In the Easter-Pentecost season 2021, I began a series of sermons on the theme of God’s Commandments, beginning in the Old Testament and moving to Jesus’ teaching. These sermons formed the basis of a “confirmation” process for members of the church.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS: Channeling God’s Love
Sermon Preached at Redeemer Anglican Church
25 April 2021
LESSON: Exodus 20: 1-17
Jesus said: “If you love me, keep my commandments. (John 14:15)
This saying comes from the last words Jesus ever spoke on this earth. It was at the Last Supper, the night before He was betrayed, tried, and crucified. They are, in a sense, Jesus’ last will and testament.
“If you love me, keep my commandments.” I must confess, I have been wrestling with these words, because I am not sure what they mean. I’m not sure what they mean for me, a follower of Jesus, or for us, the church of Jesus Christ here in Bellevue. So please follow along with me over the next few weeks, as we search the Scriptures:
BLESSED Lord, who has caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may so hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of your holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
“If you love me, keep my commandments.” What are we to make of this statement? What does Jesus mean by “love,” and what does He mean by “keeping my commandments.” Specifically, what does Jesus mean as a first-century Jew, whose Bible was the Old Testament, who from His earliest years knew the Scriptures better than His elders, who attended synagogue each Sabbath where the Torah scroll is taken from its box, its tabernacle, and read, “Torah” meaning the divinely revealed Words of Almighty God to Moses.
I think we can get a good sense of how Jesus the Jew understood what “Torah” meant because we can hear him praying Psalm 119, as we did today.
Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law (torah) of the LORD!
Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart,
who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways!
You have commanded (tzavah) your precepts to be kept (shamar) diligently.
Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!
Now the word Torah here refers specifically to the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch), which contain the law of Moses. Rabbis later calculated that precisely 613 “statutes” were contained in the Torah. It was clear to first-century Jews, as it is to orthodox Jews today, that “Torah,” which means “instruction,” was not only a head-matter – “reading and memorizing” – nor only a heart-matter – living a godly life – but it was a “hands-matter” – practicing the Law in everyday life. To be a faithful Jew was to be a “keeper of Torah” in body, mind, and spirit. Jews of the first century and down to today described the Law as a yoke, as in a yoke of oxen. Taking up the yoke of the Law was for them an honor, a privilege, and a necessity. Here is an explanation from a contemporary catechism on Becoming a Jew [from the internet].
Because the Jews constitute a covenant-community rather than a faith-community, the decision to convert is a decision not only to believe in the Jewish idea of God, but to act on that belief. When one “enters into the covenant” … one accepts the divine mandate requiring distinctive behavior. This is called “acceptance of the yoke of the commandments.” The rabbis have ruled that the candidate for conversion may not willfully reject even one of these 613 commandments.
The Torah was a law code, in fact the only law code for the people of Israel, but it was more than that. It was embedded in a story, a narrative. The story stretched back to Creation, to the Fall of man into sin, to the promises to Patriarchs, and preeminently to the salvation of the Hebrew people from Egypt. It is somewhat similar to the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution which resulted from the Revolution against Britain. That’s why God prefaces the Ten Commandments by saying: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
One could by a similar analogy and liken the Ten Commandments to the founding principles in the Declaration and Constitution, with one crucial exception: the Commandments were inscribed in stone by the finger of God, not by the quill of Thomas Jefferson.
Now I have called the Commandments “channels for the love of God.” Years ago, I went to a very unusual college. It’s called Deep Springs College and has been in existence since 1917. One of the features of this college is that is located in a valley in the high desert of California, in view of the east crest of the Sierra Nevada. The college operates a cattle ranch, and students are expected to work twenty hours a week on the ranch. One of the most important chores was maintaining the water system, which in turn feeds the alfalfa fields for the cattle fodder. Despite the college’s name, there were no deep springs in the desert valley. The water for the college comes from the snow melt on the adjoining mountains and flows down a creek. As it enters the arid valley floor, it is channeled to the reservoir, and from there, in my day at least, it passes through irrigation ditches in the fields. Our job as students was to make sure the channels were cleared of weeds and other obstacles so that water would irrigate the fields.
As I see it, the Ten Commandments are making channels in which the love of God may flow. I am not going to preach ten sermons on the Ten Commandments but to give a broad overview of what it says about the kind of love – the yoke, if you will – which the people of Israel accepted when they entered the Covenant on Mount Sinai.
First thing to notice: Two Tables of Law – duties to God, duties to our neighbor. Unlike the American founding, there is no mention of rights. These duties are summarized in the first and the tenth commandment: “you shall have no other gods before me” and “you shall not covet.” These bookend commandments cover two basic human sins of the human heart: idolatry, putting self before God; and iniquities, putting self before others.
Second thing to notice: The Commandments are framed negatively. Don’t worship idols, don’t blaspheme God, don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, or lie. All except two: “Keep the Sabbath,” and “Honor your father and mother.” Even these two come with a warning label against sabbath-breaking and dishonoring parents, both of which are severely punished in the covenant Law.
The third thing to notice: The commandments refer to concrete actions, not inner attitudes. As in our day, the law at its most basic is about outward order, not inner virtue. Of course, there is an formative and educative component (see Psalm 119), by which the Law will help develop a character of godliness and just-dealing. But much of this character development will take place at home and be assisted by local wisdom (proverbs) and worship (psalms).
Fourth and final thing to notice: The Commandments span the major areas of life under God.
Religious and Family Life
Honoring the one God
Keeping the Sabbath – work, rest and worship
Respecting father and mother – God’s creation order
One final thing to notice: the Commandments are aimed not only at individuals but at a whole society of families and tribes which are God-honoring and righteous-dealing.
Let me now return to my image of the water system at Deep Springs. The primary goal of our human endeavors there was to channel the natural flow of melt-water to the fields where it could soak into the soil and grow the crop. This, I am arguing, is the main purpose of the Ten Commandments: to make channels for God’s love to flow. But the commandments are not love itself, and that is where we come to Jesus’ own commandment.
Let me end with a request to you, that you make a self-inventory. Go through the Commandments and ask yourself: would I qualify to be a good Hebrew according to the Commandments? Take each Commandment externally according to your conduct, not according to your inner feelings. For instance,
- have you literally been part of a cult, worshipping a false god?
- have you intentionally stayed away from worship for months or years on end?
