How Should We Love? (Not Preached)

Bible Text: Matthew 22:37-40, Philippians 2:1-11 | Preacher: Rev.M. | Series: Getting to Know You | * – This sermon was prepared but never preached due to illness. Its transcript is provided here as a way to offer complete intentions and thoughts for this sermon series.

Good morning again! This morning we will be concluding our current sermon series titled “Getting to Know You”. Again, through this series we have been utilizing some of the scripture passages that you all submitted a few weeks back before I started here with you. Now these passages have been ones that are either personal favorites, or they may be ones that you found challenging in some way, and you shared that you wanted to hear another voice or perspective on them.

Last Sunday we talked about how God loves, mostly about how God loves us. We used the words in the Gospel of John chapter three, verses sixteen and seventeen. We talked about how God loved humanity enough not to give up on us, and in fact loved us enough to send us a savior, despite our falls and failings. We also used the words from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians chapter thirteen, verses four through the first part of verse eight. We talked about that love that is patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not arrogant, not rude, not irritable, not resentful, rejoicing in the truth, bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things, and never ending or failing.

Now today’s message is titled “How Should We Love?” and we will be focusing on the words from our two readings this morning, from the Gospel of Matthew and from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, a New Testament letter attributed to the Apostle, and assumed to have been written while he was in prison, probably in Rome around 62 AD, and addressed to the Christian congregation that he had established in Macedonia.

The well-known and celebrated pacifist Mohandas Gandhi is reported to have once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” He made this observation during his struggle for justice for a people in the face of the occupation of his native India. Now some people really do not care for these words. There are Christians who like to use this to denounce Gandhi’s view on pacifism and how he acted and led his life. Which is really unfortunate because more often than not, his observation has been pretty accurate.

We can go throughout every time in the history of Christianity and find countless examples of Christians doing things that not very Christ like and even completely the opposite of what Jesus taught. Christians have used the Bible to justify slavery. And just for a historical note – the Methodists were on the wrong side of that argument, we supported slavery at one point. Christians have used the Bible to justify taking land away from native people and oppressing them. Christians have used the Bible to justify the mistreatment of people across centuries.

Leo Buscaglia, also known as “Dr. Love,” was an American author, motivational speaker, and professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Southern California. He was once quoted as saying, “The purpose of life is to help others, and if you can’t help them, won’t you at least not hurt them? I know that is a platitude, that that is sentimental and can easily be attacked. But loving, caring is simple, and we make it complex. Our own neuroses make it complex.”

Now I am not trying to lay a guilt trip on all of you this morning. I am simply speaking the truths of our history and some of what Gandhi was witness to in making his observation. And what is really unfortunate about all of this is that Jesus gave us countless lessons on how we should treat others, how we should love others. And not just Jesus, but also many of his disciples. We can go into almost any letter of Paul’s and find his echoing of Jesus’ teachings about how we should live our lives through love for God and others.

Let’s go back to our first reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In the NRSV translation of the Bible this section is often led with the heading, “Imitating Christ’s Humility.” Now it has been suggested that Philippians is the most affectionate of all of Paul’s letters, an expression of deep friendship. It has also been suggested by many scholars that the letter is written in part to remind the Philippians of their unity in Jesus Christ.

Now at the time of this letter Paul was enduring imprisonment and facing execution. But even in spite of that he is sustained by this kenotic participation. It is a love that burns with the desire for others to flourish. It is a love whose joy can be made complete only when all are included. Paul burns with a joy and a love that he desperately wants the Philippians to share and experience. He wants his joy made complete for their sake, not his.

Paul seems to be trying to remind the Philippians of the reality in which they live as believers. Paul calls them to do the things that Christ did. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” The author is trying to remind the people that as Christians we are called to be imitators of Christ, especially in the ways that Christ loved.

Now something I personally found rather interesting that I think gets often overlooked when it comes to our second reading from Matthew’s Gospel is that the two commandments that Jesus gives as the greatest commandments were not unknown to the people. In fact, it is believed that Jewish interpreters had long recognized the preeminent value of each of these laws. And yes, I just said laws. Did you realize that the two greatest commandments that Jesus lifts up are actually part of the original laws of the Jewish people and their covenant with God?

