In this morning’s Gospel Lesson, Jesus tells the disciples, and all those who read God’s Word, that if we love him, we will keep his commandments. Which commandments?, you might ask…These commandments:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
Now, you might think that Jesus did us a favor, distilling down his commandments to the greatest commandment, and one like it. Jesus actually commanded the disciples or those around him 38 times over the 4 Gospels. So really, he took his own 38 commandments, boiled them down to 2, and challenged us to show our love by following them.
Over time, those who follow the Hebrew Scripture, the Torah and all the laws and commandments of that faith have come to claim that there are over 400 laws or commandments for the faithful to follow. So Jesus may have even taken the essence of those 415 or 416 laws and reduced them to the greatest and the second greatest commandments.
So either way you look at it, 38:2, or 415:2, it looks like a bargain, right?
But hold on a minute. Have you ever wondered about how hard it is to follow these two commandments?
I know that on some level, we all love Jesus. We claim our Christianity when we show up for worship on a Sunday morning, when we place our hard earned resources in the offering plate, when we make a donation so that our children can buy a llama to give to a family that is struggling in another country. We don’t question our Christianity, meaning we don’t question the fact that we are followers of Christ.
But do we ever stop to think or reflect on whether we love him? Love is such a strong word! We love our parents, our siblings, our spouses, our children, our friends…but is that the same love we use to love Jesus?
I suspect that Jesus has made our faith lives more challenging by linking our love with the way we behave toward God, and our neighbor.
It’s harder to follow the two great commandments than it is to check off the other 38, or the other 415 or so…
Don’t believe me? Try this: While sitting right here in church with me today, we can all imagine loving God with all our hearts, souls, and minds. We each may have our own way of showing it, but we can imagine it. I suspect that it’s probably a whole other sermon, for another time, but OK, one down. But what are we to do with loving a neighbor who, after posting a public rant of hatred, opens fire on innocent people in a convenience store, or grocery store, or work place? He’s our neighbor, but how in the world are we to love him? And I have no doubt that Jesus intended for us to love people like those who suffer from impossible mental illness and harm others. How in the world are we to love those who have never, and will never, be peaceful or loving, but instead only bring violence and hatred into the world. Especially when we haven’t even begun to grasp the consequences of their violent actions, or helped their victims recover and mourn. Some of our neighbors appear to be downright unlovable, don’t they?
And that’s the challenge, isn’t it? To show love to the unlovable.
That’s why it is so hard. If we love Jesus, we will love our neighbor as we love ourselves. I’m not even convinced that we have a good handle on what it means to love ourselves, but forget about that for a moment, and help me figure out how in the name of Jesus are we going to love the neighbors around us who perpetrate violence, who break our laws, who do harm to us, our family, and our community? Who have no intention of following any commandments except their own internal drive to hurt, harm, and hinder.
Their acts are the very definition of evil, but in our New Testament scripture from Acts, even Paul himself tells us that they are made in the image of God, just like we are: “Since we are God’s offspring…’
If we love Jesus, then he expects us to love the unlovable. Even if we feel unlovable ourselves. Even the ones who kill our neighbors, and then in a final, cowardly act, kill themselves or get killed by the police so they won’t have to be held accountable for their actions.
Thinking about those who commit horrible crimes, maybe by some tortured logic I can manage to feel sorry for their twisted and hateful souls…but love? I’m just not there yet. That doesn’t mean I don’t love Jesus, it just means I’m human, and experiencing some powerful human emotions.
So I’m going to work on it. I do love Jesus. I am a follower on his Way. And so I want to demonstrate to him, and to God, that I love God with all my heart, and all my soul, and all my mind. And as much as possible, I want to demonstrate to Jesus that I love my neighbors as myself.
Tabloids and TV talk shows will dissect the lives of those who snap, and harm or kill many people at one time, and try and explain how someone like that could grow up to be a mass murderer. We’ll have to move beyond the intellectual understanding, move beyond the seemingly impossible forgiveness, to even begin to approach the way to loving such a neighbor.
The Spirit of Truth abides in us and walks with us when we keep the two great commandments. The Spirit of Truth cannot prevent tragedies like the one in Santa Barbara, nor can Jesus, nor can God. We can’t change the way the world produces these broken and harmful children of God, but we can change the way we think and feel about them. It’s just not easy.
