The Simple Law of Love
A Sermon Preached on Sunday, October 23, 2011, by
The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,
At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
But when the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together. Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matt. 22:34-40)
If you have ever tried to help children with their homework, you know what a difficult task it can be. You can go over and over the same principles with them, and sometimes it seems that they will never get it straight. You often look at them and say, “This is not that hard.” When you help them with math problems, for example, they often come up with all kinds of complicated steps and procedures trying to find the answer, and you look at them and say, “You are making this more difficult than it really is.” But we often make that same statement to all kinds of people. “You are making this more difficult than it really is. My wife has always laughed at how I do household chores the hard way. I’ll be doing a very simple job around the house, making it very difficult, and she will walk by and say, “Why don’t you just do it like this?” Then, I’ll stand back and say, “Now why didn’t I think of that?” We often say the same thing about our relationships with one another. Employers and employees have difficult relationships. Friends, even in churches, have problems with one another. Husbands and wives have issues in their relationships. We are left with the impression that life is very complicated, and our relationships with one another are complex. Often, when we aren’t getting along with one another, don’t we step back and say, “We are making this harder than it should be.” The Eagles had a song back in the 70s called “I Can’t Tell You Why,” about lovers having a difficult time with one another, trying to figure out what’s going wrong in their relationship, and there is the line, “We make it harder than it has to be.”
In other words, we shouldn’t be having this much difficulty getting along. There’s nothing wrong. We’re just making it harder than it has to be, and I don’t know why we are making it this difficult. Today, I am going to make the same statement about the Christian life. We make it harder than it has to be.
In this familiar passage of Scripture, the Pharisees are putting questions to Jesus. They are testing him, trying to trip him up, to see if they can get him to give what they would consider to be a wrong response. One of these Pharisees is called a lawyer, but don’t think of that word “lawyer” in the way we think of it. This man is not an attorney. This was a man who was an expert in the Law of Moses, one who spent most of his time probably arguing or debating about whether or not a certain action was sinful, or whether a certain action was a violation of the Law of Moses. This expert in the Law of Moses asks Jesus a question, which was a hotly debated topic, “Which is the great commandment in the law?” Think of all the laws that Moses gave the people. Read Exodus–Deuteronomy and read all those laws. There are laws about moral and immoral behavior, laws about how the community should function legally and the various punishments. There are laws about all the sacrifices. Then, we have to remember all the interpretations of the Law that had been handed down as traditions from one generation to another. There were so many laws to sift through to find the most important one. Everyone is wondering how Jesus will respond. What is the greatest, most important commandment? Is it “Thou shalt not kill”? Is it, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”? Jesus goes through all the Law, and he doesn’t merely pick a commandment. He chooses a commandment that summarizes all the other commandments. He says what we say here every Sunday morning at the beginning of our service: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” Jesus adds to that one a second commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neigh as thyself.” Then, he says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Jesus has summarized what we sometimes refer to as the two tables of the Law as we find it in the Ten Commandments. The first four describe our duties toward God, and the remaining six describe our duties toward one another. If you want to boil all the commandments down to one simple rule, it would be “love.” If you love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind, then you will have no other gods before him, you won’t make a graven image, you won’t take his name in vain, and you will remember the Sabbath day. If you love others, then you will honor your father and mother, you won’t kill, you won’t commit adultery, you won’t steal, you won’t lie, and you won’t covet. St. Paul summarizes the law in the same way. In Romans 13 he writes, “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:8-10). If you want a general principle about how to live your life, it’s not difficult to find it: love God, and love one another.
You may be asking, “Are you saying that it is really that simple?” Yes, I am. If it is that simple, then why is it so difficult to love God and my neighbor? It is difficult because we make it harder than it has to be. We deliberately make it complicated. Sin has made everything so complex. It should not be difficult to obey either one of these commandments. It should not be difficult to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. When you go through the Scriptures, and see how God is described in all his glory, majesty, and beauty, why should it be difficult to love God? When you consider all that he has given us, why should we find it difficult to love him? The Psalmist wrote in the 103rd Psalm: “Bless the LORD, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits” (Ps. 103:1-2). Then the Psalmist begins to list all the benefits we have received from God. He forgives all your sin, heals all your diseases, saves your life from destruction, showers his lovinkindness and tender mercies all around you, he satisfies you with good things, and renews your strength. He is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. He has separated our sins from us as far as the east is from the west, and he pities us like a father pities his children. It shouldn’t be difficult to love a God like that. We make it harder than it has to be. Why do we make this so hard? Unlike The Eagles, “I can tell you why.” It is sin that blinds us to all these benefits we have received. Sin blinds us so that we cannot see God’s glory, majesty, and goodness. Sin causes us to focus on the things of the world and the miseries in the world, and we forget all the goodness and mercy of God.
