Sermon: Loving God
Preached on 5th November 2006
by The Reverend Canon Rosalind Brown
Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34
Those of you who rose to last week's challenge to read Mark's gospel through might have noticed that in the last six chapters, when Jesus gets to Jerusalem, the whole atmosphere gets adversarial. Jesus is openly provocative, riding into Jerusalem and not restraining his followers from shouting out, throwing the money changers out of the temple and being blatantly critical of the religious powers that be. They respond in kind by trying to trap him with their questions about points of observance of the law.
But today's gospel reading is like a calm oasis in the storm, and unless we know its context of controversy we won't appreciate the significance of the gracious conduct of this exchange. A scribe, one of the religious leaders, watches the acrimonious disputes and asks Jesus, "Which commandment is first of all?" He cuts through the details of the law that the others were arguing about - paying taxes to Caesar, or the hypothetical question of who a woman who had seven husbands is married to when it comes to the resurrection of the dead - to get at the heart of things. And Jesus, who has retaliated to the other questions because they are tricks to trap him, doesn't hit back this time but gives a clear answer about what it means to love God. He is gracious and not polemical, answering with words the church now uses as a bidding to confession.
I know that I tend to hear this phrase as an injunction to love God. Full stop. But it is more specific than that. "Love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. And love your neighbour as yourself." In biblical times the heart was not thought of as the seat of the emotions, as we think of it today, but as the centre of the being, what is at the heart of things, the seat of the will. To love God with all my heart is to love God with all my will, it is to express things in action not in feelings. And so I love God with all my heart when I choose to do what I believe God is asking of me, rather than what I want to do if left to my own devices.
If we love someone we want to get to know them better, and when I was studying theology one of the lecturers used to remind us that studying theology is a way of loving God with our intellect, with our mind. And every Christian should want to learn more about God through the use of our minds. But this is not just by studying theology - if God has given you a mind that is good at engineering, or languages, or fixing washing machines, or teaching children, then you can love God with your mind as you study the way God's world works. Many inventions have occurred, many books have been written, and many daily lives have been touched for good because someone has loved God with all their mind. The corollary is that w can fail to love God with our minds because we don't exercise our brains creatively or for good.
Then, loving God with all our soul. In the Old Testament the soul carries a meaning of life, it is integral to physical existence and without a soul we are dead. And so to love God with all our soul is to love God with all our being, giving our lives to Christ. It is what is involved at baptism when the question is asked ‘Do you turn to Christ?' and the candidate answers ‘I turn to Christ'; in biblical terms we are saying we love God with all our soul.
And then there's loving God with all our strength. The saints and martyrs we celebrated last week on All Saints' Day did this, as did the people we remembered on All Souls' Day, the ones who never hit the headlines but just got on with being faithful in life and in death and made an impact on people around them. It takes strength to keep going at times, discipleship is not always glamorous or spectacular, love is proved in the day to day fidelity to little things, the keeping going and being in it for the long haul, not complaining when things get rough.
And then Jesus summarises dozens of detailed commandments in the law in the sweeping phrase "you shall love your neighbour as yourself" thereby setting out a broad principle which needs to be worked out in detailed application, using the mind and the strength which he assumes are dedicated to God. Sometimes I wonder about how the Church loves its Christian neighbours, let alone those who don't share our faith, because so often we are more concerned - like Jesus' disputants - with disagreeing on proving one another wrong on detailed points of the law than with loving God and loving our neighbour as ourself.
The scribe responds to Jesus' summary of the law with gracious words which, in the context of the nasty war of words that was going on, put him at risk of being seen as a disciple of Jesus. And Jesus sees he has answered wisely so we might expect him to add, "Hurrah, at least you and I agree." But he doesn't, instead he says, "You are not far from the kingdom of God" which is a fairly devastating thing to say of a scribe, one of the professional religious of his day. It's a bit like an unknown street evangelist saying to a Bishop, "Because you agree with me on this point, you are not far from the kingdom of God." And it stuns his audience into silence.
What did Jesus mean by saying, "You are not far from the kingdom of God"? The clue lies in the opening verses of Mark's gospel when Jesus bursts onto the scene in Galilee proclaiming the good news, "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news." The kingdom of God draws near in the person of Jesus who comes to fulfil the law and the prophets. This scribe is not far from the kingdom, he has got the right foundation in his understanding of the law and now he needs to recognise Jesus as the fulfilment of the law, he needs to say with Peter, ‘You are the Messiah'. In the way Mark structures his gospel, beginning with the proclamation of the kingdom and making Jesus' kingship the key question at his trial, this challenge to a faithful scribe just before Jesus' arrest to recognise the kingdom coming in Jesus is an important prologue to the rejection of Jesus by the rest of the religious establishment which rfuses to see the coming of the kingdom in the presence of the Messiah, Jesus.
And, tantalisingly, we are not told what the scribe's response is. Just as, tantalisingly, Mark's gospel ends not with the burial of the king but with an empty tomb: the kingdom of God is still at hand.
What of us, today? What does loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbour as ourself, mean? Jesus claims intentional discipleship that is not content with the mediocre or the barely adequate either in relation to God or to other people. Loving God demands everything of us. Last week on All Saints and All Souls Days we remembered the faithful Christians of many generations, and next week we will remember those who have given their lives in war to secure the freedom of others. It's a time of year when we are very aware that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have loved God and loved their neighbours in exemplary ways. Among them are the people through the ages who have lived a Benedictine way of life, and this cathedral echoes with hundreds of years of Benedictine history. On Saturday week we have a Benedictine day here and anyone who wants to learn more about this way to express your love God is welcome to join us. There are details in the pew leaflet, you just need to let us know you are coming so we have enough handouts and coffee. And if you can't come then, there will be a Lent course in March and a Benedictine weekend next September that is advertised on our web site.
The Benedictine way that is part of our heritage in Durham is one that many people find helpful as a framework for discipleship. The important question is how each of us will be intentional in our love for God: after all, when we know we love and are loved there is nothing we would not do for our beloved, and as another writer put it "we love, because he first loved us". We are gloriously and wildly loved by God. And we have prayed for the same faith and power of love that God kindles in the hearts of the saints. We should expect God to answer that prayer this week, so be open to love and be loved by God, and we can begin as we celebrate the Eucharist together and then go in peace to love and serve the Lord.