October 29 2017 Sermon
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.”
41Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42“What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 44‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? 45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
When I went to pick my daughter up from preschool a few weeks ago, I met a friend of one of the preschool teachers. As I struck up conversation with Serena’s teachers and the new friend, much of our conversation focused on the recent string of violence that was evidenced in Las Vegas and at Burnette Chapel Church of Christ. There had been an active shooter drill at her preschool that morning so our conversation turned to the ways in which communities of faith were taking measures to assuage the fears of congregants. I mentioned how I once served a church that had paid security on the premises as a response to a direct threat over several weeks.
Then the new friend indicated that the Jewish temple where she worshipped in Nashville had paid security on the premises and this was not a new thing. As we conversed, we acknowledged that most violence in this area against communities of faith has been toward Jewish clergy, the Islamic Center on 12 South, and the Murfreesboro Mosque. Years ago, a molotov cocktail was thrown at a home in Nashville, intended for a Jewish rabbi, but the bomber misidentified the intended target. Finding out that the new friend worshipped at the temple, I asked if she knew several leading rabbis in the area I had done interfaith work with. I asked her if she knew Dr Amy Jill Levine, Professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity School.
Of course she knew Dr Levine, affectionately known from here on as AJ. We discussed one of AJs upcoming books and a series of community lectures she was conducting at a nearby church. Overhearing the conversation, Serena’s teacher remarked as many folks do, how does an Orthodox Jewish woman teach New Testament? Quite well!
One of the advantages of a faithful Jew teaching New Testament is the embodiment of the Torah’s commandments in daily life. AJ made a point to clarify for her students that being faithful to the 613 commandments spelled out in the Torah is as achievable as following the US tax code as you prepare an annual return. And the commandments are intended to assist God’s covenant people, the ones brought out of slavery, to prosper in a new land.
“These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, 2 so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. 3 Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you.”
That was a helpful clarification to hear because I think as Christians, we’re under the perception that the Mosaic law is so burdensome that it cannot be fulfilled. Paul’s theological writing to churches in the 1st century Mediterranean reinforces this perception in Romans by insisting that grace has replaced the Law and it is only by grace that we are made righteous. Paul’s writing and Jesus’ edgy exchanges with the Pharisees have served as fertile ground for very unhelpful and even destructive relationships between contemporary Jewish communities and the global church.
If you haven’t searched the scriptures to familiarize yourself with the 613 commandments contained mostly in Exodus and Deuteronomy, make a quick Google search out of it. It’ll serve you well with a point of reference for today’s scripture lesson from Matthew’s gospel and for further understanding of your Jewish neighbors. The Mosaic commandments are not burdensome, rather they set the benchmark for what is proper love of God, neighbor, self, and right relationships within the community. The scope of the commandments include everything from proper worship of God, to marriage guidelines, to the treatment of animals working in the field, to debt relief, to the treatment of immigrants. There really is no part of life that falls outside the scope of the ancient commandments.
Among Jesus’ contemporaries and competing schools of religious thought, there was quite a concern about whether or not the 613 commandments could be summarized adequately. Perhaps it was possible to rank the commandments in a graduating type scale or to identify some of the commandments as absolutes, essentials, recommended, and non-essentials. The question that opens our reading this morning is evidence of this intra-Jewish concern about the primacy of the Torah’s commandments.
The lectionary reading keeps tracking with the last week of Jesus’ life in Jerusalem. He’s processed into the city, turned over tables in the temple, offered up three sharp parables calling into question the standing of the Pharisees, and carefully avoided traps intended to undermine his authority and ministry. Last week, Jesus answered a question about what loyalty is owed to the empire and what loyalty is due to God.
Before arriving at today’s exchange, there is an additional question about resurrection and marriage in eternal life. Who would you be married to in the afterlife if you followed the instruction of the law regarding levirite marriage (a childless widow marries her brother in law)? A woman is married to 7 brothers one after the other after each husband dies. Who is she married to on the afterlife at the resurrection of the dead? Fascinating, but I’m sure most of you aren’t particularly concerned about this scenario. But it was a tricky posed by a Sadducee, who didn’t believe in a general resurrection of the dead. He was posing a question about something he didn’t believe to be true to trap Jesus.
Then the Pharisees take their chance to test Jesus again, and possibly position him uncomfortably against their own prevailing religious tradition. Teacher, which of the commandments is the greatest? Jesus recalls the Shema, of Deuteronomy 6, the basic affirmation of the oneness of God and the command to love God with all of one’s being. Then Jesus indicates that there is another side of the same coin-love your neighbor, like yourself. This is not a new commandment-it’s included in Leviticus 19. The Pharisees have posed a question about the ancient faith of Moses and Jesus has answered standing squarely in that tradition. If you had to sum up all of the Law and the prophets of Israel, you can do it with the fullness of this commandment.
