5 November 2006

The Great Commandments

Jesus answered, ‘The first commandment is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 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.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’
The thing is, when we are thinking about the great commandments, is where on earth do you start? We cannot, after all, love God with all of our being unless and until we have some idea of both who God is and what love is. And we can’t love our neighbour as ourselves unless we can first love ourselves – and we can’t do that unless and until we love God!

So I suppose we had better start with loving God. After all, Jesus did. To love the Lord our God with with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. How on earth are we supposed to do that and still have time for daily life?

Well, I suppose it's possible. After all, we manage very happily to get on with our lives while still loving our families. I think, of course, it does depend on your definition of “love”. Our English language lets us down here, unusually, as we only have the one word that has to cover an awful lot of meanings, from loving God down to loving cheese on toast, including loving our families, our friends, our pets, our old teddy-bear, our hobbies and the person we're in love with! In Greece they managed better, and had several different words!

There is “storge”, or affection, the kind of love you feel for your child or your parents; then there is “eros”, which is romantic love; “philia”, which is friendship,and “agape”, which is divine love, and this is the word that is used in this passage. It is also, as you may or may not know, the word that St Paul used in that lovely chapter in 1 Corinthians, when he talks of the nature of that sort of love:

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

One of the interesting things is that when Jesus reinstates St Peter after he has denied him, you remember, by the lakeside, when he says to him “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” he uses the word “agape”. Peter can’t quite manage that, so he, when he replies “Lord, you know that I love you”, he uses the word “philia”; in other words, “Lord, you know I’m your friend”. Then when Jesus again asks him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”, he again uses the word “agape”, and Peter again replies using the word “Philia”. And then the third time, Jesus himself uses the word “philia” – which is why Simon Peter was so hurt. He’s already said twice that he is Jesus’ friend, why does he have to say it a third time?

Simon Peter found that committing himself to agape love, to God’s love, was pretty much impossible. I’m not surprised, are you? Let’s look at it again:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

This is the sort of love that Jesus was talking about, when he told us to love God with all of our being, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.

So it's not just about spending all our lives in Church praising God! Of course, that is an excellent thing to do, but the idea is that our whole lives should be about loving God. It's about where the centre of our lives is. Our centre should be God, not ourselves.


But how? Heaven knows, I don't always succeed in this, I'm sure my centre is far more often on myself than it is on God, and I expect many of you feel the same way.

Even Simon Peter couldn't do it, as we have seen: “Lord, you know I'm your friend!” It wasn't until after Pentecost, after the Holy Spirit came down, that he became the great apostle and evangelist. His love for God, and for his neighbours, was never in doubt after Pentecost, however much it was before!

So it seems as though we can't love God without God's love first in us, in the Person of the Holy Spirit.

And St John tells us that we can't love God without first being able to love our neighbours: “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. God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” And a bit later on, he says: “Those who say, `I love God', and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

But then, just to get us even more confused, he says: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.”

So for John, loving God and loving our neighbour, our brothers and sisters, are one and the same thing. And, indeed, that God's love for us is first and foremost – our love for God is just a response to that.

And I think he's probably right. But it's not always easy, is it? Again, I dare say we would find it easier if we were more aligned with God. The trouble is, quite apart from anything else, our human loves can be so desperately flawed. You might think that there is nothing more wonderful than the love between parents and children but how easily that love can turn into wanting to dominate the child, to dictate how it should live, what it should do, who it should be. And you have all heard the old joke,

“She’s the kind of woman who lives for others – you can always tell the others by their hunted expressions!” The kind of person who, out of love, misguidedly tries to run people’s lives for them.

And I don’t need to spell out just how easily romantic love can go wrong, and become something of a battle for possession. Or in this day and age, more likely, a refusal to commit oneself to the beloved.

As for friendship, you would have thought it would be difficult for that to go wrong. People tend to be friends because of shared interests; Robert and I have a great many very dear friends whom we would not otherwise have anything in common with apart from our love of skating. That is the thing that we are friends about.

But sometimes friendship can be more about excluding the other person, not including them. Particularly among children, of course, but it can happen among adults. Sadly, we see it a lot in the churches – we exclude those who, perhaps, are not of the same denomination as we are, or don’t worship God in quite the same way. Or perhaps we are Evangelical and they are not, or vice versa, so we tend to be sniffy about their way of being a Christian, and exclude them.

Ruth, I think, got it right, as we heard in our first reading. It would have been so easy for her to have gone home to her own people, as her sister-in-law did. She could have done so – her mother-in-law suggested she did. But she could see her mother-in-law's need. Naomi had lost her husband; her sons had married “out” of the Jewish faith, and then they, too had died. She was all alone in the world. But Naomi said, “No, I won't go away; let me stay with you and go with you, adopt your people and your God as my own.” And she did, and ended up first seducing and then marrying Boaz, who was related to her former husband's family, and thus supposed, by Jewish law, to marry her if possible. But it was due to her love for Naomi, and her refusal to let her go home by herself, that this all happened. And Ruth's several-times-great grandson was, of course, King David, and thus Ruth became an ancestor of Jesus.


But there is one final thing to notice about the commandments. We are required to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Now loving ourselves is, very often, the difficult bit. It's all too easy to have the wrong kind of self-love, the kind that says “Me, me, me” all the time and demands its own way – the absolute opposite, in fact, of the love that St Paul speaks about in 1 Corinthians. You can't love your neighbour – or God, either, for that matter – if you are full of that sort of self-love.

But then there is the equal and opposite problem – we don't value ourselves enough. We don't really like ourselves, we have a big problem with self-image, we are not what the French call “comfortable in our own skins”. And often it is the people who appear most self-absorbed, most unable to love others, who are the most wounded inside, and who are totally not comfortable with themselves. And again, it is only through the love of God, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, that we can be made whole, and thus enabled to love ourselves and other people, as we should.

So really, it's all one – we love, because God first loved us; we can't love God without also loving our neighbours; we can't love our neighbours unless we love ourselves – or, at the very least, have a healthy self-image, which amounts to the same thing; and we can't love ourselves unless we are aware that God loves us!
So the important thing, as it always is, is to be open to God's love more and more; to continue to be God's person; and to continue to be open to be being made more and more the person God designed us to be. To be fully human is to be fully God's person. Amen.

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