- have you disavowed your relationship to your father or mother?
- have you murdered someone, or – and I say this advisedly for men and women – have you knowingly caused an abortion?
- have you committed adultery or forced a divorce on your spouse?
- have you defrauded a person of property or money?
- have you lied publicly in a legal matter or pretended to be someone you are not?
I am not asking you to take any action about these matters. If you have broken a commandment of this sort, I hope you have repented and made appropriate reparation.
Now let me suggest one more step. Ask yourself if you know someone – it could be a family member, a fellow worker, or a church member – who has violated God’s commandment in this way. Again, I am not asking you to do anything about this observation.
What this exercise is doing perhaps is like digging the channel in the field so that the love of Jesus may flow into it. Do this, if you would, and may God bless you.
Next week I’ll move on to talk about the “love of God” and the two commandments of Jesus.
THE TWO GREAT COMMANDMENTS: Jesus’ Transforming Love
Sermon Preached at Redeemer Anglican Church
2 May 2021
LESSONS: Psalm 26:1-7; Matthew 5:17-20,38-48
“If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15 ). I began this series last week by confessing that I am somewhat mystified by this saying of Jesus. What does He mean by “love”? What does He mean by “commandment”?
I thought the easiest way to investigate this mystery was to go back to the Ten Commandments, which Jesus knew from childhood as God’s Law etched on two Tablets of stone. We then noticed several things about the Ten Commandments:
There weren’t really just Ten Commandments, there were 613 commandments which every Jew was to gladly shoulder as the “yoke” of the Law. It was by keeping the whole Law, not just the Ten Commandments, that a young man found his way in the world (see Psalm 119).
That said, I suggested that the Ten Commandments set out the channel, the parameters of the Law, like the forms of a pipeline or an irrigation ditch taking water across the desert and channeling it into fields of alfalfa.
The Commandments are wide-ranging, covering major areas of life grouped in two clusters: piety – fearing God and honoring parents; and probity – conducting an upright life.
The Commandments are also rigid and framed negatively: don’t worship idols, don’t speak God’s name casually or rashly, don’t break the Sabbath, don’t dishonor one’s parents; don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t make false witness.
What a marvel the Ten Commandments are! They are in many ways the foundation of Judeo-Christian and Western society. And we should take them so. After all, they come from our God!
BUT – and now I come back to my quandary about Jesus. What does He mean when He says, “If you love me, keep my commandments?”
I want to look at three of Jesus’ sayings that give us clues as to how he upheld, critiqued and transformed the Jewish Law.
The first saying is well-known. In fact, we just used it in our service. When a Jewish lawyer – “lawyer” meaning an expert in the Jewish law – asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus answered: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And the man answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself,” to which Jesus replied, “You have answered correctly” (Luke 10:26-28).
This summary of the Law divides the Commandments into two groups – duties to God and neighbor. It’s a brilliant insight, but in some ways a no-brainer. Many Jews of Jesus’ day and down to today would agree: “Rabbi, you have spoken well.” The real bombshell in his reply isn’t identifying God and neighbor but the use of the word love. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor in the same way. Love God and your neighbor with the same passion that you love the Stillers!
So maybe Jesus was just giving a pep talk to the Jewish audience. “Put your heart into keeping the whole law and you will do well. Keep those water-pipes clean, muck out the reservoir, dig those weeds out of the trenches, and you will do well. You can keep those 613 commandments, if you put your neck in the yoke and puff and pull.
But is that what love means? “Try harder”? I don’t think so. In fact, Jesus knew the heart of the lawyer who asked Him the question. He knew it was hardened, hardened by keeping the Law. You can hear this man’s voice in today’s Psalm (Psalm 26):
Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the LORD without wavering. Prove me, O LORD, and try me; test my heart and my mind. For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in your faithfulness. I do not sit with men of falsehood, nor do I consort with hypocrites. I hate the assembly of evildoers, and I will not sit with the wicked. I wash my hands in innocence and go around your altar, O LORD, proclaiming thanksgiving aloud, and telling all your wondrous deeds.
I have no doubt that what is portrayed in this Psalm is a God-fearing and upright man. But is this love? I’d say more likely, this man has the form of godliness without the power of love. He has dug the channel of righteousness, but there is no water coming down into it.
This brings me to a second of Jesus’ sayings:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:28-30)
In the Book of Common Prayer, this is called a “Comfortable Word,” which means “comforting word,” for so it is! But it might not be comforting to those rigorists toiling under the yoke of 613 commandments. Think of yourself as the elder brother in the Prodigal Son parable working away day by day in the fields. You’re sweaty, you’re tired, maybe you are feeling vindicated before God and man. And then this prodigal son of your father shows up! Like the prodigal father, Jesus is saying to the elder brothers in Judaism, “Come this way, friend. I have a different, a kinder, gentler yoke for you. It will refresh your soul, not just your body. It is the yoke of love, my love.”
Who wouldn’t take that offer? Sounds good, but it comes with one condition: “Come to me.” You cannot enjoy the law of love unless you put on the yoke of the Great Lover, Jesus. This comfortable word reminds of the old Gospel hymn:
Come, ye sinners, poor and needy
Weak and wounded, sick and sore
Jesus ready, stands to save you
Full of pity, love and power.
I will arise and go to Jesus
He will embrace me in His arms
In the arms of my dear Savior
Oh, there are ten thousand charms.
Who wouldn’t arise and go to Jesus? Well, the elder brother perhaps. The man who wants to be vindicated, who boasts in his righteousness under the Law. Such a man was Saul of Tarsus. Here is how he describes his life before he came to Jesus. Again, one can hear the voice of the “righteous” Jew:
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Phil 3:4-6)
But then this upright man came to Jesus – or rather, Jesus came to him on the road to Damascus. And this is what Paul the Apostle went on to say:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith. (Phil 3:7-9)
Saul the Jew knew and says clearly what it meant to be a keeper of the Law, down to the last commandment. He also knew how worthless that righteousness was when compared to the righteousness that comes from faith in the Risen Jesus. Paul the Christian put off the yoke of what he came to call bondage and put on the yoke of liberty in the service of Christ (Gal 5:1).
