Nothing is Greater

Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
November 11, 2018

Mark 12: 28-34 (CEB)
One of the legal experts heard their dispute and saw how well Jesus answered them. He came over and asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”
29Jesus replied, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, 30and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. 31The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.”
32The legal expert said to him, “Well said, Teacher. You have truthfully said that God is one and there is no other besides him. 33And to love God with all of the heart, a full understanding, and all of one’s strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself is much more important than all kinds of entirely burned offerings and sacrifices.”
34When Jesus saw that he had answered with wisdom, he said to him, “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom.” After that, no one dared to ask him any more questions.

Exactly one month ago, Hurricane Michael ripped through the Florida panhandle. As you all have seen on the news, entire communities were flattened. Only gradually have residents of these devastated towns been allowed to go to back to their homesites to search for gather belongings. They go with suitcases and garbage bags and cull through their scattered belongings amid their now destroyed homes. Nobody took everything, they only took the things they needed that weren’t destroyed. A few weeks ago, I watched on the news as a woman picked up a torn and scratched picture of a young toddler. “That’s my son,” she said. “He’s ten now, and he’s still with us, which is the most important thing.”

Such tragic events have a way of reminding us of our true priorities, don’t they? It’s a scenario we’ve all played out in our minds more than once. An approaching tornado forces an evacuation, or a sudden house fire pushes us urgently outside. What would we want to grab in the escape? Of course, we would make sure all the children were safe, and then the pets. If there was enough time, we might make sure we have the special photographs and notes, or the computer, or the heirloom jewelry, or our wallet and personal documents. You grab what you can, but then all you can do is wait and watch. And as the force of nature takes its course, you realize the significance of what you’ve just done. You’ve made some important choices; these things are more valuable to you than tables and chairs, china and glass, clothes, books, electronics, and all the thousands of other things we cram into our homes. It’s in the face of such disasters that we are reminded where our true priorities lie.

The question the lawyer asks Jesus in this morning’s passage is like that. Here is a man who has been thoroughly studying and practicing Jewish law. This is extensive material, and he knows it well. So now he approaches Jesus and basically asks, “Out of the whole volume of Jewish law, which commandment really matters?” In some ways, it’s like taking a whole set of Encyclopedia Britannica’s and asking someone to point out the most important sentence. But what it ultimately comes down to for this scribe is priorities. He wants to know which commandment to grasp on to in a moment of crisis. What’s the commandment we must always be sure to follow no matter what? It’s not really that the scribe is trying to take shortcut and get himself out of something. Instead, he has recognized in Jesus a great wisdom, and he wants some guidance from Jesus about what needs to take priority.

Obviously, as we know, the lawyer came to the right place. And Jesus doesn’t hesitate to answer the man’s question. What’s unique about Mark’s account of this encounter, though, is the way Jesus begins his response; “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” This is called the Shema in Jewish tradition. Many Jews recite the Shema at least twice a day—once in the morning and once in the evening; it is a reminder of our call to the allegiance and complete devotion that is due to God alone. Whereas Matthew and Luke in their telling focus directly on the command to love God and neighbor, Mark includes these opening words from Jesus. By reciting the Shema to this scribe, who has certainly recited it himself thousands of times, Jesus is reminding him that always, always, always, our first priority is our devotion to God. That is what the Shema does; it calls forth absolute devotion, obedience, and commitment from the heart, soul, mind, and strength. Everything else grows out of this complete devotion to God.

So the Jewish law and all commandment observance really begins with worship of God, which Jesus now says basically grows naturally out of our love of God. And here’s why; because if it’s true that we’re made in God’s image we will find our fullest meaning, our true selves, through love and worship of the one we are designed to reflect. Quite simply, we are not capable of loving completely apart from a whole-hearted devotion to God, and we are not able to know God fully unless we love God and our neighbors. “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love,” declares the author of 1 John. And so now Jesus takes the opportunity offered by this question from the lawyer to say that the two greatest commands of all Torah are the love of God and love of neighbor.
You know, the Israelites were God’s chosen people. And for generations, their special status had been marked in a few significant ways, among them circumcision and Sabbath observance; two things which no other people in the world at that time did. With Jesus, a new trajectory was set for God’s people, and he gives us a clear indication of the direction it will take as he answers the question of the lawyer. Jesus affirms that God’s people will be known by their whole-hearted devotion to God and God alone, just as has always been the case. But now, Jesus says, God’s people will be known in a new way. Sabbath observance and circumcision are all well and good, but there is something more important: LOVE. The way that God’s people will be distinguished in this world is by their unquestionable, unconditional love for God and for their neighbor.

