October 29, 2017
Like so many of the older churches in Toronto, we’re sitting here in pews that could seat many more. St Aidan’s was built when hundreds of Anglican families came to church in the Beach, so they needed a large space to worship in. But then times changed, and the numbers dwindled dramatically. One of the reasons there was a huge shift away from churchgoing in the 1960s and 70s in Canada was because there was also a questioning of rules and norms in society. And people saw churches as organizations where you were told how to live and what to do or not do. They were those places with the Ten Commandments often written in plain sight on the walls: a list mainly of Thou shalt nots.
By contrast, the 60s and 70s were about freedom, liberation, following your own path, dropping out, questioning authority, challenging rules. I remember as a student at university in the 70s hearing someone at a Christian club meeting I attended say, “It’s very simple: if it’s loving, do it.” We were discussing sexual ethics. “If it’s loving, do it” sounded very shocking and radical to me.
But that’s pretty much what Jesus was saying, when he was asked by the lawyer from the Pharisee group within Judaism about which law was the greatest. “Love,” was Jesus’ answer. “Love God, love your neighbour, love yourself. Everything else flows from there.” Shocking stuff, to people used to following laws and rules rather than trusting themselves and each other to interpret the one law of love.
I think that’s why Jesus is still popular with people who wouldn’t describe themselves a religious: it’s because he’s seen not so much as a rule giver and authoritarian religious leader, but as a wise teacher, a person of love. Jesus is cool. He’s more like a hippie than a minister. (Ouch!)
Of course there’s more to it than that. Being loving doesn’t mean being permissive and easygoing about everything. It doesn’t mean following your personal whims and attractions. It actually means living inside God’s love, and being transformed by that love. In St John’s first epistle he says, “God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.” (1 John 4:16) St Paul writes about living not his own life anymore, but living in Christ.
Let me read you that section of today’s gospel as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message version of the Bible:
Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important [command], the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.” (Matthew 22: 37-40)
We are to love passionately, prayerfully and intelligently – with our hearts, souls and minds. And that kind of love doesn’t just ooze along, going with the flow; it’s hard work and transformative. The more we allow God’s love to shape us, the more our love will expand and deepen.
Let’s go back to the first reading from Leviticus (19:1,2,15-18). It’s part of a whole section of laws ascribed to Moses, from God. They are part of those 600+ commandments in the Hebrew scriptures that govern the people’s lives at work, at home, in community and at worship – everything from what to make your clothes out of, to what you can eat and can’t eat, to when you should stone someone to death.
But they were only for the Israelites. In the passage today it says, “Don’t hate your kin… don’t bear a grudge or take vengeance against any of your own people. Love your neighbour.”
And Jesus expands on that in an earlier part of Matthew’s gospel (5:43), where he says, “You’ve heard that it was said, Love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies.” It’s a much more challenging ideal. How do you love the person who’s hurt you, or caused suffering to others? It’s easy to love people close to you, people like you, people you choose to share your life with. But we’re expected to love our enemies?
Moses said, “Be holy.” And that involved keeping all the rules within your own community that would guarantee you purity. Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (5:48) Yikes!
I can do a pretty good job of looking holy. (The robes and priestly role help.) But perfection? Perfect loving of enemy as well as friend? I know I can’t do that. And that’s the point: we can’t do it. It’s impossible for us. It’s only as we move into a deeper relationship with God, and let God’s Spirit flow through us and change us, that we can really learn to love well. It has to start with God’s grace, and with us opening our hearts to God’s grace.
You don’t have to be good to be a Christian. You don’t have to be holy or perfect or morally pure. You just have to be open to God’s grace. Jesus said you have to become like little children. (Matthew 18:3)
Next week there’ll be a baptism here, and as we welcome a child into the family of Jesus it’s a perfect reminder to us of how we’re to be: open, trusting, allowing a greater power than our own, a greater wisdom, a greater love, to hold us and bless us.
It’s so easy to complicate faith and make it a matter of believing the right things, doing the right things, not doing the wrong things, etc. But the heart of it is very simple: love, love, and more love. All the hundreds of commands boiled down into one. The Beatles got it right: “All you need is love.” God’s love working in you. Amen.