those whom most people consider least!
“Now some Christians argue that Christ can’t be saying what he seems to be saying. He seems to be saying that we will be judged on the basis of the justice that we do, or do not do, to the disadvantaged. They say that ‘we are saved by our relationship to Christ, not by our response to disadvantaged people’. But the whole point of the parable is that the true nature of our relationship to Christ is demonstrated by our response to disadvantaged people. We may claim to love Christ. Which is fine, fantastic. But in this parable, Christ says loud and clear that the only way that any of us can prove it is by our love for the poor!”
“Jesus suggests that the way for us to do justice to the disadvantaged people that we share our lives with, is by making ourselves and our resources available to them, to help them meet their unmet needs. In the parable there is no suggestion of extraordinary things like healing the sick, or raising the dead, or single-handedly changing the course of human history. In the parable there is only the suggestion of ordinary people doing ordinary things for one another. Like giving someone a drink, or giving someone a feed, or spending time with someone sick in the hospital or stuck in prison. For Jesus, doing justice is not about big people doing big things, but about little people doing little things to help one another. Doing justice is not about doing great things: it’s about doing the right thing—simply helping one another.”
Ok, but what about the third part, Love Self?
A Chinese proverb goes something like this: “A giver is more fortunate than a receiver”. It is perfectly logical, because someone who is able to give must be in surplus, while someone who is in need of help is lacking something. Victor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor, developed logotherapy, based upon the belief that it is the striving to find a meaning in one’s life that is the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in humans. He discovered while in a concentration camp that the ones who survived such horrors the best were the ones who focused on others. In other words, we find it easier to love ourselves, to be comfortable with ourselves, when we are helping others.
Elizabeth Scott, a counselor in family therapy writes:
“Helping others brings good feelings to the giver and the receiver of the good deeds. Using your special gifts to help others can be a gift to yourself as you enjoy a self esteem boost for making others’ lives better, and make the world a better place. You feel more worthy of good deeds yourself, your trust in the decency of people is reinforced, and you feel more connected to yourself and to others. In fact, research shows that those who demonstrate more altruistic social interest tend to enjoy higher levels of mental health, above and beyond the practical benefits of receiving help and other known psychospiritual, stress, and demographic factors that you would expect.
“Creating a balanced lifestyle that includes service to others can help you feel less stress as well, as you feel more connected to your spirit, more grateful for what you have, and less invested in the ‘rat race’ that causes stress for so many of us.”
If you’ve ever helped someone, and realized what an enjoyable experience it was, then you’ll understand what I mean. If you feel like you’re always giving and not receiving, then it’s because you’re either expecting too much from helping people (which should not be your motivation) or that you’ve got pretty much everything you need (which you should be grateful for). The only thing you can’t get by helping people is selfishness, so if you’ve got too much of that, then you should start helping yourself get rid of some excess by helping others.
To sum it all up, again, Stearns writes, “Jesus equated loving our neighbors with loving God. If we truly love God, He was saying, we will express it by loving our neighbors, and when we truly love our neighbors, it expresses our love for God. The two loves are fully interconnected and intertwined.”
And if you think about it, if we truly believed this, we would no longer be discussing why we should love our neighbor, or even who our neighbor is, but we would be discussing how best to show our love for our neighbor.
Which now brings us to today, and why we are here on this Communion Sunday.
In Rob Bell and Don Golden’s book “Jesus Wants to Save Christians”, they write:
“God has made peace with the world through the Eucharist, the good gift, of Jesus. And so Christians take part in a ritual, a meal, a reminder of the Passover, called the Eucharist – also called communion or the Lord’s Supper or Mass – as a way of remembering and returning to who God is and what God has done in Christ.
“But the Eucharist, as it is with any ritual, is about something far more significant than the ritual itself.
“For someone to receive, someone has to give.
“For someone to be fed, someone has to provide food.
“If someone somewhere benefits, then someone somewhere has paid something.
“The church is a living Eucharist, because followers of Christ are living Eucharists.
“A Christian is a living Eucharist, allowing [his or] her body to be broken and [his or] her blood to be poured out for the healing of the world.
“Writer Anne Lamott says that the most powerful sermon in the world is two words: “Me too”.
“When you’re struggling,
“when you are hurting,
“wounded, limping, doubting,
“questioning, barely hanging on,
“moments away from relapse,
“and somebody can identify with you –
“someone knows the temptations that are at your door,
“somebody has felt the pain that you are feeling,
“when someone can look you in the eyes and say, “Me too,”
“and they actually mean it –
“it can save you.
“When you aren’t judged,
“or looked down upon,
“but somebody demonstrates that they get it,
“that they know what it’s like,
“that you aren’t alone,
“that’s “me too.”
“To begin to understand the Eucharist, to begin to grasp the Father’s giving of the firstborn son, is to feel what others feel, to suffer when they suffer, to rejoice when they rejoice. The church says to the world, “Me too.””
As we take the communion together this morning, as a Community of Christ, may we say to ‘the least of these’ … ‘Us too.’
—Robert Thomas, Priest
rough notes from a sermon given in November, 2009