Now I come to the third saying of Jesus with regard to the Commandments of the Law. It comes from the Sermon on the Mount, our Gospel reading today:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:17-20)
Let me confess again, I find this a difficult statement to get my mind around. Jesus seems to claim the complete adequacy of the Commandments of Moses, but goes on to challenge his disciples to go beyond them. What does that mean? Are Christians to add on Commandments ##614 and 615?
Of course not! Jesus, I think, is saying if you love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself, you have in fact fulfilled all 613, and then some. Because love has a different calculus.
So does this let us off the hook? Is Jesus saying, “love mankind and pursue world peace and all will be well.” [There’s a quip here in my allusions: to Linus of “Peanuts” fame – “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand!”; and to Sandra Bullock as Miss Congeniality – when asked by the beauty pageant host “what is the one most important thing our society needs?” she replies: “harsher punishment for parole violators, Stan … and world peace!”]
No, it’s not that kind of “easy” yoke. Jesus goes on in the rest of the Sermon of the Mount to describe the kind of commandment He has in mind. Don’t just abstain from killing; abstain from hating; don’t just abstain from fornicating; abstain from lusting; don’t just deal fairly by letting the punishment fit the crime, but give your accuser whatever he demands; don’t just love your brother, but love your enemy.
In speaking of “love,” Jesus revolutionizes the idea of keeping commandments. Put another way, he drives a wedge between love of God and love of neighbor. We don’t love our neighbor as a divine payback scheme whereby God is just and we are just. We love our neighbor because we are fundamentally unjust – fallen into sin – and God has taken that sin upon Himself on the Cross. So when we look at our neighbor, we see not a vindicated man but rather an outcast, a prodigal, a prostitute, a Roman tax-collector, a thief on the cross, a Roman centurion below the cross. Because that is who we are!
At the end of my sermon last week, I encouraged you to take a personal inventory. In what ways have you kept or broken the Ten Commandments? I asked you to be rather concrete about this: have I bowed down before a wooden idol, have I cursed and disowned my parents, have I murdered or maimed someone, have committed adultery or spent the night in a brothel, have I defrauded someone and committed perjury in a lawsuit? Few of you, I suspect, are guilty of these gross offenses. But then I asked a second question: do you know anyone who is guilty of breaking these commandments?
What I think Jesus saying in his law of love is this: these are the very people that you should be reaching out to, rubbing shoulders with, bringing good news to. These are our neighbors. And they are no different from ourselves in the eyes of the pure Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.
As Redeemer moves to becoming an independent church, I think that our willingness to reach these “deplorables” – the least, the last, and lost – that will be the fulcrum on which our success will rest.
As we come forward today and extend our hands to receive the Holy Communion, let us come to Jesus, as we truly are – “weak and wounded, sick and sore.” In taking the Body and Blood of Christ, let us be embraced in the arms of our dear Savior, lost in wonder love and praise.
Next week. May 9 (Mother’s Day) – Loving God’s Household the Church
“IF YOU LOVE ME, LOVE MY CHURCH”
Sermon Preached at Redeemer Anglican Church
9 May 2010 – Sixth Sunday of Easter (Mother’s Day)
LESSONS: Psalm 45:6-17; Romans 14:13-19; Matthew 25:31-40
At Christmas I received a gift from Redeemer Church, a lovely little book of meditations titled: Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Suffers by Dane Ortlund. I have read it through twice. The title is drawn from the “comfortable word” of Jesus that I mentioned last week:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:28-30)
Ortlund says this about the passage:
In only one place – perhaps the most wonderful words ever uttered by human lips – do we hear Jesus himself open up to us his very heart… In the one place in the Bible where the Son of God pulls back the veil and lets us peer into the core of who he is, we are not told he is “exalted and dignified in heart.” We are not told he is “joyful and generous of heart.” Letting Jesus set the terms, his surprising claim is that he is “gentle and lowly in heart.”
Love according to this image comes from below, bubbling up from the fathomless springs of the love of the Father and Son and breaking out over the channels of righteousness according to the Law. Another image we might draw on to display the heart of Jesus is a maternal one, the love He first drew from His mother’s breast that Christmas night.
Today is Mother’s Day, as I am sure you are all aware. It is a strange fact that in our screwed-up world of broken families and broken identities, Mother’s Day is still seen as something to celebrate. So let’s do it: Happy Mother’s Day to the mothers among us; and to all of us who have mothers – and I think that’s pretty much everybody – don’t neglect to remember your mother with gratitude in memory if she is dead and, if she is alive, let her know you love her. I am not saying that honoring one’s mother is always an easy thing to do, given that fallen human nature infects every relationship, but “Honor your father and mother” is one of those forms God has given us to live within.
I suppose one reason Mother’s Day is widely loved is because motherhood is so natural. In a just published book Mom Genes, Abigail Tucker amusingly describes the role of various hormones, male and female, zipping around in the body of a newly pregnant woman. Then there is the social side of motherhood: from the ecstasy of sex to the labor and pain of childbirth, to the joy of discovering “It’s a boy,” or “It’s a girl.” (OK, my wife and I did it the old-fashioned way, but it’s a joy whenever it happens – unless you happen to be Henry VIII, in which case only “it’s a boy” works – Peggy and I have been watching Wolf Hall.) So when a mother offers her breast to her newborn infant, it is the first act of opening her heart: “Welcome to the world! Come to me and I will give you refreshment.” That sounds something like Jesus’ “comfortable word” of love – “Come to me and I will refresh you” – which He learned at His mother’s breast.
So with this in mind, I want to propose this: Jesus loves the church His bride and mother and so should you. To paraphrase our sermon theme: “If you love me, love my Church.”
Let’s continue to think about Jesus and His earthly mother, the Virgin Mary. One strange thing about Jesus of Nazareth is that from childhood on, He displayed a rather formal relationship with His mother Mary, some might even say cool and aloof. In His first sign, the marriage at Cana, His mother urges Him to help out with the wine shortage, and He replies: “Woman, what is that to me? My time has not come” (John 2:4). Later, when His mother and brothers seek an audience with Him, He turns them down saying, “‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He says, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’” (Mat 12:48-49). In another incident, a woman called out to Jesus (in the rather blunt words of the KJV: “‘Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked.’ But he said, ‘Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it’” (Luke 11:27-28). These responses, one might say, are a strange way to honor one’s mother, not to mention that she’s the Virgin Mary! I doubt that Jesus ever sent a bouquet of roses and a Hallmark card to Mary on Mother’s Day!