Just as it shouldn’t be difficult to love God, it shouldn’t be difficult to love our neighbor. You may be saying, “You don’t know my neighbor.” Remember, that I am talking about more than your next door neighbor. We are talking about all people. Everyone is your neighbor. You may wonder, “How can you possibly say, ‘It is not difficult to love everyone.’” Let us remember that we are speaking of love in the Biblical sense. The command is not that you must “like” your neighbor. You may not like another person at all. You may not like their personality or their lifestyle. There may be very much in your neighbor of which you rightly disapprove. But remember how St. Paul defines loving your neighbor as doing no harm to your neighbor. In other words, loving your neighbor simply means doing no harm to him, when he needs help, help him if you can, and to desire what is best for him, both temporally and spiritually. For this reason, it shouldn’t be difficult to love your neighbor. What good ever comes from hating your neighbor? What good ever comes from disobeying one of these laws that has to do with our relationships to others? What good comes from murdering another human being? What good comes from sexual immorality? What good comes from stealing? What good comes from lying about another person? What good comes from coveting what belongs to someone else? Nothing good comes from those actions, but we can say that most of the misery and heartbreak in the world comes from doing those very things. We should pick up our newspapers every day and read all these stories of war, murder, and theft, and realize that all this has come about because people do harm to their neighbors. What kind of world would this be if we did no harm to our neighbors? All of this trouble and misery has come about because of hatred, greed, and not being content with the blessings God has given us. For this reason I say it shouldn’t be difficult to love our neighbors, because not loving them is the source of most of the pain and suffering in the world. We should look at this simple commandment and say, “Wouldn’t it be better if we loved one another?” Again, sin has complicated these issues. Sin causes us to hate one another. It is sin that causes us to desire what belongs to another person. It is sin that has caused us to actually take delight in the suffering of other human beings. It is sin that causes us to find a way around this command to love one another, and justify our hatred and cruelty toward other people.
We make this harder than it has to be. God’s commandments are pretty simple, but we make them complicated so that we can get around obeying them. We want to find the loophole. Let me give you a good example that our Lord ran into time and again. The fourth commandment says, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all that thou has to do, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God. In it thou shalt do no manner of work…” That seems like a simple commandment. But the question arises, “What is work?” Down through the centuries, the Jews had accumulated thousands of rules and regulations about what was work, and had even gotten to the place where they said that healing someone on the Sabbath was work. Jesus kept telling them that showing mercy was more important than rules and regulations about how to keep the Sabbath. As you know, the Puritans did the same thing, devising long lists about what was a violation of the Sabbath day. Those of us who have tried in times past to observe the Puritan Sabbath know how complicated that can get. Is it a violation of the Sabbath to eat at a restaurant, watch a ball game, play sports, go fishing, or use electricity? When you make all these rules , the Sabbath does become a burden rather than a delight. One of the things I like about Anglicanism is that it is simple. If you go through our Prayer Book, can you find anything here about how we should observe the Sabbath? Several times in the Prayer Book we have a discussion about the Ten Commandments. Do you find there a list of do’s and don’ts about the Sabbath? If you want to follow along, look on page 288 of the Book of Common Prayer, and you will find how our offices of instruction summarize the first four commandments. You will notice how commandments 1, 2, 3, and 4 are summarized. How do we obey the first two commandments? Obedience to these two commandments means to worship him, to give him thanks, to put my whole trust in him, and to call upon him. To obey the third commandment means to honor God’s holy Name and his word. What does it mean to obey the Fourth Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”? The Prayer Book says that to obey this commandment means to serve God truly all the days of my life. The first time I read that I said, “What?” I was expecting a long list of what to do and what not to do on the Sabbath, and all we get is, “Serve him truly all the days of my life.” Then, if you want to look at some of the others, like the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” we are told that obedience to his commandment means, “To hurt nobody by word or deed: to bear no malice or hatred in my heart.” That sounds simple enough.
