The Law Is Love

This week, one of my most beloved mentors moved to Edinburgh, Scotland to take up a new post in ministry. He and his family have been in my prayers as they make this move and for the community of St. Giles Cathedral, where he will be serving as pastor. I’m not sure if it was strategic to have his first Sunday be Reformation Sunday, but the timing seems quite appropriate.

The Reverend Calum MacLeod, originally from Scotland, served on the pastoral staff at Fourth Church in Chicago for the last 16 years – initially only intending to stay for 9 months, he ended up becoming the Associate for Evangelism and then the Executive Associate Pastor and Head of Staff in recent years. Calum approaches ministry as a ‘craft’ – a vocation to be practiced and a gift not to be squandered. To be a pastor, Calum would say, is to pray for people and remind people of the holy presence of God in our midst. To be a pastor is to remind the community to listen for the voice of God, and respond faithfully. In worship, we turn our hearts to God and present ourselves as vulnerable beings to the power of God’s love – we experience forgiveness, we receive nourishment and we pray for greater understanding about how we can be co-creators of God’s love, peace, hope and joy in the world. Calum harbors a deep love for the church, for the people in the church, and this deep and abiding love permeates his experience of ministry. Calum’s example continues to teach me as a pastor and as a Christian – to be in awe of God, to love people well and to respond to God’s presence and call faithfully.

This week in particular, these lessons have been on the forefront of my mind. These lessons, along with thoughts of celebrating Reformation Sunday, have been intermingling with the words of our Scripture text this morning. And, though our text this morning is familiar, it elicits bold questions that are foundational to our lives as Christians. How are we being re-formed through the act of loving God and loving neighbor? In other words, how are we faithfully living as though we love God and love neighbors? How do we reflect our love for God and our love for the world in our daily lives and as a community of faith?

So, let’s get to the text and reflect on the transforming and reforming possibilities that dwell among and within us. Our Gospel Reading for today comes to us from the Gospel of Matthew 22: 34-46.

Let us pray: Gracious and loving God, O how you love us so. As we ponder your Word and your presence among us, may we be open to listen and heed your call. Amen.

Matthew 22:34-46

34When 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 neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

41Now 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 is the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.

Reformation Sunday is a celebrated this Sunday every year in the Presbyterian Church (USA) – the Sunday before the All Saints Sunday. Typically, the same Scripture texts are examined for this particular celebration – the Gospel of John, chapter 8. Although I encourage you to read John chapter 8 this week, I have decided to stick with the seasonal lectionary readings for this Sunday. There is just something about these commandments, and the continued volley of questions between Jesus and the Pharisees that draws me in. I also believe this particular Scripture passage speaks directly to the power of the Reformation of the Church and the inspiration for what it means for us today to be reforming.

So, a little bit of history on the Reformation. The major source of our Reformed tradition is rooted in the Swiss Reformation in the mid-1500’s – primarily the works of Zwingli and Calvin. Our Book of Confessions – one of the two books that makes up the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) – includes 3 confessions from this era: one from Switzerland (the Second Helvetic Confession), one from Germany (the Heidelberg Catechism), and one from Scotland (the Scots Confession). Our Church today is informed by all of these arms of the Reformation however, our American Presbyterian tradition stems most significantly from Scottish Presbyterianism, due to the great numbers of Scottish Presbyterians that immigrated to this country.

Of course, we know the name John Calvin, but another important Reformer we can attribute our heritage to is John Knox of Scotland. John Knox, a Scottish pastor, in his early career as a Reformer, was imprisoned and forced to be a galley slave in a French ship. After his release, he was exiled and served as a chaplain in the Church of England where he became a contributor to the Book of Common Prayer. When Queen Regent Mary of Guise came to the throne and sought to reinstitute the Roman Catholic Church as the national Church, Knox fled to Geneva, Switzerland where he became a confidant of John Calvin and served as an English-speaking pastor in a congregation there. Inspired by Calvin, Knox then returned to Scotland and helped lead the Reformation of the Church of Scotland around the time of the death of Mary of Guise. In the year 1560, Knox was asked by the Scottish Parliament, along with 5 other ministers, to write a confession of faith. This document was then ratified by the Parliament and was understood to be the statement of faith of the newly declared Protestant Church of Scotland – and even today, this Scots Confession remains as a vital part of who we are as a Church today in the PC(USA).

Knox’s theological legacy includes a fierce commitment to reformation. He believed in the notion that all are able to take up the mantle of God – that all are included in the ‘priesthood of all believers’ – and that the practice of leadership in the church by clergy and elders is an important mark of the church. Knox believed that the practice of fervent prayer is a means to intimacy with God and it was of the utmost importance to practice strict self-examination before coming to the Lord’s Table. He believed that it is here, at the Table, where we find ourselves in a holy place, forgiven and nourished. Knox heeded the commandments of Jesus – to “Love God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.” And, like the first, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” These were guiding commandments of the Reformation and this Reformer inspires us to continually ponder how this love of God and love of neighbor influences our practice of faith in the world today.