Jesus explained His attitude early on when as a 12-year-old He said to his parents, “I must be about my Father’s business.” But He did open His heart of love for her at the end, when her heart was breaking, in one of His last words from the Cross:
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:26-27)
In the midst of His agony, Jesus entrusts His mother to the Beloved Disciple John, the author of the Gospel. In John’s Gospel, one constantly finds levels of meaning below the surface of the text. In this case, Jesus continues to speak to her as “Woman.” She is not only Mary of Nazareth but the new Eve, the mother of a new family, the church. Likewise, John is not just Jesus’ best friend, he is the Apostle and Evangelist extraordinaire, and his home is not a private residence but the dwelling-place of a new community of the Spirit, the Church, the family of those born “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13).
Let me try to summarize this simple, but not so simple, Word from the Cross. Jesus loved His mother Mary. Jesus loved His own people, those who would receive Him and be born again through faith in Him. He not only loved them one by one, lamb by lamb, fish by fish, but He loved them as a Body, the Body of Christ, the one holy catholic and apostolic church.
There is a biblical basis for speaking of the church as our Mother, and it goes hand in hand with another image: the Church as the Bride of Christ. Our Psalm today portrays a royal betrothal, which is addressed to the Messiah, the Son of God:
Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness; you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions. (Psalm 45:7)
The Psalm then turns to the royal Bride, the Queen-to-be:
Hear, O daughter, and consider, and incline your ear: forget your people and your father’s house, and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your lord, bow to him. (vv. 10-11)
The young queen is portrayed not only a lover and spouse but also as a royal mother of generations and nations to come. It continues:
In place of your fathers shall be your sons; you will make them princes in all the earth. I will cause your name to be remembered in all generations; therefore nations will praise you forever and ever. (vv. 14-15)
In the most striking passage about marriage in the New Testament, St. Paul picks up on this Old Testament imagery, reflecting on the deep meaning of the first couple in the Garden. He says:
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery [Paul says], and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Eph 5:31-32).
The context of this saying is Paul’s call for mutual submission of husband and wife, in which the wife submits to her husband as the Church submits to Christ, and the husband loves his wife, as Christ loved the Church. Some people today object to Paul’s call to the wife to submit to her husband, but what they miss is that in the deepest sense, Paul is saying that we are all Christ’s beloved bride, and He is the great Lover who has loved the church and given himself up for her so that he might sanctify her. In another place Paul speaks of the church as a city, “the Jerusalem above, which is our mother.”
So let’s return now to Jesus’ statement: “If you love me, keep my commandments.” I am suggesting that Jesus is taking love in its most basic and powerful sense – the love of husband and wife and the love of mother and child – to characterize the way we are to keep His commandment. These are “household” loves because they are experienced and practiced first in the family and later in the Church. The New Testament refers frequently to the church as “the household of God,” and Paul urges love among Christians in this way: “as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10).
Paul calls this virtue philadelphia – “love of the brethren” – which of course included sistern. It was a preferential option of love among Christians. I mentioned last week Linus, from the comic strip, crying out “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand.” Love that is as broad as Linus’s tends also to be as shallow, like a flash flood quickly soaked up in the desert.
Twice at the Last Supper, Jesus commanded brotherly love when said: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12; 13:34). In the dramatic Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus shows exactly what that love looks like. The scene is Judgment Day, given over to the Son of Man, that is, Jesus’ Return in glory. The judge divides the sheep and goats according to what they had done for him or not done for him, when he was hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, and in prison. Both groups, the sheep and the goats, are amazed, saying, “When did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked, lonely, and in prison? To the sheep, the King answers, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” And likewise to the goats, he says: “As you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
We miss the meaning of this commandment if we imagine this brotherly love as a kind of back-slapping camaraderie of the well-off in life. This gets the matter exactly wrong – next week I’ll come back to the subject when I talk about “who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ focus in this parable is on the family of God under persecution. I think a more specific application today would be to think of the persecuted church throughout the world. The recent ACNA Prayer Book, I am pleased to say, has now included in its Prayers of the People a specific petition “for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are persecuted for their faith.”
Jesus’ love of the church is radical because He sees the church constantly reproducing and extending its love to others. He calls the Church the salt of the earth and the light of the world, so that outsiders “may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16). That can happen only as we “do good to everyone,” especially the poor and needy, the widows and orphans, the prisoners and refugees. Paul is not saying we “do good” to fellow Christians first and then throw any scraps to the pagan dogs. What he is saying is that we cannot effectively show forth Christ’s love if we are disunited and biting at each other’s ankles.
For this reason the love of the church must include the passion for peace among us. In the reading from Romans chapter 14 today, we see Paul giving guidance on an issue that divided his first converts: whether to buy and eat meat from the marketplace that may have been part of a pagan sacrifice. Paul describes two views on this matter: that of the strong and the weak. He himself holds the strong view, which is that “nothing is unclean in itsel,f” but he also recognizes the reality of the weak conscience that “it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” So what is the church to do? Paul’s reply to the strong is: Don’t eat, because it puts a stumbling-block in front of the weak. The higher principle of pursuing peace and mutual upbuilding trumps freedom of conscience, even if you are right.
This brings me to a specific application of this teaching this Mother’s Day. I am appealing to you at Redeemer Anglican Church to love this church – just as Jesus loved the Church, his Bride and Mother. This past week we received word from the Diocese of Pittsburgh and from St. Stephen’s Church that they have accepted our petition to become an independent congregation of the Diocese. Let us thank God and be grateful for those who have brought us to this point, including of course our own founding pastor Seth Zimmerman.
At the same time, let’s recognize the burden this puts on us all to come together to realize this vision. As a body we prayed for discernment and we trusted our leadership to seek God’s will for this Church. Now is the time for us to working together for the goal of becoming an outpost of the church here in North Boroughs.
I know there are some who feel like this decision is a kind of burden, more work for fewer hands. This is probably true. But with what spirit do we approach this, like the elder brother with grumbling about our share or like the younger son overjoyed the excitement of a new life?
Let me now speak about the “Anglican” part of our name – Redeemer Anglican. I know that many of you were not raised as Anglicans and may not even consider yourselves Anglicans now. That’s OK. Anglicans are not some walled-off sect but merely Christians who honor a certain tradition. I would like to encourage you to take this moment to deepen your knowledge and grow your love for this tradition.
