Readings for 3 October: Deuteronomy 6:4–9; 1 Corinthians 1:4–8; Psalm 122; Mark 12:28–37
Friends, today’s Gospel has immediate practical relevance to our lives, because it offers us a kind of summary of how we are to live as Christians. Our Lord Jesus Christ said: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. […] And you shall love your neighbour as yourself.
First, love the Lord your God. It all begins with worship, with expressing love and thanksgiving to the God who made us, saves us and sustains us. We are made in God's image; and so that means we will find our fullest meaning, our truest selves, the more we learn to love and worship the One we're designed to reflect.
It was once said that the chief end, or purpose, or goal of humanity is ‘to glorify God and enjoy him forever’.
And this is something that involves our hearts, souls, minds, and strength – in other words, every aspect of our lives is to be poured out gladly in worship of the one true God. So there are no half measures here - whatever we do, we are to do fully and completely for God.
The second commandment – love your neighbour as yourself – means that we are to show all people the same respect, care and attention we devote to ourselves. (Surely if we all were to do this, the world's problems would be solved overnight) We see these two commandments expressed quite clearly and powerfully in our Psalm of the day, Ps. 122.
The Psalm begins, I was glad when they said to me, 'Let us go to the house of the Lord' - there's obedience to the first commandment: the love of God eagerly expressed in a longing for worship. And then towards the end of the Psalm: for my brethren (my Christian family) and my companions' sake, I will say, 'Peace be within' the house of the Lord. In other words, loving your neighbour as yourself means (in large part), to seek the good of all in the fellowship of the church.
Love God and love your neighbour as yourself. So really, this two-fold command is quite simple and straightforward; the words have a clear and obvious authority. And yet, how difficult it is to live out in our daily lives.
That’s because they demand a deep transformation and renewal of our lives in every area - a transformation of our attitudes, priorities and values, a transformation of our hopes and expectations, a transformation of the way we live our lives. They demand a practical change in how we live our lives at all times and in all places: at work and at rest; in church and in our homes; when visiting with family and friends; when conversing with strangers; when online; and so on.
The great commandment calls us to a deep and abiding conversion to the ways of God – a conversion that takes place Sunday to Sunday, year to year, day by day and even moment by moment.
This conversion, as our prayer of the day reminds us, has two sides to it: "Merciful Lord, grant your people grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, / and with pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. So as I said, our ongoing Christian conversion has two sides: a turning away from temptations, and a turning towards God; and when we’re turned towards God, our hearts and minds are made pure, and we can follow Him along the Way and in the Truth and the Life who is Jesus Christ our Lord.
So, first of all, we must turn our backs on the values and empty promises of the world; we must also restrain our sinful passions and desires, and the reject the power of the devil.
Now friends, I realize this language may seem strong and heavy, but if you’re baptized and confirmed (as most of you are), or if you’re considering or preparing for baptism, as some of you are, then you have in fact renounced (or will soon be renouncing) the world, the flesh and the devil. You have made this intentional, conscious choice. Only as we continue to withstand those three temptations will we be able to follow God with pure hearts and minds.
As Jesus says, we cannot serve two masters. And if we’re honest with ourselves, I think we’ll see and feel that these three temptations have a pretty firm grip on our hearts, our minds, as well as the members of the body, including not least our tongues. (Taming the tongue and refraining from damaging speech is a particular emphasis in the New Testament Letter of James).
When we follow the ways of the world - and look to the world around us as the standard and measure of our lives – when we do this, we’re not following God or obeying the two great commandments.
When we give into the temptations of the flesh - when we are ruled by our impulses and desires – we’re not following God.
What about the devil? Of the three, this is the hardest one for us to acknowledge, partly because of the popular, cartoonish image of the devil we have in our imaginations, and because talk of the devil seems primitive and superstitious to our modern minds. But really it’s not so strange or foreign. In the Scriptures, the words devil and Satan simply the slanderer, accuser and liar. As we learn from the story of Adam and Eve, for us to believe the lies of the devil is put ourselves in God’s place at the centre of our lives, the result being that we will either be puffed up with pride or wallowing in shame. Either way, we are not following God or obeying the two great commandments.
So friends, there are choices here, practical choices, which must be made by each and every one of us, every day, in every kind of situation. For example:
Only in so far as we are prepared to live these kinds of choices every day is the Word of God really practical for us. Only in so far as that conversion - that turning around - is the daily pattern of our lives are we able to follow God with pure, undivided hearts and minds.
OK, that’s all very well, but how can we do this? As we said earlier, it’s really, really hard. Is it even possible? Well, with us, by our own human strength, it is indeed impossible, but with God all things are possible.
Once again, today's Gospel speaks to our question. The scribe in today's story knew the law of God, and he understood the meaning of the law. You are not far from the Kingdom of God, Jesus tells him. Not far from the kingdom of God. Not far, but something is lacking, and Jesus goes on to speak of what this is.
Jesus quotes from Psalm 110, originally written by King David, who was inspired to write it by the Holy Spirit. And so for that reason, David was able to listen in on and record the conversation between God the Father and God the Son: Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.
By His death and resurrection, Jesus triumphed over the worst of what the world, the flesh and the devil threw at Him. He then ascended to the Father’s right hand in heaven; and from there, right now, He is trampling down His enemies, bringing all things into submission under His feet; and therefore, you and I must trust in Him to put down whatever spiritual enemies and temptations attack us in our lives, so that we may serve and follow Him with pure hearts and minds.
Knowing the meaning of God’s law is not enough - we must obey the law. But the doing of God's law in our lives is only possible when we truly acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ in our hearts and minds. That’s the point. Only the power of Jesus Christ working in us, only the love with which He first loved us, only this can make us love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbour as ourselves.
That’s why, in our prayer of the day, as always, we pray that God Himself, whose law it is, will give us grace, through Jesus Christ, to withstand temptation, and to follow Him, with pure, unmixed hearts and minds. Only by the grace of God, the free gift of His power, can we do it.
Finally, St. Paul, in today's first reading, gives us a glimpse of what obedience to these two great commandments looks like in practice in Christian community. Paul gives thanks for the grace of God which has empowered the Corinthian Christian congregation to live by the Word of God in Christ. Paul writes to the Corinthians, and to us:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge —even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you —so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Friends, do you think that these same words could be said of us here at St. James, Caledon East? By the grace of God, yes, it could be so.
And so, for those of you who are here, in just a few minutes, as you come forward to receive Holy Communion, do so trusting that the gracious gift of Christ’s body and blood, broken and poured out for you, will empower you to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbour as yourself. For that, thanks be to God. Amen.