If we love Jesus, and I believe we all do, then we’ll find a way to love the unlovable. Love is, in the end, the only answer. Love is the only way we can address the horrors and atrocities that plague our world. It’s just that it’s not that easy. It will take all of us who claim Jesus as our Lord and Savior to work at loving the unlovable, to look deep inside ourselves to find the strength and courage to love those who make it impossible to love.
That means worshiping together, listening to God’s Word together, working together to fight injustice, and oppression, sharing our resources together, being relevant in our community, mourning with those who mourn, celebrating with those who celebrate, advocating for those who have no voice.
It shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus suggests a personal and private answer for a worldly ill. It will be no less than our own very love of our neighbors that changes the world.
For a fleeting moment, as I contemplated the difficulty in showing my love for Jesus by loving neighbors like the mass murderers that have cropped up in the last 2 decades, I considered seeking out the world’s sacred texts, to see whether there was a religion that doesn’t require me to love unlovable people. But when you boil it all down, love is the foundation, the heart, of every religion, and in a similar way, at the foundation of even secular humanism.
As Christians, by keeping Jesus’ commandments, we not only demonstrate our love for him, and secure his love for us, we also secure God’s love, and God’s place in this world. The world is a better place because of love. Because of our love. We have God’s love to share, we have Christ’s love to share.
Let’s show the world what we’ve got. Amen.
Good old Thomas! He comes around once a year to serve as the perfect metaphor for those of us who need some proof, who need to see for ourselves. Unfortunately, Jesus doesn’t walk around anymore letting people touch his hands and side.
Now, there are many things I love about my job, the job of being a pastor. Baptisms, weddings, serving communion, preaching…and sharing the good news.
The UCC and the PCUSA as denominations accept of diverse theologies among their members. Several of us may differ widely on any number of beliefs or issues, and yet we are all welcome in worship, welcome at the table for the Lord’s Supper, welcome to celebrate baptism…the both denominations welcome those who have questions, those who have doubts. As reformed denominations, neither claim to have answers, or the answer, and only claim to welcome all those who wish to know Jesus better, who wish to know the bible better, all those who wish to know the Creator God and the Holy Spirit better. But it doesn’t tell us how to do that, or if the way we do it is right or wrong. Neither the United Church of Christ nor the Presbyterian Church USA have a theological litmus test for membership, but they sure appreciates those who have questions.
Our God, our Savior, and the wondrous and mysterious Holy Spirit are certainly big enough and strong enough to withstand any of our doubts, to weather any and all our questions about faith, and about the sacred.
So one aspect of the good news that comes from Thomas’ story today is that questioners are welcome. It’s not only OK to ask the questions, it’s encouraged, if that’s what you need to believe! Of course, if you insist on putting your hand in the wounds of our Savior’s hands, you may wait a long time…the days of Jesus letting us do that are long gone. We’ll have to get our answers a different way.
The whole encounter is filled with mystery, isn’t it? Jesus appeared among the gathered disciples, and said, Peace be with You. They recognized him after he showed them his hands and his side. Interesting that Jesus chose to be resurrected in his old, broken body, isn’t it? Even though nobody recognized him at first, not Mary, earlier, and not the disciples, later that day.
And, after being welcomed by the disciples, Jesus shared his important message: forgive others, and you will be forgiven. Hold grudges against others, and grudges will be held against you.
For Mary, just hours before, it was ‘don’t hold on to the old me’ don’t cling to the old ways. For the disciples, it was about forgiving, and being forgiven.
Both messages are critical for the faithful of today.
Thomas was with the disciples the next week, and he saw, and he believed. Jesus, ever mysterious, asked, so you believe because you saw? Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe. So while Jesus affirms that it’s OK to ask questions, to doubt, he also hints that it’s even more OK to believe without seeing.
Richard Rohr, an author known for his writing on Spirituality and spiritual direction, feels that Jesus is telling us that we’re blessed when we know more than what we can just see. That we’re blessed when we can know more than what we can simply experience. We know more about the Sacred, more about God, about the Savior, and about the Holy Spirit than we can see with our eyes.
Taking our holy scriptures literally is ok, but understanding them from a metaphorical or symbolic perspective is even better.
Here’s a list of things that we can experience literally, and symbolically, and tell me if some of them work for you both ways: the cross, broken bread, juice or wine, baptismal water, church budgets.
