Last Sunday after Trinity Year A -
Loving God and your neighbour
Sermons year A
Christopher Harrison home page
In St. Matthew’s Gospel we read, ‘An expert in the law tested Jesus with this question: "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
The first part of this so-called ‘Golden Rule’ tells us to put God first ... to give thanks to him, to serve him, to obey him – something which in today’s society we need to be reminded of regularly. Don’t be unsettled, by the way, by those who are placing advertisements on London buses which read, ‘There is probably no God’. For what we believe, as Christians, is that there is a Power greater than ourselves, a Love which is stronger and more constant than ours, a divine Wisdom, Forgiveness and Compassion which are beyond anything we can imagine – and keeping that God at the heart of our lives.
This morning I don’t want to go more deeply into the complex arguments about whether God exists, however, but to look more closely at the second part of the Golden Rule, which is ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
Today the meaning of the word ‘love’ is ambiguous – it means different things in different contexts. The writer and theologian C S Lewis described how the word ‘love’ was used in the time of Jesus in four different ways:
It was the last of these words that Jesus used when he told the people to love God and to love their neighbours as themselves.
When St. John wrote ‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God, and knows God’ – this was the love he was referring to – agape, caritas. This was the love described by St. Paul in that famous passage from 1 Corinthians – traditionally translated as ‘charity’ ...
But didn’t Jesus also say that we should love our enemies, not just our neighbours? This is of course true – and is perfectly consistent with all that we have just heard about what ‘agape’ is – it is the love that is not self-seeking, not just concerned with what it can get for itself, and makes no distinction between the people to whom it is shown. Now this is all well and good, we may say ... This is what we aim for, as Christians – but who actually achieves it? Isn’t it impossible, in practice, to be as loving as this? Well – that’s in fact true - because no-one can be as loving as God. If God is love – agape – then we, as sinful human beings, are bound to fall short.
This is why Jesus’ call to love God and our neighbour has to go hand in hand with a recognition that we also need God’s constant forgiveness. We need regularly to turn to God in penitence and sorrow for the things we have done wrong, acknowledging them before him and asking him not just to forgive us but also to guide us as we seek to be more loving in the future. For it is through Christ’s atoning death and life-giving resurrection that we can be confident of this divine love and compassionate forgiveness, if we believe in it and seek it.
There is always more we can do to love more fully; and our neighbour, today, is everyone else in the world. Loving our neighbour, then, as well and as fully as we might, may seem to be a very daunting task – and we are always going to be inadequate in our love to some degree. But that does not mean we should give up trying. For God never gives up on us – and even if we fail him from time to time, his care for the world is such that he will never fail to love us.
Christopher Harrison home page