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Sunday Worship 9 October | The Law of Love

Updated: Mar 3

The Law of Love (taken from the Children of God Storyteller Bible)
Sometimes it seems like there are so many rules. It is often hard to know which ones are most important. In Jesus' time, people argued about which rule was most important to God. One of the elders, bent over with age and wisdom, heard Jesus teaching his followers. The elder thought to himself, Wow! This guy really knows what he is talking about. The elder leaned on his cane and scratched his white hair. 'You seem very wise. Tell me, what is the most important rule of all?' 'There are two,' Jesus replied. 'The first is to love God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is to love everyone as much as you love yourself.' The elder nodded. 'You are right,' he said. 'The greatest gift we can offer God is to love him and love his children.'

We have just heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s retelling of what is often known as the double love commandment, found in Matthew 22 and Mark 12 and Luke 10.  Here is the passage from Mark in a more literal translation: ‘One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”’


This tiny snippet is central to Christian teaching. It is the message of Jesus in a nutshell or recited while standing on one leg. But that does not mean it is unique to Christianity. The declaration that the Lord is one together with the command to love God is the Shema, the basic affirmation of Jewish belief found in Deuteronomy 6. The call to love both the neighbour and the foreigner is found in Leviticus 19, and forms the basis of the Mosaic laws. And the combination of the two is found in Jewish writing from before the time of Jesus, with a line in the Testament of Issachar saying "I love the Lord and every man with whole heart". More than that, the command to love both divinity and humanity is arguably found in some form in every major faith tradition. The double love commandment is then not so much about being a good Christian as it is about being a good human, because that is where the life of faith is meant to lead us to whatever path we take. When understood properly, loving God and loving one another does not set us apart from or above anyone else, but rather connects us in mutual care and respect.


There are differing opinions as to whether Jesus speaks of two commandments or two parts of a single commandment, and what relation they bear to one another.  Some read “love neighbour” as the second greatest commandment, so that “love God” takes precedence, while others read it as the “second of the greatest commandments”, so that the two are taken together. My view is that if the law and prophets hang on both, then functionally they must be equivalent, and so to my mind they are of equal importance and inextricably entwined. Loving God leads us to loving neighbour and loving neighbour leads us to loving God. Putting space between them is dangerous because if we say we love God more than our neighbour then we can use God as an excuse to hurt our neighbour. It is all too easy to dress discrimination up in spiritual language, to say that we our faith does not allow us to embrace this person or that group, but I do not believe that is ever the heart of God.


I think that for all practical purposes, what we have is one commandment in two parts, but different loves have different expressions even when they do not have different values, and so we will think about them separately while still holding them together. We will start with what it means to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength”. Deuteronomy doesn’t have mind, and Matthew doesn’t have strength, but I don’t want to read too much into that. The point surely is that we are to love God with all that we are. The life of faith is a spiritual and emotional and intellectual and physical endeavour. Perhaps that sounds overwhelming, but in truth it is so much easier to do something with our whole selves. Thinking one thing and doing another, feeling something but refusing to believe it - it’s utterly exhausting because it is not how we are meant to live. We are meant to be whole people, not hiding or denying parts of ourselves.


That doesn’t mean however that we will all love with heart and soul and mind and strength equally, because we are all wired differently. Some people lead with their emotions while others are more rational or more practical, and that is going to shape their relationship with God as much as it is going to shape their relationship with anyone else. You may have come across the concept of love languages, which is the idea that we express and experience love in different ways, and the better we understand our own preferred love languages and the preferred love languages of those around us, the better we can communicate and receive love. The five love languages identified by author Gary Chapman are acts of service, gift giving, physical touch, quality time, and words of affirmation - perhaps you have a sense straightaway of which is most meaningful to you. The rhetoric around love languages was developed initially with romantic relationships in mind, but has since been reimagined for familial and work relationships, and I wonder if it might also have some value when it comes to thinking about our relationship with God. The love languages may not be exactly the same when one partner is the ground of all being, but it may at least be helpful for us to recognise that loving God has more than one expression.


