Rooted in Love: Growing in Love of God and Neighbor (and Self?)

 

We say it almost every time we gather: At Plymouth Church our purpose is to grow in love of God and neighbor.

But what does that mean? And how do we do it?

That is what the rest of the summer is about.

Beginning this weekend and continuing right through Labor Day, our preaching and my Wednesday morning Bible study will be exploring what it means to grow in love of God and neighbor.

In this post, I want to establish some background for the series.

One way to gauge the importance of a story from the Jesus tradition is to notice how many times it appears in the 4 Gospels. Jesus’ baptism by John the baptism, his miraculous feeding of a multitude, his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his crucifixion, his resurrection –all of this makes into all four gospels.

But beyond that, it is hard to find many elements of the Jesus story that merit mention in multiple Gospels. The birth of Jesus, for, example, is only recounted in two of the Gospels. The Story of the Good Samaritan is only in one.

When something occurs in 3 out of 4, it is important. And that is exactly the case with a passage we call The Greatest Commandment.

Mark 12:28-34

28One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you 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.’ 31The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

Matthew 22:35-40

35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Luke 10:25-28

25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

There is remarkable convergence between these three different accounts. All of them agree that an educated person (a “scribe” for Mark, a “lawyer” for Matthew and Luke) asked Jesus a question. (Only Matthew portrays it as contentious). For Mark and for Matthew, the question is about which commandment is the greatest; for Luke the question is about how to inherit eternal life.

The Gospel writers differ on who supplies the answer (Jesus does in Matthew and Mark but in Luke Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer who provides the right answer) and there are minor differences in the wording -but mostly remarkable agreement.

Mark: 30you 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.’ 31The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 

Matthew: ’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 

Luke: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 

Love God with all that you have got; love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus says this is what matters most.

Theology can seem like an esoteric discipline with its own obscurantist discourse. But sometimes it is surprisingly simple.  For example: Richard Niebhur was a 20th century theologian in our tradition who taught at Yale and was, for my money, the superior Niebhur brother. In a little book called The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry, Niebhur makes an argument so simple even I can follow it:

  1. Jesus said the meaning of life is growing in love of God and neighbor.
  2. The church exists to continue the mission of Jesus.
  3. The church is here to help people grow in love of God and neighbor.

Can it really be that simple? I think, just maybe, it can.

But in the coming weeks we will need to unpack some things:

-What does it mean to love God?

-What does it mean to love my neighbor?

-And Jesus mentions love of self. Is that a good thing? A bad thing? Something we do all too well or not nearly well enough?

And just because it is simple to understand does not mean it is easy to do. There will be plenty to dig into  for the rest of the summer as we explore our purpose; as we grow together in love.

See you in church!

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