Pentecost 24A, 26th October, 2008
Stripped Back to the Essentials
There’s a real punch in the challenges Jesus throws at us today. What is most important to you in your faith? What do you think of the Messiah? Is religion getting in the way of your relationship with God in Jesus Christ?
This question has particular poignancy for us this year, as church and religious practices have become something quite different. No church gatherings now since the end of March – that’s nearly seven months. No corporate – being together – worship, except for it being on screens in front of us. None of the usual fellowship after church, no gatherings in people’s homes; no popping in to visit people. No visiting the church building for private prayer, or for anything. Right now, you even need a specially issued work permit to mow the lawns.
If your faith has depended on, or been anchored to, any of those usual ways of expressing your commitment to Christ, or dependent on being busy for church, what has happened to your faith over these months?
Today’s gospel reading penetrates sharply into this question. What’s at the core of your faith? The context of our faith lives right now is primarily exile, a whole new environment of being stripped back to the essentials of living one’s faith and being church, rather than doing church.
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” For the Pharisees, keeping all the commandments, all the rules – all 613 precepts and commands in the Torah, was paramount to being a good religious person. All of these were considered equally binding as Law, with any ranking of them being “mere human presumption in the evaluation of the divine law”. (1)
What the Pharisees were up to, was to try to trap Jesus into misrepresenting the faith of the Fathers, to get him to say something that could be used against him. They hadn’t succeeded with their trick question about allegiance to Caesar versus allegiance to God, as we heard last week; neither had the Sadducees caught him out with their question about marriage in the resurrection.
So how might Jesus respond? Will he disparage some part of the Law, or raise one part as superior to another?
Jesus, of course, is clever –and quite orthodox - in his answer, quoting from the Hebrew Scriptures: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”. Well, he passes the test: to love God and one’s neighbor is the fulfillment of every Law, in fact, gives meaning and direction to the whole of the Torah.
This is not new in Jesus’ teaching – throughout Matthew’s Gospel we hear Jesus persistently echoing the Hebrew Scriptures: “God requires mercy, not sacrifice.” Matthew’s Jesus is confronting false religion. He’s confronting all those who go through the right religious ritual and motions, who say the right words, but whose hearts and primary commitments are elsewhere. His message is clear: your religion, whatever the religious observances and practices and duties that you think makes you connected and acceptable to God, is worth nothing without love; without mercy, without care, without right actions and deeds, and justice for the other.
Love of God, love for God is incomplete and empty if it is merely a personal, internalised faith or a Sunday focused faith. Our faith isn’t real unless God’s love is extended through us to the world around us. But ………a big but……if this love, this care for others, becomes another tick off the checklist of right behaviors and practices, like attending church, and being moral and upright citizens, then we still haven’t got it. We still haven’t entered into the life and the love that Jesus offers us.
Jesus’ challenge to the people around him, to the Pharisees, religious leaders, to his disciples and the crowds; the challenge to Matthew’s community living as Jewish Christians in hostile times; and the challenge to us, goes deep into the heart of religion. If keeping the Commandments is part of the anchoring into God; if the rituals and rites and functions of church are part of what you love; if an internal feeling of God-connectedness is part of your core of faith; we still have the question in front of us: Who is Jesus Christ to you? This is not to say that those other things – church ritual, true goodness of behaviour, personal connectedness - aren’t important. But they are not the core.
Critical to those gathering around Jesus in his time, his question included: Are you able to recognize, in me, the embodiment of this law of love, the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures, now present amongst you?
So, for us. Jesus: is or was he just a good man, a teacher who has given the world the example of the best values, the best way to live? Or is he the Son of God, part of that mysterious Trinity of God, sent to live as one of us, God’s love clothed in flesh, the living, walking, talking Great Commandment. This Jesus who continues to abide with us in his Spirit, as part of our own individual, personal, lives and in the Church, Christ’s body on earth? Do we really and truly grasp what is faith in the God in, and through and as Jesus Christ?
We are now living in a time when possibly the most central point of attachment to church…the thing that most means “church” or “religion” to us…… has been taken away from us. The faith challenge for us in these days: On what is our faith rooted and grounded?
Going further……….Has your relationship with church, your busy-ness for the Church, your role in the parish, taken the place of God? Have any of these got in the way of the intimacy in which you could otherwise grow in with God?
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
I pray that all of us in this time of exile from Church, will grasp the freedom of knowing that this faith, this religion, isn’t about following a great teacher and role model, isn’t about complying with a list of rules or commandments, isn’t about allegiances and work, or church and rituals being done in a particular sort of way or about habit and tradition and duty. This freedom, discovered in the midst of being stripped to essentials, is about saying “yes” to God-in-Christ in a whole-hearted surrender, and discovering or re-discovering love; whole hearted, whole-of-self love of God, and love of others.
For our further reflection: whenever it is that we come back together as the body of Christ at St Nicholas, what will living this faith and being church look like?
(1) NIB Commentary