Brothers and sisters, today is Mother’s Day. Let’s take the opportunity not only of renewing our gratitude and love for our earthly mothers but of responding to Jesus, who says in effect, “If you love me, love my church.”
Prayer by Archbishop William Laud (1573-1645)
Most gracious Father,
we pray to you for your holy Church.
Fill it with all truth;
in all truth with all peace.
Where it is corrupt, purge it.
Where it is in error, direct it.
Where anything is amiss, reform it.
Where it is right, strengthen and defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, heal it and reunite it in your love;
for the sake of your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ.
THE GREAT COMMANDMENT AND THE GREAT QUESTION – “Who Is My Neighbor?”
Sermon Preached at Redeemer Anglican Church
May 16th, 2021 – SUNDAY AFTER ASCENSION DAY
LESSONS: Psalm 15:1-5; Romans 13:8-14; Luke 10:25-37
In this series I have surveyed the Ten Commandments, noting that they can be divided into two “tablets,” one focusing on piety and one on probity: fear of God and uprightness in human relationships. Both tablets are rather formal and framed in negative terms: shunning godlessness and shunning immorality. I noted that while Jesus rightly observed these two divisions of the Commandments, He defined it in terms of love: loving God and loving one’s neighbor, and in the Sermon on the Mount we see that this kind of love far exceeds the standard “conduit” interpretation by the Jewish authorities, because it delves into the motivations of the heart. Love, Jesus teaches, goes beyond outward performance to surprising acts like turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemies.
Last week, I suggested that Jesus directed this love in particular to the “household of faith,” to “these my brethren,” to the Church. Jesus loves the Church, I said, so shouldn’t we?
But that is not the end of the matter, for Jesus also commands his disciples to love a wider circle of “neighbors.” He puts it this way: “If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matt 5:47).
Our Gospel lesson today tells the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). It begins with a series of questions about the Commandments of the Law. A lawyer approaches Jesus and asks: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Do any of you remember learning the difference between an “information question” and a “quiz question”? In the case of the information question, someone actually wants to know something they do not know; in the case of the quiz question, the person already knows the answer and is testing you whether you know it too. This lawyer is asking a quiz question. Jesus sees through this man, so He turns the question back on him: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” To paraphrase Jesus: “You already know the answer. You tell me.”
The man answers in words quite close to Jesus’ own teaching: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus replies: “You have answered correctly…” Give that man an A-plus on his exam paper and a gold star on his forehead! But – and now Jesus turns the quiz question into an action item: “Do this, and you will live.” It isn’t what you know, but what you do that counts as love, Jesus is saying.
The man attempts to switch the subject back from doing to knowing, from hands to head. “But who is my neighbor?” he asks. Maybe he gets a glimpse that there is something to learn from the Teacher, or maybe he is just talking his way out of what has become an uncomfortable situation.
Jesus answers the lawyer’s question, not directly but parabolically, with the story of the Good Samaritan. You probably know the basics of the story: a man was waylaid by thieves along the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, which is a very desolate area. (I can attest to that! Some years ago Peggy and I were driving a rental car down the Jericho road from Jerusalem. She had eaten some bad food the night before and was suffering from all that that entails. Let me assure you, there are no rest stops on that road even today. So we were praying all the way!) Anyway, two religious figures, a priest and a Levite, pass by on the other side, and a Samaritan, whose people “have no dealings” with Jews, stops for the man, binds up his wounds, and takes him to an inn, promising to come back later and cover all his expenses.
What I want to observe is the way Jesus frames the question at the end: “Which of these three,” Jesus asks, “which of these, do you think, became a neighbor – “which of these neighbored the man who fell among the robbers?” (verse 36). Do you see how Jesus inverted the question? Jesus looks at “Who is my neighbor?” not as a quiz question or an information question, but as an action item! You become the neighbor, Jesus says, when you show mercy like the Samaritan. So “go and do likewise.”
When I moved to Uganda twenty years ago, I found that Africans had a rather formal way of creating agenda for meetings, in contrast with the rather loosey-goosey way we conducted business at Trinity Seminary. Sometimes, these agenda were a bit fussy, but I did come to appreciate the idea that “action items” were attached at the end of every meeting. Don’t just talk. Do something!
Love, I think Jesus is saying, is not primarily a piece of head-knowledge or a warm fuzzy feeling, but something you do. Maybe we can put it this way: love emerges out of an unexpected encounter which may cut across the agenda you had in mind. No doubt the priest and Levite passed by for fear of being contaminated by the wounded man; but they also probably had a busy schedule in mind, like getting to the temple on time, and they suspected that helping this man out would complicate their schedules and get them in trouble with their colleagues in Jerusalem.
Perhaps at this point, I should simply end the sermon, dismiss you, and say “Go and do likewise.” Find the first person you meet and “neighbor” him or her. But I won’t do this: that’s when preaching becomes meddling, you know.
In fact, it is not so easy to obey the commandment to love your neighbor. There is an “art” to it. I want to recommend a little book called The Art of Neighboring – and a website linked to it. It has a lot of practical ideas on how to take steps toward being a better neighbor. With the help of this book, I want to suggest several guidelines to the art of neighboring.
The first guideline is to say that neighboring involves a kind of proactive seeing. One way you can prepare yourself for the occasion of neighboring is by thinking of occasions when you yourself would like help or fellowship. This, by the way, is what Jesus means by “loving your neighbor as yourself” and His citing of the “golden rule”: “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12). If your car breaks down on a lonely road with no cell phone service, how you would wish for someone to stop and help!
Here is one little example of proactive seeing. The more I flew around the world on long-haul flights, the lighter I packed my carry-on luggage. I’d check my main bags in Pittsburgh and hope to see them 24 hours later on the carousel in Uganda. But I found that many older, vertically challenged, people would come onboard bringing huge carry-on bags into the cabin. So rather than buckling myself in as soon as I got my aisle seat, I would watch the other passengers stopping near my row and would try to pop up and help them hoist their bags into the overhead compartment.