The cross can mean so many things: death, shame, triumph, or something we must bear…
Broken bread at communion can mean the broken body of Jesus, it can mean our own brokenness at the table, it can mean sustenance for the journey…
Juice or wine at communion can mean shed blood from our Savior, it can mean the new covenant, it can mean refreshment for the journey…
Baptismal water can mean cleansing, it can mean new life, it can mean new promises…
Our understanding of our faith is so much deeper when we move beyond the first step of literal understanding. We are blessed when we believe in these things, not because we see them literally, but because we have not seen how they are all these things. We are blessed because each of us brings a slightly different perspective to our faith lives, and our beliefs, and yet, we gather here in our differentness, not to argue, not to challenge each other, but to seek our highest common denominator in our prayers and in our worship.
Arguments about whether the bread and wine of communion are somehow mysteriously transformed into the body and blood of Christ, or whether they are simply symbols of the body and blood helped lead to the Reformation, and the start of the Protestant faith. We are surrounded by symbols that we see and experience as literal objects, but which represent faith aspects that go so much deeper than the objects themselves. That’s what Jesus meant, and that’s what Richard Rohr meant about believing in more than what we can see.
So while we may consider ourselves to be like Thomas, for the most part, our maturing faith has moved us into believing beyond that which we can see and touch.
And because of that, we, too, can share in the joy described by our Acts passage: we will not be shaken, our hearts are glad, our tongues rejoice, and we will live in hope. These are the gifts we receive when we believe beyond what we can see and touch. These are the blessings Jesus wants us to experience, even if we start out like Thomas.
Easter flowers, images of lambs, lit candles, foot washing, serving communion, all actual things, but each also represent a different aspect of our faith. We see beyond the thing, and believe something about what it stands for.
Passing the Peace, like Jesus did, is both a literal act of saying ‘Peace Be With You’, and a symbolic act of sharing something much deeper than a greeting. If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I would like to invite you to greet your neighbor, and pass the Peace of Christ to them, so that you might experience both the literal and the symbolic meaning of a faith act.
Now, whether we look at our Acts passage this morning as a literal, historical recording of the early church, or whether we look at it as a symbol of how they existed spiritually, doesn’t the very description of that life stand out as a jarring contrast to the world as we know it?
The community that followed Jesus discovered that one way to eliminate need and poverty was to share their resources in a faithful and loving way. With the new commandment to love one another just as Jesus had loved them, they worked out a system that ensured that there was enough for all.
We do much the same today when we contribute to our general fund to keep our church running. We do much the same today when we give to Our Church’s Wider Mission, to keep the systems that support our church running. We do much the same today when we set aside money in the Pastor’s discretionary fund for some of the neediest members and non-members.
The origins of our church economy come directly from the early church’s efforts to organize and sustain a faithful following of Christians. But what a radical approach! Land and home owners selling their property and voluntarily giving the proceeds to the disciples so that they may distribute them to those who need it. Crazy stuff!
Time, culture, and the evolution of the modern world have conspired to erode the effectiveness of such a system. Would such a system be sustainable today? Probably not in its purest form. But the spirit behind the system is still strong, still relevant, still effective. If it were not, then the institution of the church would have failed financially a long time ago. It may be struggling, but it has not yet failed.
And we do have some systems that are functioning in modern times, based on exactly such a process: all charities rely on givers so that they can share with those less fortunate, those whom they serve. That means all not-for-profits, that means all school systems, where community members pay property tax, even if they don’t have children in school. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are based on contributions from those who are employed to help those who are unable to work, or who no longer work.
And while the current thinking is that some of these systems need to be smaller, or more efficient, the church has something that none of these other groups has: a commandment from Jesus.
While Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, charities and not-for-profits, school systems, insurance pools, and a whole host of other organizations that base their existence on this kind of system survive in these modern times, they don’t cite Jesus as the founding principle behind their organization. The church does.
Where else do you experience both the literal and the symbolic when it comes to a faith act? It’s unique and personal to each of us: prayer? Hymn singing? Volunteering? Tithing or pledging? I would invite each of us to take a moment sometime today to reflect on where we experience both literal and symbolic meaning in our faith lives, and how that brings us blessings and joys.
Our lives are filled with literal and symbolic acts of kindness, forgiveness, charity, and acceptance. When we practice them, we deepen our connection to the sacred. When we do so without regard for any reward or benefit, we are practicing our faith at the highest level.
Unshaken in the face of tragedy, glad in the face of challenges, rejoicing and hoping in a world that insists on proof, let us each explore the blessings of what it means to believe where we have not seen. Amen.
Click here to watch our scripture and sermons playlist on YouTube. (link opens in a new window)