Sunday 29 October - Pentecost 21 - Eucharist - Stephen Holmes

Pentecost 21 2017 – Mt 22:34-46

 + ‘You shall love the Lord your God and you shall love your neighbour as yourself’

Religion doesn’t get a good press these days. Islam is tarred with terrorism. Christianity is associated with the extreme right in America and with a prurient desire to control people’s sexuality and relationships. Even peaceful Buddhism is implicated in the persecution on the Rohingya in Myanmar. Much of this bad press is deserved. But I’m sure we have all had experience of good religion: a relationship with God that encourages human flourishing. To be fair I should also add I’m sure I am not alone in also having experience of irrelevant religion. A service with mind-numbingly bland music and a sermon earnestly saying nothing to the accompaniment of jolly stories with no point.

That sets the bar high for me today. But I have an advantage. We have just heard a prime example of good religion in the gospel, something so important our traditional Prayer Book communion at 8am repeats it every week: “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength… Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.” The double commandment of love. Love is the glue that binds people together and unites them to God. But where does this commandment come from? Let’s look at its context.

It comes at the end of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus has entered Jerusalem on a donkey, his claims about himself and his teaching have annoyed the religious leaders and they are arguing with him and trying to trap him. This is religion trying to dominate and control. First, the Pharisees try and compromise him politically and he gets out of it by saying ‘Render unto Caesar’. Then Jesus agrees with the Pharisees, at least in believing in the resurrection of the dead, and confounds his other opponents, the Sadducees who do not. Finally it all gets too much and in chapter 23 Jesus rains down curses on the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy. In the middle of this intense argument a learned Pharisee tests or tempts him, the verb used means both, by asking which commandment is the greatest.

Jesus answer is sublime. It is what life is about. Love. Love God; love everyone. All you need is love. This is what is distinctive about Christianity. Or is it? This sublime teaching of Jesus comes from Jewish tradition. It combines Deuteronomy 6:5, said twice daily by devout Jews, and Leviticus 19:18. Even Jesus’ combination of these two commandments is not original, it is found in Jewish commentators before Jesus and reflects the two parts of the ten commandments which concern God and neighbour. Similar teachings are found in many religions.

And the world would be a better place if we lived these two commandments. The bad religion I spoke about at the beginning is always a failure of the second commandment of love, the ‘golden rule’, ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. We don’t always listen to what’s said in church, but if you did, which commandments struck you most? Love God or love neighbour? Loving another human you can see is easier (though loving a dog may be easier than loving a human). But look again at Jesus’ words, which commandment, note the singular, is greatest? – and Jesus gives two in reply. Your neighbour is made in the image of God. If you love your neighbour you love God; and if you love God alone, perhaps in the simple adoration of silent prayer, the God you love alone is found in every person and in all creation. And that even includes you yourself: ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. Jesus usually condemns self-love, but here he seems to demand it. Some commentators say he means, you’re an evil whatsit filled with self-love, at least love someone else as much as you love yourself. But others, and I think they are right, say Jesus commends a healthy self-love – if God loves you, you are certainly lovable, and so a real self-love is to agree with God. Priests and counsellors agree that one of the biggest problems people have is a lack of self-worth. St Augustine said, if you can’t love yourself, you can’t love God or neighbour. Our rather jolly last hymn puts this well: ‘Will you love the "you" you hide if I but call your name? Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?’

Will you? So far we have been looking at good Christianity. Or have we? Jesus teaching on love, which is a summary of the whole Law and Gospel, is not just Christian. It is all taken from the Jewish Bible. It is actually all found in most religions. And notice, this is not Jesus sitting down and wondering what is the basic teaching of his new religion. It is him in the cut and thrust of debate. He is responding to a question. Did you notice the next part of our reading. There, Jesus does take control of the argument and formulate his own question. He doesn’t talk about love, he asks them a question about himself: ‘What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ The answer is that Jesus is the Messiah, as we will say in the creed, truly God and truly human, son of David and son of God. Why does Jesus move from sublime teaching on love to esoteric stuff about himself and obscure Bible verses. I would suggest that here we learn what Christianity is all about. With people of goodwill from all faiths we love God and our neighbour, I feel very uneasy when people imply love is the exclusive possession of Christians. With atheists and agnostics of goodwill we can join in service of our fellow humans and all creation; and in that, whether we know it or not, we love God who created us all. But if we are truly Christian there is another dimension, our love is formed by the love of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, who showed his love in his cross and resurrection and who shares it with us in the sacraments.

We are no better than the good Hindu or the good atheist, and we may be much worse, but for us the love we share is marked by the cross of Jesus Christ. It may even be that we Christians need a bit more help to love. Pope Francis recently said the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’. That’s us here today. We need the spiritual food and drink of the Eucharist to help us love. May the new Cornerstone Centre help us share this love with all. May we be a place where all are welcome and a place where our love springs from an uncompromised love of God in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.