Jesus often gets a reputation for side stepping the tradition, breaking rules, overreaching boundaries, you get the point. This time, he has stood toe to toe with a professional theologian and one upped the theologian’s understanding of faith. The fullness of faith is a both/and kind of answer-love of God and neighbor are inextricably linked. If you attempt to separate them, you end up with an atrophied practice of faith.
One of the great missteps of the church that has persisted down through the ages and is as hot as ever is the debate around orthodoxy. What is right belief? What is the accepted and prevailing understanding of God at work in the world? Is your understanding and practice of faith in Jesus Christ acceptable by the church’s standards? Can you be a Christian without believing the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed? Can you be a United Methodist and believe that same sex marriage and the ordination of gay clergy is sacred in the eyes of God?
Jesus the Christ, just days away from the culmination of his ministry, says the fullness of faith is love of God, neighbor, and self. Why is is that more waypoints in the history of our church mark divisions over orthodoxy, right belief than orthopraxis, the right practice of loving God and neighbor?
Let’s go back in time almost a thousand years to the year 1054. This is the year of what is known as “The Great Schism,” the great divide or division between western Christianity and eastern Christianity that produced the Roman Catholic Church and eastern orthodoxy. The bishop of Rome excommunicated the bishop of Constantinople and the whole eastern church, and the bishop of Constantinople excommunicated the pope and the whole western church. The issue that led to this was a theological question concerning internal relationships within the godhead. More specifically, does the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father and the Son–that was the position of the western church–or from the Father only–that was the position of the eastern church. And when you think about this, you almost want to say, “How on earth could you ever know about internal relations within the godhead?”
Another example. For this one, we go to the 1600’s and the reformed church in the Netherlands. In the early part of that century, the Dutch Reform Church almost split over the issue of supralapsarianism versus infralapsarianism. The issue in this case was did God decide to send a messiah before the fall–because God knew the fall would happen–or did God decide to send a messiah only after the fall because only then was the messiah necessary. Supralapsarians argued that God knew the fall would happen so the decision to send a messiah had already been made before the fall. Infralapsarians argued the opposite. Again, getting our beliefs right mattered and one wants to say, “How could you know that?”
Another one. This one for a couple of centuries, at least, dividing Methodists and Lutherans. Is perfection possible in this life? Methodists said yes. Lutherans–and I grew up Lutheran–said no, we are always sinful and yet justified. The Latin phrase is simul justus et peccator. (http://day1.org/2544-whats_christianity_all_about)
One of my ordination questions addresses that last one head on. Do you believe you will be made perfect in love of God and neighbor by God’s grace in this life? The answer to this question is ‘yes,’ at least if you’re getting ordained as a United Methodist pastor.
I’m not sure that anyone disenfranchised, disappointed, or hurt by the church (or lifelong followers of Christ) really cares about the internal relations of the Godhead, the order in which God determined to pour love into the world, or the finer points of denominational theology. Interest about these things may come later or not at all. However, these mole hills have turned into mountains that define the pubic witness of the church, in a less than favorable light.
The line between orthodoxy and orthopraxis is not very thick. The way in which you understand the work and love of God surely shapes the way in which that love is manifested in your life. I hope years from now when the internal strife of our denomination and many others transforms, we will be able to say that we loved God and neighbor fully. It would be tragic for our leadership to carve up the Methodist global church based on claims to orthodoxy, rather than orthopraxis. I don’t think too many folks undecided in faith will care if we decide how to believe correctly if it means we continue to treat others as less than a full and complete image of God. And this treatment of our neighbors is both a systemic and personal matter of faith. But if our witness to love God and neighbor fully and inclusively depends on a break in the church, may it be so. It wouldn’t be the first time that faithfulness to all the Law and the Prophets required a schism to expose rebellion against God.
In 1844, the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church ordered that Bishop James Andrew desist in the exercise of holding slaves for as long as he held the office of bishop. Those in the church angered by such treatment of a bishop made plans to part ways with those who believed that holding another human being in slavery had no place in God’s reign. One group obviously had a finer understanding of what is required in fully loving God and neighbor. May those who follow us in faith say in examining our public witness that we had a full understanding and manifestation of loving God and neighbor. May it be so.
Bless you in the name of the Almighty, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.