Then there is a second guideline: be ready to hear God’s prompting. In a recent sermon, Todd Murdon told of jogging past a woman who was smoking a cigarette, when he heard the Spirit say, “Tell her to stop smoking.” He had passed her by but then turned around in some trepidation and jogged back to her and said, “I think I’m supposed to tell you to stop smoking.” To his surprise, the woman did not ream him out, but said: “I have been trying to stop smoking for months, and this is the first cigarette I have had. Thanks for reminding me!”
The third guideline has to do with making time. To be available to your neighbor, you have to have time, to build it into your pattern of living. One other thing we learned in Africa is that Africans put relationships over time. This can be pretty frustrating when people come in late or stay late. But on the whole, we Westerners err in the other direction, with our packed schedules and our idea that listening to someone ramble on is a waste of time.
I think the freeing up of time is inherent in the commandment to “keep holy the Sabbath day.” Many years ago, I became acquainted with an Israeli scholar, who visited us at our home in Sewickley. When Saturday came, he would not go anywhere in a vehicle, so we took a long walk up to the Sewickley cemetery and then sat out on our porch and talked. It was a wonderful time. The following summer, I was in Jerusalem and he invited me to his home for Shabbat, the Sabbath. Around five on Friday afternoon, the buses stop running in Jerusalem and the streets become empty. Families start coming out of their homes, walking and pushing prams and greeting each other with “Shabbat shalom!” – “Happy Sabbath!” The men go to synagogue while the women prepare the Sabbath supper. Sundays used to be something like this in the US and is still a little bit that way. Keeping a Sunday sabbath could be an opportunity to take time to meet and greet your neighbors.
One final guideline has to do with motivation, if I can frame it this way: care, share, and prayer. Jesus addresses the “cares” of our hearts. We tend to be anxious about reaching out to others; Jesus says “Don’t be anxious. Trust your heavenly Father. Step out in faith.” And caring is reciprocal. We don’t just care for our neighbors, we share with them. Sometimes we are not the Good Samaritan, we are the hurting man on the roadside, and they are the ones who come to our aid. Neighborliness is ultimately the building of a give-and-take relationship that expands out to others even beyond the neighbor. Finally, there is prayer, because ultimately love comes from God and is returned to Him. I have found in visiting strangers in hospital and at other stressful times, very few people object to your asking: “May I pray for you?” Also, when you pray: “Lord, direct my steps this day,” it’s surprising how often you encounter a potential neighbor.
So while there is no absolute method of loving one’s neighbors, we can prepare our hearts, make time in our schedules, and purify our motivations through caring, sharing and praying so that we can begin to be better at the art of neighboring.
Now let me conclude with a specific application to our church and society at this moment. I’m sure that you have by now heard that the Center for Disease Control has revised its advice to say the vaccinated people may associate indoors and outdoors without wearing masks and things seem to be opening up rapidly. I’d like to make a few comments about this, especially in light of Jesus’ teaching.
First, let’s be thankful to God for His resources in creation and to all who have worked to produce and distribute the current vaccines. This is not a political statement, nor personal advice. It is a simple fact that due to the vaccines, infections and deaths are going down in our country, and we should be grateful for that.
Secondly, I think we are going to see a transition to a “new normal” emerge in a month or two having to do with how we relate to others at work and play and worship. The new normal may not be exactly the same as the old normal: like the pandemic itself, there is much we cannot see at this point.
This brings me to a third point for the church. Let’s be patient and tolerant with each other as this transition happens. Last week, I mentioned the way St. Paul addressed the matter of the “strong” and the “weak” consciences in the church when it came to eating food sacrificed to idols. Paul urged the strong not to force the weak to violate their conscience in this matter. I’ll add this corollary, the weak should not use their conscience as an excuse to avoid learning. The overriding principle, Paul says, is that “each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up” (Rom 15:2).
In the present, there may be difference of opinion as to what is the strong opinion on vaccines and what is weak. The majority view now – and I share this – that people should get vaccinated, that vaccines are effective and will restore confidence in relating to others. However, I recognize there are those who have reservations – and from all sides of the political spectrum. Also, I think the speed with which the transition happens is not clear. It seems to me we at Redeemer have the great advantage of meeting outside this summer, and we have established a pattern of worship which we do not need to change abruptly. So my advice is that we take our time, and when we make changes, the Executive Team/Vestry can advise us after polling the congregation.
The Great Question asked by the lawyer is: Who is my neighbor? In our age of telecommunications and global awareness, I could imagine another question: “How near – and how far – is my neighbor?” We’ll come that question next week when we talk about the Great Commission.
Let us pray:
Day by day, day by day, O dear Lord, three things I pray: to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly, day by day.
THE GREAT COMMANDMENT AND THE GREAT COMMISSION
Sermon Preached at Redeemer Anglican Church
May 23rd 2021 – PENTECOST SUNDAY
LESSONS: Acts 2:1-11; Matthew 28:18-20
The last two weeks I have preached on Jesus’ second great commandment – “love your neighbor as yourself” – in terms of His loving the church, “these my brethren” as he calls them, and His redirecting love for the neighbor toward “the other,” the stranger, a love that emerges out of a surprise encounter which may cut across one’s personal acquaintances and agenda. It has made me rethink those two little words “as yourself.”
What does it mean to love someone “as yourself”? Some people take those two words in a narcissistic sense – remember Narcissus, the beautiful youth who fell in love with his own image. To be sure, it is difficult for a person with too high – or too low – a self-image to love others. In any case, Jesus is not saying “fall in love with yourself” in this sense.
In the past, I have understood this “as yourself” to suggest a normal, “healthy” self-image. Of course you love yourself. That’s what people do. So, I have thought, Jesus is directing us to have the same self-regard for others that we have for ourselves. It’s a two-fer! But I am being challenged in this view by this saying in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says:
For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matt 5:46-47)
So here is my new interpretation of “as yourself.” It refers to your family, your tribe, your social class, your peers in age or education. In the ancient world, people did not think so much about individual identity as social identity. This is even true today. Some people’s identity today is dependent on how many “likes” they get on Facebook or Twitter, which college they attended – Harvard or Grove City – which political party they voted for, which borough they reside in – Brighton Heights or Ben Avon Heights.
Here is where the Good Samaritan comes in. The Lawyer asks Jesus a conventional question: how wide is my neighborhood? and Jesus comes back with a parable about a man, a religious outsider, who has compassion on another outsider, a bloody pulp of a victimized traveler. This is how you neighbor, Jesus says. Go and do likewise. How wide is my neighborhood? As wide as God’s world.