I listened to a fascinating interview recently, with an author called Erin Burnett. She is a Christian who is on the autistic spectrum, and she speaks of herself as “religious not spiritual”, in a twist on the usual “spiritual not religious” which people like to put in answer to survey questions. She says that she doesn’t experience any kind of emotional connection with God, but rather relates to God by striving to live a life defined by love. She quotes 1 John 4, which says that “whoever lives in love loves in God and God lives in them”, and suggests that whenever we act in love or live out the abundant life of John 10:10 we experience God. It was really reassuring for me as someone who grew up in a more charismatic tradition and still carries a lot of the expectations that came with that, but only rarely has profound spiritual or emotional experiences and is drawn much more to working out my faith in thoughtful and practical ways. I’m still processing what Erin’s insights mean for me, but I can say that none of us need to love God in the way others do, all of us simply need to love God in the way that we do.


Erin also quoted the late Bishop John Shelby Spong, who said that God is not a noun that demands to be defined but an invitation to live and to love and to be. Loving God is not purely or even primarily about feeling a certain way, but about accepting that invitation, committing to a way of living and loving and being, to living and loving and being in the way of Christ.


The second of the greatest commandments, or the second part of the greatest commandment, is to “love your neighbour as yourself”. I want to work backwards through this one, because if we are going to love our neighbours right, then we need to love ourselves right too. I think this part often gets glossed over, as if we all know how to love ourselves and so we will then know how to love other people, but the truth is that a lot of us really struggle with self love. We think too little of ourselves or demand too much of ourselves. We forget that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. That’s not good for us and it’s not good for others either, as we risk treating them with the same contempt with which we treat ourselves, or else further diminishing ourselves as we flatter them. I’ve talked before about humility as a right way of seeing ourselves, being honest about both our flaws and our gifts, and I think we need to bring that kind of humility to self love, both for the sake of ourselves and so we can better love our neighbour.


On that word neighbour, it is the most common and literal translation, but you may have spotted that in the Children of God Storybook Bible, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has “love everyone as yourself”. In choosing everyone over neighbour he is drawing on other passages of scripture, which give a fuller understanding of just who it is this commandment calls us to love. I already mentioned that Leviticus 19 speaks of loving both the neighbour and the foreigner, that paralleling of near and far suggesting that it really does encompass everyone. The parable of the Good Samaritan leads us to conclude that anyone can be our neighbour, even those who might surprise us. And Jesus speaks explicitly of loving our enemies, the juxtaposition with neighbours again suggesting a comprehensiveness to the command to love. If we take the whole biblical picture together, then I think it is clear that our neighbour is anyone and everyone, and therefore that we are called to love everyone as ourselves.


Nice and simple then. If only. Loving well can be hard even when you feel affection for the other person, so it can feel near impossible when you have nothing in common or actively dislike them. But if loving God isn’t purely or primarily about feeling a particular way, then neither is loving everyone else. We don’t have to like someone in order to love them, we just have to commit to acting for their good. When we look at the way Jesus loved those around him, we see him healing and feeding and washing feet - this is love in practical action. And similarly if we think back to the five languages, we find acts of service and gift giving, both of which we can do even for those we find most difficult. CS Lewis once said that the trick to loving your neighbour is to act as if you did - we start with action and affection may follow. Even if it doesn’t, we are still acting in love.

I listened to another interview this week, this time with the psychology professor Richard Beck. He spoke of an umbilical cord of affection which connects us to certain others, so that we keep loving them even when that becomes difficult, giving as an example the way people will continue to support a family member struggling with addiction, even when their behaviour is destructive to themselves and those around them. He recognised however that what he calls the territory of our kindness and the bandwidth of our inclusion are often pretty narrow, so in truth there are not many we extend such compassion to. That umbilical cord of affection exists because the relationship is primary, and so in order to expand our territory and increase our bandwidth, our will to embrace has to come before anything else, which means we need to be ready to love before we know anything about the other person. If we put difference and disagreement first, we will struggle to love, but if we love first, we can deal with difference and disagreement later. I know that is still not easy, but if we put CS Lewis and Richard Beck together, we might say that we are called to approach each person ready to show them love in action, before we’ve even learned their name, and that at least gives us something practical to begin with.


Remembering that we are called to love everyone as ourselves, we must also be ready to show self love in action, and recalling that the love of neighbour is bound up in love of God, we must not forget to love the one in whom we live and move and have our being. Because in all of this we must remember that we love because God first loved us, that we were made in love and we are held in love and we will rest in love.


If you would like to think more about loving one another, we reflected on this back in January, and you can find the text of that reflection below.

Reflection Sunday 30 January 2022
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If you find loving yourself difficult, you might like to return to our reflection on being wonderfully made from last October, or the beautiful book 'When God Made You' which we heard as part of that service.

Reflection Sunday 10 October 2021
Download PDF • 78KB

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