Let’s start with “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” That, actually, is found in the book of Deuteronomy chapter six verse six, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Jesus when quoting it replaces might with mind, but both might and mind refer to a wholehearted devotion to God with every aspect of a person’s being.

And what about the second commandment? “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Surely that is was just Jesus being counter cultural and pushing people outside their comfort zones, right? Well…not really. In the book of Leviticus, the book of the Bible with all the rules and laws that tend to cause a lot of debate throughout all of Christianity, if you go to the nineteenth chapter and read verse eighteen you will find the following words, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And this wasn’t just Jesus adding this one in for fun or something. By saying “and the second is like it” probably means that this commandment is of equal importance as the first. What was really unique in this teaching is that it seems that Jesus was apparently the first to fuse these two together, and also exalt them above the whole law. Jesus raises them above all else because all other laws or commandments flow from these two. Jesus essentially claims that the entire Old Testament hangs on them.

So, in other words, all the other commandments and laws are summed up and/or are contained in these two. And while Matthew omits the rather positive exchange that Jesus has with the lawyer following his answer, that was really about keeping with Matthew’s unrelenting focus on the hostility against Jesus. But in truth, the Pharisees who would have heard Jesus’ answer would scarcely have been able to object to his answer as it was in line with law, even if Jesus elsewhere defines neighbor love much more radically than what might have been customary in Judaism at the time.

So how about that? Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, used Jewish teachings to teach people about God, God’s relationship with humanity, and humanity’s relationship with one another. It is realities like these that I think help speak to the importance of both the Old and New Testaments. I do not think as Christians we can just ignore the Old Testament. I do caution against taking anything in Scripture out of context, as that tends to lead to harming and oppressing others as I mentioned earlier. But given that this is Jesus focusing on these two pieces, I think we can be confident in their importance and his conclusions on them.

And did you notice something in those two commandments? There were no qualifiers as to whom we love or when we love. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” It doesn’t say to love the Lord you God when God blesses you the way you want, or answers your prayers the way that you want, or when you happen to remember to love God. Just love God with everything that you are.

Or what about “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”? There is nothing about love your neighbor, except for the ones who don’t look like you, think like you, or live like you do. Or again, nothing about loving our neighbor only when they love us first, or if they love us back, or anything else. Just love your neighbor. So why is that so hard sometimes? Why do we struggle with this so much?

Well I think one thing could be how we are told to love our neighbor – as ourselves, or as we love ourselves. Which raises the question then, if we are doing a really poor job of loving our neighbors, are we then also doing a poor job of loving ourselves? I’ll be honest, I really struggled with this growing up, and probably still do at some level now. When I heard the “as you love yourself” I was worried that if I loved myself too much then I would become conceited or arrogant or self-important and self-focused.

I worried that if I loved myself too much, I wouldn’t be the kind of person who loved their neighbor because I would be too focused on loving me. And I think there could be some truth in that kind of struggle for humanity. Do we not really love our neighbors because we do not really love ourselves? Not that we should all become conceited and whatnot. But rather, we need to love ourselves at least at some level. We were made in the image of God. We are told that we are loved by God. So, if we are enough for God to love, shouldn’t we be enough to love ourselves and our neighbors?

Now I know enough of psychology to know that when someone doesn’t love themselves it is rooted in things much deeper than appearances and it is not going to be as simple as telling someone, “God loves you so you should love you too,” and expect everything to be fixed or righted. If only life was that easy. But I do wonder how someone who is struggling would feel if they heard that. Could that be another way for us to love our neighbors? Could that be another way we are called or instructed to love?

So that is going to be my challenge to you for this week, and again, one that I hope you will carry forward beyond that. I want you to try and find unique and fun and creative ways to tell others that God loves them and so they should love themselves too. I want you to try your best to be those beacons of hope and love to the world through how you love in life, both God and neighbor. I was told that this church sees itself as something of a lighthouse in the community and in the world, offering help and love, and I think you do that very, very well.

But take the next step. Go a little bit deeper. Remind people that God loves them. Remind them that you love them. Remind them that they should love themselves, as well as others. You know for all the theological debate over the intention and meaning of things in the Bible, I can’t help but go back to one of the songs we sang last week. “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.” How about that? A children’s song that speaks more directly and clearly about love, the very thing that all other commandments and Scripture hang upon. Go and spread that love. Amen.