This brings us to the Day of Pentecost, which we celebrate today. The Day of Pentecost fulfils the prophecy in the Old Testament that God would pour out His Spirit on all flesh. The Day of Pentecost also fulfils the Risen Jesus’ Great Commandment – it’s also called the Great Commission – to His Church:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matt 28:18-20)
The Day of Pentecost reveals the all–encompassing extent of Jesus’ commandment and the all-sufficient enablement to fulfil it that comes through the Holy Spirit. I am going to concentrate on the first of these elements – the extent of the Spirit’s work – this week, and the second – the Spirit’s enabling us to love – next week.
The Day of Pentecost is rightly called the birthday of the Church. Jesus had promised His disciples that He would not leave them orphaned after He ascended to the Father. His final prayer before Calvary was for the church, and His first act on Easter night was constituting the church by “breathing on the disciples” and saying: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:22-23). But who are the “any” they are to reach out to, and how many any are the “any”?
The extent of the Great Commission is the extent of Jesus’ authority, which is a matter of “heaven and earth.” But having commissioned them, He also told them not to rush out handing out tracts, but to “wait for the promise of the Father,” when “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:4-5).
Ten days later, that promise was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on a crowd from
every nation under heaven from Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians (Acts 2:5-11).
And the day of Pentecost was just the beginning. The Book of Acts goes on to show how this same Spirit fell later on the Samaritans – yes, the despised Samaritans – and then finally on the pagan Gentiles throughout the Mediterranean world, and even as far as sub-Saharan Africa, with the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch.
Pentecost reveals the all-encompassing extent of Jesus’ vision for the church. This church was not to be a holy huddle but an amazingly diverse community of disciples. And the vehicle by which the church was extended was no power of nature nor scheme of man but a Person, the Person of the Holy Spirit. See the red stole I am wearing today. Traditionally, red was used exclusively to recognize the Spirit. My stole, you will note, has one Dove descending on seven flames of fire.
Here is the difference between Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, and the Holy Spirit. As truly Man, with a body, a glorified body to be sure, Jesus could be only in one place, even after the Resurrection. Seated at the right hand of the Father, He dwells in one location until He returns in glory. But the Spirit of God is by His very nature, is divisible like the tongues of fire. And just as the Spirit of God swept across the whole creation at the beginning, so now the Spirit can penetrate ever nook and cranny of the world.
And because the Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and the Son, it is very much the case that Jesus comes to dwell in our hearts in Word and Sacrament while remaining at the right hand of the Father in heaven. For this reason, as He said to his disciples: “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). It may sound strange to us, but Jesus actually promises that for this reason, “whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12).
The all-encompassing extent of Jesus Commandment is worldwide, but it is also local, “beginning in Jerusalem.” The neighbors we are called to serve are near and far, and any church obeying this commission needs to have a local and a global vision. Today I am going to ask Stewart Wicker to speak about the worldwide work of SAMS – Society of Anglican Missionaries and Senders. In a couple weeks we shall be hearing from Greg Miller and Herb Bailey about the local ministry of Church Army and what it might mean in the North Boroughs.
Twenty-some years ago Peggy and I were caught up by the Spirit – much to our amazement, in the Great Commission overseas. We are now back home retired, but I must confess I am not a little amazed how we ended up here in Bellevue. But while I have a lesser role to play here, I no way belittle the work God is calling me – is calling us – to do here at Redeemer. Jesus’ love and His commandment and His Spirit are the same yesterday, today, and forever, and on every continent, among every race or tribe, or degree of wealth or status.
Next week I want to return to the source of the love of God which comes us through the Spirit. That source is God the Father. But for us this day, the Day of Pentecost, let us rejoice that the Spirit has come down and is here abiding with us, and let us as church let it show in how we live our lives.
Before I turn it over to Stewart, I thought I’d share a little jazzy chorus I learned fifty years ago. It’s so old I can’t even find it with Google, but here goes.
|When the Day of Pentecost came ‘round,
The disciples were just sittin’ down
When they heard a mighty rushin’ sound
It was the Holy Spirit comin’ down.
Well, it’s the Spirit that makes us one,
It’s through the Spirit God’s work is done.
You’ve got to feel that Spirit deep inside
To let it show in how we live our lives.
LOVING IN THE TRIUNE GOD
Sermon Preached at Redeemer Anglican Church
May 30th 2021 – TRINITY SUNDAY
LESSONS: Psalm 33:12-21; 1 John 5:1-12; John 15:1-12
This is the sixth and final sermon of a series “Loving God, Keeping His Commandments.”
“If you love me, keep my commandments.” John 14:15
The last two weeks I have preached on Jesus’ second great commandment – “love your neighbor as yourself.” These sermons made me rethink those two little words: to love your neighbor as yourself. I don’t think Jesus means “as yourself” in the sense of the “self-care” of contemporary pop culture, nor in the sense of “self-esteem” which is part of normal ego formation. Rather, “as yourself” refers to a person’s world of human relationships, which usually begins with family and then extends to loyalties to village, clan and cult. By cult, here I mean a particular “denomination” or religious tradition like those of the Jews and Samaritans, or Catholics and Protestants.
Loving your neighbor as yourself as Jesus teaches requires us to love the church, not for its buildings or its worship style or even its warm sense of belonging, but because it is the Body of Christ, in which we are all members, “brethren for whom Christ died.” Loving your neighbor also requires us to think of the church not just as it is today but as it might become when the Spirit expands it to reach every tribe and language and people and nation. Through His Spirit Jesus is redirecting love for the neighbor toward “the other,” the stranger, the persecuted, the unconverted throughout the world. At this point the Great Commandment has become the Great Commission. We heard from Stewart Wicker last week of the worldwide extent of the Spirit’s work by one Anglican mission agency, the Society of Anglican Missionaries and Senders.
Today in the Church Year is Trinity Sunday. While most Christians pay lip service to the doctrine of the Trinity, many privately think of the doctrine the way the writer Dorothy Sayers put it: “God the Father Incomprehensible, God the Son Incomprehensible, the Whole Thing Incomprehensible.” Sometimes clergy illustrate the doctrine with a diagram like a wheel with a hub – God – and three spokes – Father, Son and Spirit – a kind of divine space station or fidget spinner. That doesn’t help. Some Evangelical churches tend to focus on Jesus only; some Pentecostal churches on the Spirit only; liberal churches used to preach the Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man, until those terms became politically incorrect. This won’t do either.