A man who really had no interest in Christianity became a casual friend with a Christian guy who lived next door. They talked over the back fence, borrowed lawn mowers, stuff like that. Then, the non-Christian man’s wife found out she had cancer, and died three months later. Here is part of the note he wrote afterward: “I was in total despair. I went through the funeral preparations and the service like I was in a trance. After the service I went to the path along the river and walked all night. But I didn’t walk alone. My neighbor—afraid for me, I guess—stayed with me all night. He didn’t speak; he didn’t even walk beside me. He just followed me. When the sun finally came up over the river, he came over and said, ‘Let’s go get some breakfast.’ I go to church now. My neighbor’s church. A religion that can produce the kind of caring and love my neighbor showed me is something I want to find out more about. I want to love and be loved like that for the rest of my life.”

When people think of you, when people think of Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church, is that the kind of reaction they have? When people look at us, do they see our complete love of God and neighbor? Because if they don’t, well, quite simply, we’ve got our priorities all wrong. All around us are people who are suffering. They are suffering in loneliness and despair. They are struggling against addiction. They are fighting illness and disease. They are hungry, and thirsty, and cold. They are mourning the loss of a loved one, or picking up the tattered pieces of a broken relationship. They are fighting a war that they don’t understand or simply suffering the consequences of war and violence. They are wandering, searching, lost. And to this, Christ says, “Love them.” Because that is what people want; that is all people really need: pure, complete, unconditional love; no strings attached! Whatever we do, we are to act in love. If we all truly lived like that for a single day, God’s kingdom would have already come here on earth! Jesus would already be reigning here because that’s what Jesus’ reign is all about, love!

When Jesus lifts up love of God and neighbor as they highest ideals, the verb translated as “love” is the Greek word, agape. Agape love finds its origin in God himself; it is the love of God for you, me, and the rest of humankind; this is the highest level of love. It is selfless, committed fully to the well-being of others. And Jesus, who so fully embodied this love, calls us to do the same; he expects us to love with agape love. To love God with agape love is a response. Our love for God is completely dependent on the love that God has shown to us through Jesus Christ our Lord, and it entails us completely giving ourselves over to God and to others—“You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. [And] you must love your neighbor as yourself.” We have to give everything we’ve got in agape love to God and others.

So, how does agape love toward other people work? Well, it all comes down to relationships. Way back in 1937, a researcher at Harvard University started a study on what factors contribute to human well-being and happiness. The research team selected 268 Harvard students whom they would study over a period of 72 years. They tracked the students using a number of factors; physical exercise, cholesterol levels, marital status, the use of alcohol, smoking, education levels, weight, and even psychological factors. For the last 42 years of the project, the director was psychiatrist George Vaillant. In 2008 someone asked Dr. Vaillant what he had learned about human health and happiness from his years of pouring over the data of these 268 people. You might expect a complex answer from a Harvard social scientist, but his secret to happiness and well-being was breathtakingly simple: “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

What are you doing to build relationships with the people around you? What are you doing to spread God’s love in the world? In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul puts this beautifully. “If I speak in the tongues of human beings and of angels but I don’t have love, I’m a clanging gong or clashing symbol. If I have the gift of prophecy and I know all the mysteries and everything else, and if I have such complete faith that I can move mountains but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. If I give away everything that I have and hand over my body to feel good about what I’ve done but I don’t have love, I receive no benefit whatsoever. Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth…love never fails…Now faith, hope and love remain—these three things—and the greatest of these is love.”

This is the kind of love we are called to. This is the kind of love we are to share with others. It may not come all at once. It may take a lifetime to achieve. We may never completely arrive, but the journey begins when we make the resolute decision to follow Christ’s commandment to love God above all else and with everything we’ve got and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Do we know God? Do we love, agape love, God and all humankind—without condition? That’s what this life is all about, Jesus tells us. That is the secret to everything. That should be our goal.

Remember the man who experienced the love of his Christian neighbor? He wrote, “A religion that can produce the kind of caring and love my neighbor showed me is something I want to find out more about. I want to love and be loved like that for the rest of my life.” And so does everyone else. So does everyone else.

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