Now, turn over to page 291 of the Book of Common Prayer. You find the question, “What is your bounden duty as a member of the Church? Answer. My bound bounden duty is to follow Christ, worship God every Sunday in his Church; and to work and pray and give for the spread of his kingdom.” Your duty to the church is summarized in to those three duties. Again, there is no long list about what to do on the Sabbath, except, “worship God in his church every Sunday.”
But we are determined to make these commandments complicated. You remember one of the accounts when this issue of loving our neighbors came up. We are told, “And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. (Luke 10:25-28). The lawyer knew the correct answer. Love God, and love your neighbor. But what does the lawyer do next? He’s going to make it complicated, for we read in verse 29, “But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?” We have a simple commandment: Love your neighbor. But we are going to complicate that commandment by asking, “Who is my neighbor? Is it the person next door? Is an ungodly man my neighbor? Are the Gentiles my neighbors? Are those racially mixed, heretical Samaritans my neighbor? The lawyer is doing what we all do. We complicate it so that we can find a way around obeying it. It’s complicated, it’s difficult, because sin has corrupted our hearts, and we make complicated something that we really know the answer to already. We just don’t want to admit that we already know what we should do. In I Thess. 4:9, St. Paul said, “But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another.” We would have expected Paul to go into some long, elaborate explanation on this theme about what brotherly love means. We would expect him to explain, “Who is your brother? What does it mean to love your brother?” St. Paul doesn’t complicate this issue. He says, “I don’t have to write to you about brotherly love, because God has already taught you what this means.”
If you look at the history of the Christian faith, you would get the impression that the Christian life is really complicated. How many thousands of books have been written about how to live the Christian life? Every day it seems that someone comes out with a new book, and they have found the key. They have found the answer. Have you ever wondered how people learned to live the Christian life before the invention of the printing press? Think of it, there were Christians thriving in the world 1400 years before the printing press arrived, and most of them were illiterate. They must have been terrible Christians, not being able to read the next best seller on the Christian market. If we could be transported back in time we would probably be shocked at how little they actually knew. I suppose they were all terrible failures as Christians. But I wonder if they knew how to love God and how to love their neighbors without all the hundreds of books that have to go into so much detail about how to do that? I’ll bet they did, because God has already done what is necessary to help us love in this way.
The first thing God did was send his Son into the world, and Jesus showed us what love is. He went about doing good, he healed the sick, he had compassion on those who were suffering, and he gave himself sacrificially on the cross. We already know from his example what love is. He told us that he had given us this example of love so that we should love one another in that way. He said, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34). He goes on to say, “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12). When John is writing his little epistle of I John he says, “In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother. For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (I John 3:10-11). John reminds them that when he was setting down for them the basic truths about the Christian life, one of the first things he taught them was to love one another. It should be simple, but it’s difficult for us because of the sin that is in our hearts.
To help us to love one another, God gave us the Holy Spirit. As we yield to the Holy Spirit, we love as Christ loved for the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. Remember that when St. Paul described the fruit of the Spirit, the first characteristic of that fruit is “love.” In these days when there is so much talk about the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts, we forget that the primary reason the Holy Spirit is given to us is to give the power to love as Christ loved. You remember in I Corinthians, St. Paul is dealing with the problem of spiritual gifts in Corinth, and they are fighting about tongues, miracles, healing, and prophesy. Paul deals with all of those issues and then says, “But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.” The more excellent way was “love.” Paul tells them that they are concerned with spiritual gifts, but the most important thing is love. Look at that passage in its context, and I will substitute the word “love” for “charity,” because the Greek word used here for love is “agape.” “…And yet show I unto you a more excellent way. Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing…. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (I Cor. 12:31; I Cor. 13:1-3, 13). Love is the greatest of all gifts that the Holy Spirit brings to us.
Love God, and love your neighbor. Those two commands are complicated only because we allow the sin in our hearts to complicate them. But the Lord Jesus Christ came into the world, to cleanse our hearts of the hatred and bitterness people feel toward one another. He gave us his Holy Spirit to place this love in our hearts, for the promise of the New Covenant was, “But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people (Jer. 31:34). Christ came to give us new hearts, and in these new hearts he would write his law. That simple law is, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, and mind, and thy neighbor as thyself.” Amen.