I’ll come back to the Trinity, but let me turn to another question: why did Jesus say so much about loving the neighbor and so little about loving God? As I think about all His parables, the only example of loving God I come up with is the Pharisee and the Publican, the unclean tax collector. The Pharisee thanks God he is not like other men, especially the unclean ones; the Publican “standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (Luke 18:13). It seems to me there is a noticeable disproportion in Jesus’ public teaching between the two great commandments. I wonder why? So let me take a stab at answering this question.
First, Jesus was a Jew speaking to Jews. If the Jewish people had learned anything from their desert wandering under Moses and their Exile in Babylon, it was that the Lord God meant business when He said, “You shall worship me alone.” Jews were and are militantly monotheistic. Jews therefore could commend Jesus for teaching “love the Lord your God” as the First Great Commandment. But what they overlooked was that such a monotheistic attitude could breed spiritual pride and blindness to others. The Pharisee could talk the talk about loving God, but he could not see the Publican as his neighbor. The Publican alone knew his need for God’s mercy. Jesus’ brother James defined loving God in the same way when he said: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). Love for others comes first, then spiritual purity.
Secondly, Jesus led by example. No one who followed Him could doubt that here was a man totally committed to God and God to Him: in His unique knowledge of the Scriptures; in His commanding demons to depart; in His retreat to the mountain to pray, and in His words and cries from the Cross. To love God is to imitate Jesus. The disciples followed His example, preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, empowered at Pentecost by the Holy Spirit.
Thirdly, Jesus called God Father. I cannot emphasize enough how foreign this language of God as Father was to Judaism. None of the Old Testament figures – not Moses or David or the Prophets – addressed God as Father as Jesus did. The same absence is largely true of pagan religions and is specifically condemned in Islam. But Jesus, when He prayed, began simply “Abba, Father.” He taught His disciples to pray likewise to “Our Father” in the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus was teaching His disciples to pray the way He prayed, not that they understood the significance of this language at first.
Now I return to the Holy Trinity. I titled this sermon “Loving in the Triune God,” because we love God by participating in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). At the Last Supper, Jesus begins to explain what we theologians the Trinitarian relations. There is the relation of the Father and the Son. Jesus says: “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works” (John 14:10). And there is the relation of the Spirit (sometimes called the Paraclete or Advocate), to the Father and the Son. Jesus continues: “When the Paraclete comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me” (John 15:26).
The relations within the Triune God do not end there. They include us, the believers, the sheep of Jesus’ flock who hear His voice and follow. Jesus speaks of the coming Day when He has departed and then “you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (John 14:20). The bringer of this knowledge, this assurance, is the Spirit: “You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:17).
Theologians speak of these relations as ontological, that is, they express who God is, and who we are as a new creation in Him. The New Testament makes crystal clear that we have a new identity, a new nature, we are “in Christ” through repentance and faith. As St. Paul says: “I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:19-20).
These relations are also moral; they are relations of love, which fulfill the commandments, and they flow naturally, as it were, from our new identity. St. John uses two striking analogies to make clear the connection between being and doing. The first analogy is familial, being born of God. In our Epistle reading today John says:
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith. (1 John 5:1-4)
John connects faith and love. Being born again or born from above, we have a new spiritual DNA, and this DNA is recognizable by our response to God in faith and love. By faith we overcome the power of the world, the flesh, and the devil. By our love we are enabled to fulfill the commandments by loving God and loving “the children of God” – and as I have been interpreting Jesus, these children include both our brothers and sisters in the Church and also those “neighbors” whom God is bringing in through her mission to the last, the least and the lost – and for that matter the lapsed.
The second analogy of our new life is organic, having to do with trees and fruit. In our Gospel today, Jesus likens our life to that of a fruit-bearing tree.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:1-5)
The key word in this analogy is “abide.” What a comforting word this is! We are not out there digging our own stony field. Jesus tells us we are already grafted into the vine, “made clean” by His love. To be sure, we may be tempted and sin, and He will prune us back, but He will never simply break off and toss a true vine away. Jesus goes on then to describe our grafting into God’s nature and bearing fruit as fulfilling the commandments.
By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. (verses 8-10)
From the time of the 16th century Reformation down to the present, there has been an argument about whether our relationship with God – our justification – is a matter of faith alone or a package deal with God to do our part. In this image of the vine, Jesus makes clear that our moral life, our works, flow naturally from our incorporation into God. That does not mean we simply lie back, floating as it were on a raft in God’s swimming pool, sipping a margarita. But it does speak of our trusting God to work through us by His Spirit to fulfill His holy love.
Let me now sum up this sermon series on “loving God, keeping His commandments.” I suggested that the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai construct a channel for God’s love to flow through. This channel sets the external boundaries of morality but not the inner flow of love. Jesus makes clear that there are two main sources of this flow: the love of God and the love of one’s neighbor. Jesus’ unique teaching about the second of these commandments – “Who is my neighbor?” begins with and then overflows the common Jewish interpretation by suggesting that potentially every one of his “brethren” made in the image of God is a neighbor for whom Christ died. The reality of this vision of neighbor love breaks into history on the Day of Pentecost in the Person and power of the Holy Spirit. From this day on, the Great Commandment to love the neighbor is also the Great Commission to take the Gospel to the nations. And finally, on Trinity Sunday, we come to understand that the First Commandment to love God with all our hearts is not something we strain to do but is a revelation of the love within the Godhead Himself, the love of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, a love which is born into and planted in our hearts and shown forth in our lives: “You’ve got to feel that Spirit deep inside to let it show in how we live our lives.”
Finally, keeping Jesus’ commandments is a matter of joy. “These things I have spoken to you,” He says, “that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (verses 11-12). When all is said and done, keeping God’s commandments is enjoyable. For this reason, as Paul says and we sing: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say Rejoice.”
Brothers and sisters at Redeemer, on this Trinity Sunday let us rejoice and praise God for His inestimable grace and love! Loving and keeping His commandments is not burdensome. If we come to Him, He will give us “abiding” peace and rest. This is why in the Anglican liturgy, echoing Scripture, ends with this Trinitarian blessing:
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you, and remain with you always. Amen