Introduction: Windows of Time
One of the most prominent theologians of the past century, Karl Barth, was once asked, “In all your many, many years of intense theological study, what is the most important truth you have learned? His answer was surprising. “Jesus loves me,” he said, “this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Who can argue with that?[i]
So, in concert with the wisdom of Barth, and as we attempt to navigate a complex and often confusing world, we must admit that sometimes simpler is better. And I think the same is true as we consider the nature of our relationship with God. Countless theological books and religious essays have been written over the span of the past 2000 years. The sheer volume of information makes it inaccessible to the average person of faith. So, how do we distill this information down to its purest and most simple form?
Well, I thought about how to illustrate simplicity this week, and came up with something unanticipated; my computer. Back when home computers first became a thing, they were very difficult to operate. Who remembers the Commodore 64? Right? You had to learn a special language, basic or cobalt, and then type in the proper commands according to that prescribed language. Not user friendly. But Microsoft Windows changed all that. With Windows, now all you do is click on the “window” or “icon” corresponding to the function you want and wa-la, it’s done. Even a tech-challenged person like me can do that!
So, let’s apply this same wisdom to theology. Let’s create some windows of our own; windows, that will allow us to peer into the life and teachings of Jesus in a way that’s understandable.
The Biblical Window
First the Biblical widow. When asked directly, “What is the greatest commandment in the law,” Jesus responds with a simple and straightforward answer; “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and prophets depend on these two commands.”
The Matthew Window
Now, the next icon we are invited to click on has a picture of Matthew on it. The Matthew Window. In other words, what was going on in Matthew’s world? What was his context? What was it about his community’s mission and ministry that lead him to take these foundational words of Jesus and interpret them in a unique way? What do I mean? Well, there are a couple of details to hash-out here. Namely, what happened to “strength?” Weren’t we brought up with Jesus saying “heart, soul, strength, and mind?” Four things? Why are there only three here? Well, the fourth element to loving God is found in the other gospels. I don’t know exactly why Matthew didn’t include it, maybe he considered “strength” as a part of the “soul” or the “heart.” Perhaps that’s why the Common English Bible translates “soul” as “being” a much broader term. In any case, this demonstrates why we have four accounts of Jesus’ life from four unique perspectives.
The other contextual element to bring up before we move on is this: the text we call the Great Commandment is a small part of a greater whole. And in that “greater whole,” the majority of Matthew’s account, the religious leaders are coming to realize that when Jesus speaks in parable and defies cultural norms, he’s challenging them and their rigid way of viewing the Mosaic Law. So, as you might imagine, they weren’t too pleased with him. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds who were following Jesus because they regarded him as a prophet. But why? Why are they so threatened?
Well, the Pharisees understood the law in terms of keeping the rules. For them it was about purity and holiness above all else. But when Jesus claimed that the whole of law was about love, not rules; about really loving God and one’s neighbor, and not about “figuring out how to avoid stepping on cracks in the legal sidewalk;”[ii] that’s when their greatest fear became a reality. The religious leaders of the day saw their whole system being challenged and they didn’t like it.
And this is where we see the connection to Matthew’ world. you see, The Great Commandment for Matthew was about challenging his primarily Jewish/Christian audience to open themselves to loving the gentile converts within their community. He was asking them to put aside centuries of bigoty and hate, and accept a new way of loving one’s neighbor. My friends, in Matthew’s community this was astounding. These very few but powerful words of Jesus represented a call to enact a tremendous change in their worldview. Was it easy, seamless; did it happen overnight? Probably not. I would guess that this change took time, persistence, and courage on the part of the reformer (Matthew) and the leadership of the community. But, and this is important, it did become a reality. Love became the bedrock of the faith for Matthew’s community.
The Reformation Window
And that bedrock stood for many years. Yes, the ebb and tide of culture, struggles for power within and beyond the Church, and the Great Schism (the separation of the Eastern Orthodox Church from the Roman Catholic Church in 1054) reduced love’s importance. A number of times in history love got put on the back burner. But I would argue that love somehow overcame these human shortcomings and continued to find its way back into the foundation of Christianity. That is until the middle ages. At some point in time, I can’t tell you exactly when, the Church became more concerned about the institution, and the power and land and wealth that belonged to the institution, than about loving God and neighbor. That’s as simple as I can state it.
Now, at this point in history we are invited to peer into another window by clicking the icon of an Augustinian Monk named Martin Luther. Called by God to be an instrument of change, he looked at the injustice and the hypocrisy being perpetrated by the Church in the name of Jesus and he was appalled. So, 500 years ago this week, October 31, 1517, Martin Luther penned what would become known as the “95 thesis;” 95 complaints, 95 ways the Church was not being the Church, and he nailed these complaints to the door of the Wittenberg Chapel. And lest you think this didn’t take courage, Luther’s life was immediately in danger because he dared challenge the establishment.
The Emerging Window
Do you see a pattern forming here? Jesus challenged the status quo as did Matthew, as did Luther, as did so many more people across the arc of Christianity. As a matter of fact, “Every five hundred years, give or take a decade or two,” [the Church] “…goes through a time of enormous upheaval, a time in which essentially every part of it is reconfigured.”[iii] Church historian and author Phyllis Tickle penned these words in response to a cultural shift that is currently underway. And she, along with folks like Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and Brian McLaren, just to name a few, fall in line with the great reformers. They’re challenging us to once again look at the institution of the Church and ask if love is at its core.
And this is our final icon. The icon marked “Emerging Christianity.” Now, Emerging Christianity asks some tough questions and challenges us in our responses. It asks things like, what if we were to put aside all the theological minutia, the political coopting of religion, the false narrative of fear; a narrative that predicts the demise of Christianity at the hands of other religions, namely Islam? What if, instead of wasting time on these distractions, we were to focus on the love of Christ for all people and for all creation? What if we, amid our current reformation, were to take this opportunity to create a Church that’s even more welcoming, more inclusive, more focused on issues of justice and peace and equality and sustainability? Might our reformation, this emerging way of being church, as we fall into line with the great reformers of our past who understood change as reclaiming the love of God and neighbor; might this reformation, finally, simply, be about that? Loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves? Might it be that simple?
I would like to leave you today with these words from the wonderful author and theologian Henri Nouwen. “Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing,” Nouwen said. “The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.”[iv] We have been chosen, my friends, in this scared space, at this point in time, to participate in a great change, another great reformation. A reformation that calls us to take own limited and very conditional love, and make it the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God. It’s as simple as that. May it be so. Amen.
[ii] A turn of phrase credited to Thomas Long
[iii] Phyllis Tickle. Emergence Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012) pg. 17
[iv] Kathryn Matthews. God’s Story, Our Stories. (www.ucc.org/gods_story_our_stories)