In the wider world of Protestant Christians – and especially for our Lutheran brothers and sisters – today, the last Sunday in October, is an important day: Reformation Sunday. It marks the day (actually October 31) that Martin Luther tacked to the Wittenbug town notice board, in preparation for his university lecture, his list of 95 points of disputation with Church teaching and practice. This one act all by itself did not create the great Reformation of the Church in Europe in the 16th century, but the public conversation and positioning that came out of this event was the catalyst that moved Reform past the point of no return. And this year is the 500th anniversary.
In our Anglican tradition the Reformation took a different shape and tenor than it did on the Continent, but all Churches born of that movement shared some basic core commitments:
- That the Bible should be accessible to all people – lay, as well as ordained – by being translated into their language.
- That the Holy Spirit can and does speak directly through the words of Scripture to any faithful Christian.
- That the Church’s worship should follow a Biblical pattern, as close to the New Testament experience as possible, at least as far as the Reformers had good knowledge of early Church practice.
- And that the Holy Spirit speaks to and through ordinary Christians for the renewal of the Church and for the good of the world – even if that means being disruptive at times.
What we know now, 500 years later, is that some of their historical, and liturgical, and Biblical scholarship was a little off; and some of the concerns that seemed vital for 16th century people are no longer topics for discussion. But the core principles remain, and the Holy Spirit continues to enliven and renew the Body of Christ through the prayer, Scripture reading, public worship, and faithful living of ordinary followers of Jesus.
This morning’s Gospel passage takes us to the very heart of Jesus’ teaching, right to the core values and practices and truth.
Jesus has been approached by a scholar of the religious Law. He was part of the Pharisee sect, and they had heard that their great rivals in early first century Judaism, the Sadducees, had tried to publicly stump Jesus and show him up, but he had turned the tables and silenced them. I think the Pharisees were then hoping to gain the upper hand in the same game by asking Jesus which commandment in the Jewish Law was the greatest.
It was meant to be a question with no right answer; faithful Jews considered that all 613 points of the Law constituted the whole religious Law, and the whole Law must be kept. But as we have seen over and over in this portion of Matthew’s Gospel that we have been reading this fall, Jesus’ wisdom and groundedness in God’s perspective enables him to move right to the heart of the matter, and not get stuck in other people’s agendas.
Jesus says that the most important commandment is to love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. He doesn’t say believe, or fear, or obey – but love God with your whole being. It’s a reflection and a response to God’s love for us, always there ahead of us, welcoming us in – ready to heal us, hold us, gives rest, purpose, meaning, direction, reproof, and forgiveness. But love is not just a feeling, a sentiment. Loving God is an active trust, centeredness, and loyalty to the Lord.
Jesus goes on to say that the second most important commandment is to love our neighbor in the same way we love ourselves. He doesn’t say tolerate your neighbor, or have warm feelings toward them, or put up with them, or separate yourself from them – I do my thing and you do yours. Loving our neighbor means seeing their value and seeking their well-being as much as you seek your own. And, of course, Jesus is saying that we are to love and care for ourselves. This is the core of what God requires of us – to love God, and to love our neighbor.
Is this hard to do? Sometimes it seems easy and flows naturally; but just as often it seems very hard. And yet, we know that we can do all things through Christ who gives us the strength to do them. It is a life-long project, a continual reform of life. As we keep loving God and neighbor, as we all practice this, as all Christians practice this, our actions, our practice are like the stones cast into the pond which ripple out far beyond us – in ways small and large. Each one of us will have our own ways of loving God, and our own ways of loving our neighbor; that’s a good thing because no one of us has the whole picture, and the world needs all our efforts together.
But the core value, practice, and truth that Jesus calls us to is the same, and when we live and move and have our being in that core place with Jesus we will be refreshed, and reformed continually, and be agents of reform and refreshment for God’s world.
Let us pray.
Grant, Lord God, to all who have been baptized into the
death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ, that, as we
have put away the old life of sin, so we may be renewed in the
spirit of our minds, and live in righteousness and true holiness
by loving you and our neighbor; through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen. ~ BCP, p. 252 edtd.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
October 29, 2017