In our text this morning, Jesus is still at the Temple and he is still engaged in the battle of questions with the Pharisees. You might remember that when we left off in Matthew a couple of weeks ago, Jesus had already triumphantly arrived in Jerusalem on the donkey and the colt. He entered the Temple and overturned the tables of the money-changers and then commenced in a duel questions with the chief priests, scribes and now, lawyers. This morning, we understand that the Sadducees have been silenced in this verbal jousting match, and now the Pharisees are bringing out their most legalistic representative to ask the questions of Jesus. “Jesus, which commandment of the law is the greatest?”

To give you a little context of the Scriptural well from which Jesus draws to answer this question, the Torah contains over 600 commandments – 248 are positive and 365 are prohibitive. The Pharisee is asking Jesus which of these commandments is most important, which feels a lot like trick question, doesn’t it? But as we have seen from Jesus time and time again in our study of Matthew, Jesus responds by quoting Scripture. He responds by saying “You shall love the Lord your God with all your hearts, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” – directly quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and reciting a portion of a well-known prayer of Judaism. But, he doesn’t stop there. He then continues and adds another, articulating the second most important commandment. Reciting Leviticus 19:18 he says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus concludes his response by claiming that it is from these two commandments that all other laws “hang” – and, I want to unpack this metaphor a bit because it is vulnerable to misconception. You see, Jesus is not claiming that these two commandments are the law from which all others are derived. Rather, Jesus demonstrates to us here that he is shattering the notion that rules exist to bind us within particular parameters. Jesus is shedding light on the fact that all other laws from God are to be practiced with the law of love – all other laws are understood through the lens of loving God and loving neighbor. The commandments to love God AND also to love neighbor point to the fact that the law is designed to help us access the gift of genuine relationship with God and with one another. This law of love is profoundly relational in nature – not legalistic – and it pushes us to reflect on what it means to be the holy people of God.

The image this conjures for me is a hook on the wall made of these two commandments – to love God and to love neighbor. Each subsequent law, then, is obeyed and practiced like a jacket placed on that hook. If the jacket is not able to hang, just keeps slipping down the wall, one might question the way in which God’s law is applied, or the intention behind it. For example, as Jesus has articulated in a previous encounter with the Pharisees – the law commands that we remember the Sabbath and to keep it holy. But, if someone is sick and in need of immediate attention, healing on the Sabbath would be the loving thing to do as understood through the law of love. If one would ignore the person in need on the Sabbath, the law would not hang properly on the hook – the jacket would slip off – because it is not affixed by these two greatest commandments of love.

You see, living into God’s law according to the rule of love means that the law is a fulfillment of God’s promise of love and care for God’s people. The law is not meant be used as a trap to belittle others or a means to sustain power. Rather, the law is a gift from God to help God’s people understand what it means to be a holy people. And, applying the rule of love to the law and to the prophets opens us up to a whole new world that continues to be reformed with the dynamic and loving presence of God through Christ in the world.

So, what does this mean for us today? How do these two commandments impact us on the grand scale as a people of faith, and how does this inform our daily lives as individuals? Like the Church during the time of the Reformation, we, as Christians, dwell in a world and a culture of laws and policies – both secular and religious. Often times, our policies and laws are created under the guise of “protection” but, in practice, they are structured to keep the powerful, powerful, the wealthy, wealthy and the privileged, privileged – this can happen within the Church and in secular society, as we are well aware. Outside the Church, we have sentencing laws, which allow for the imprisonment of youth for life. We have laws, which restrict the ability of some persons to vote. We have laws, which make it possible for gun violence to persist. Outside and inside the Church, we have laws, which limit the definition of marriage to exclude many. So, my question for us sitting here today is: How do we as Christians live in the world according to these greatest commandments? Are we inspired by our faith, and the practice of the rule of love, not only in our Church governance but also in our culture?

We gather each Sunday morning and we worship a God who forgives, nourishes and strengthens us for the work of justice and love in our world. Yes, we are fallen people, broken, and imperfect – but, we believe in a God who creates out of love, who created us in God’s own image of love and God delights in the love we have to offer. Isn’t that wonderful? To know that our love for God and our love for the world is wanted, if not needed?! So, how might we reflect our love of God in the world? In our society? How might we reflect our confidence in the transformative and re-formative power that God has for the world? We, sitting here in the year 2014 are a Church Reformed and always Reforming. May it be so – always reforming according to the greatest commandments of loving God and loving one another. Amen.