Sunday, 29 October 2017

The Core of Christianity

It was a test question, says the gospel. “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” What answer did the clever lawyer expect from Jesus? Later Jewish scholars like Moses Maimonides decided there were 613 commandments in the Torah altogether, what we call the law of Moses. 365 of these concerned things we shouldn’t do, as many as the days of the year; and 248 concerned things we should do, the same as the number of bones and organs in the human body. Talmudic scholars loved probing the mystic significance of numbers. Was the lawyer one of these? 
And what was the test? To see whether Jesus equated not eating the sinew of the thigh with honouring your father and your mother? Or not crossbreeding animals with not stealing? Well, Jesus gives his answer. In the order the commandments appear in the Old Testament, they are numbers 240 and 415. We must love God with all our hearts. We must love our neighbour as ourselves. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” 
What is Jesus saying? At a stroke he cuts through the labyrinthine complexities of Hebrew law and teaches us, in effect, that everything has to be judged by a single principle, the law of love. That’s the only criterion that matters in the end. Not unremitting scrupulousness, not self-inflicted martyrdom, not self-wounding discipline, not the impossible quest for perfection. None of these things can save us, though good people often fall into the trap of trying to live that way. No, what matters is what’s going on inside us at the level of desire and attitude and motive. This is what interests God. 
And Jesus says that the test of authentic religion is very simple. Simplicity is often a guide when it comes to attitude and motive, like when Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that in our fasting, our almsgiving and our prayer we need to go into our room and shut the door and be alone where only God can see. So he strips away all the tired, extraneous performance of religion, “that moth-eaten musical brocade” Philip Larkin calls it, and says: stay with what really matters. Know what’s essential, what lies at the heart of your faith. And whenever you make a choice about what to do, always ask yourself if you’re acting out of love: love of God, love of your neighbour. That’s the surest guide to doing what is both good and right.
We heard these words in the Lord’s summary of the law earlier in this service. “Lord have mercy upon us, and write all these thy laws in our hearts we beseech thee.” That prayer is an allusion to the Hebrew prophets who spoke about how in days to come God would remove the people’s heart of stone and write his new covenant of love on hearts of flesh. To love God “with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind” is an echo of that great promise. It means the whole of me, everything freely given to God, with nothing held back. For that, says the gospel, is precisely how God has loved us. Everything freely given to us, with nothing held back. “You shall be my people and I will be your God” said the Hebrew Bible. It’s as simple as that.
Or it should be. In one of my favourite hymns “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy” the Victorian Catholic priest Father Faber says:
But we make his love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify his strictness
With a zeal he will not own. 
That captures the problem of organised religion, or at least how many see it: rule-bound, oppressive, stern. I think of the people who have fallen the wrong side of religion, or think they have, because all they can hear are the fateful “thou shalt nots”: the divorced, gay people, people of colour, women, the poor, the helpless, those who are in prison or locked into addiction: how many, even among our own friends and family, think that religion has nothing to say to them? Here’s a famous poem by William Blake.
I went to the Garden of Love
And saw what I never had seen;
A chapel was built in the midst
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And “Thou shalt not” writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.
If God’s law of love were written on our hearts, how different it would be! The older I get, the more I realise this, the more I want to pare down my carefully constructed edifice of faith so as to reach the core of what it is supposed to mean: loving God and our neighbour because love is how we know God to be, the love that has come among us in Jesus and found us and changed our lives. 
I guess that’s what the gospel is saying to us today, whether we’ve been coming to church all our lives or have only recently begun the spiritual journey. We are here at this eucharist because we see in the bread and wine the symbols of the self-giving that loves to the end. In the broken bread and poured out wine we see the kind of God we worship and have promised to be loyal to. He beckons to us, invites us in, says to us: feast at my table, play in my garden, dream of new worlds, discover what it means to be precious and beloved. Be surprised by a joy you never knew possible. 
And discover for yourself what Jesus means in the gospel, that all of life comes down to loving God with all your heart and your neighbour as yourself. “The glory of God is a human being fully alive” said St Irenaeus. I crave that sense of aliveness, that deep and wonderful way of being human. It's the only way we shall save ourselves, and heal the world.
Haydon Bridge, 29 October 2017. Matthew 22.34-end 


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