The Most Important Command (From The Message by Eugene Peterson)
When the Pharisees heard how he had bested the Sadducees, they gathered their forces for an assault. One of their religion scholars spoke for them, posing a question they hoped would show him up: “Teacher, which command in God’s Law is the most important?” Jesus said, “‘Love God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, 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.”
Today’s Message: Being Faithful
What’s it all about? What’s Christianity all about? What does it mean to be a person of faith? These are the questions that I would like to address today as we explore the very core, the very essence, of what it means to be faithful.
Now, to begin, I think you all know that within the wider Church there’s exists this assumption that being a Christian entails accepting a certain set of beliefs without question. And while that may sound harmless, living an unexamined faith has led to many of the darkest moments in our church’s history. Think about the Crusades, or the Spanish Inquisition, or the Salem Witch Trials, not to mention the rise of fundamentalism in our time. All of these stains on the faith, I would argue, have come from a long, slow advocation of rational thought in favor of a mindless, zelotious type of religious expression. In other words, when people stop thinking and asking and discerning; when the people of faith forget Jesus’ description of the core value of what it means to be a Christian, when we forget to love God, as Peterson so eloquently states it in today version of this text; with all of our “passion and prayer and intelligence” and to love others “as well as we love ourselves” …that’s when things begin to go off the rails.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Marcus Borg shared the following story. A small town businessman from a remote community in the mountains of North Carolina went to one of the larger cities, and there, for the first time in his life, he saw an ice-making machine. Now, machines that could make artificial ice were a recent invention; he thought this was wonderful because it meant you could have ice all summer long. So he returned to his small community in the mountains of North Carolina told his Baptist church about this great new invention. Within a month, however, the church had split into ice and no-ice Baptists. The theological issue in this case being is it a violation of the natural order established by God to make ice out of season. If God had wanted us to have ice in the summertime, God would have raised the freezing temperature of water seems to have been the argument.[i]
Now, the point of this example is that Christians, and maybe even Protestant Christians in particular, have been very concerned about believing the right things: infant baptism versus adult baptism, who can take communion and who cannot, the place of woman or LGBTQ folks within the Church, and so forth and so on. So… like I said before, we sometimes we make being a person of faith very complicated, as if it’s about getting our doctrines right and then excluding anyone who disagrees or hold a differing set of values.
Being faithful, however, is actually very simple, even breathtakingly simple. Again, borrowing from the theology of Borg, I would like to offer you three statements to explain what I mean.
First of all, being faithful is about loving God and loving what God loves. So, what does it mean to “love what God loves.” John 3:16, one of the most beloved of all the Scriptures, says, “For God so loved the world….” God loves the world, not just me, not just you and me, not just Christians, not even just human beings, but the whole of creation. And, of course, this is also the central point of the Genesis story of creation. After each day in that six-day creation story, we are told “God saw that it was good,” and at the very end, “God saw that it was very good.” Now, of course, God doesn’t love the world simply as it is. God has, to use a phrase from Robert Frost, “a lover’s quarrel with the world.” God loves this world and wills that it be a better and more just place for all people and all of creation.
The second statement. Being faithful is about becoming the kind of person who can love God and love what God loves. We all stand in need of transformation. The process of growing up does not predispose us to that deep love of God and that deep love of what God loves. The growing up process teaches us to be concerned about ourselves. This happens to all of us. It’s cultural. It’s human nature.
But faith offers something entirely different. Faith is a counterbalance to that innate tendency. What faith offers each of us is a way or a path that puts the other before self. But this transformation doesn’t just happen. It involves practice. The process of becoming more and more deeply centered in God, and centered in God as known decisively in Jesus, this requires an attention to our connection with God. In some ways our connection with God is like a human relationship. How does a human relationship deepen and grow? It deepens and grows by paying attention to it, by spending time in it, by being present to it. And so it is with our connection with God and this process of becoming more and more deeply centered in the Sacred. A centering that happens through both our personal and traditional practices of faith. Worship is the most important collective practice in the process and prayer the most widely used individual practice. In other words, prayer and worship are vehicles through which we deepen our connection with the Sacred.
Okay. The third statement. Being faithful is about being part of a community of transformation. It’s about living within the tradition and within a faith community as a means to an end. (that end being transformation) And this idea dovetails on what I’ve been saying thus far. Those of us who live in western culture grew up in a society that holds values and norms that are very, very different from the central theme of the Bible; the theme of loving God and neighbor. Society tells us to look out for number one. Society tells us we’re privileged and that we deserve more no matter the cost to anyone else or anything else. This was our first socialization and our primary formation. Or at the very least, if you grew up in the church, it was a parallel formation. But here’s the counterbalance to this way of thinking. Participating in a faith community, and I mean really participating in church, is about becoming involved in a process of re-socialization, or re-formation, so that our sense of ourselves, our identity, is shaped by our involvement in the community. Transformative community is key to overcoming the self-centeredness that we see all around us and leads us to begin living into the kind of faith that Jesus inspires.[ii]
Now, let me conclude today with one more way of thinking about these “two great relationships”[iii] of loving God and neighbor. Being faithful is about having a passion for justice. It seems to me, that when we take a deep, long look at what Jesus said and what he did, over and over again in the gospels, we discover his passion for justice. I heard Cornel West say once, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”[iv] Justice is what love looks like in public. You know, justice is what love looks like because justice is the action part of love. Justice is love with “skin on.” Justice is the working part of seeking a just world for all. Having a passion for justice means moving beyond experiencing God’s love only as sentimentality, by moving into the realm of demonstrating God’s love for humanity and creation though action. My friends, we demonstrate God’s love when we give to organizations and missions that reach out to the most vulnerable; we share in Christ’s passion for justice when we use our voice and our vote to lift the downtrodden and the oppressed and those on the margins of society to a place of dignity, security, and prosperity; and we indwell the very Spirit of God when we come to view the world thru the lens of the other before self. A passion for justice means coming to the realization that we’re all, all of creation and all of humanity, black, brown, and white, …that we’re finally, all, interconnected at the very core of our being. The Spark of the Divine is in and within everything and everyone. There is no person who is less in the eyes of God and there is not a single creature, not even a mosquito, who is invaluable to the circle of life. We finally ALL count!
My friends, my prayer for all of us this week, and especially as the pandemic rages on and as this election draws near …my prayer is that our understanding of love, that our “passion and prayer and intelligence” will be lived out, both individually and in community, passionately pursuing, a just world for all.
May it be so for you and for me.
Amen and Amen.
[ii] Ibid Borg
[iii] Marcus Borg The Heart of Christianity (New York: Harper Collins Publishing) 2004