Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sermon for Nov. 4th: MArk 12:28-34


What Does Success Look Like?

A few years ago a poll was taken of American college students to discover what they thought were the most important things in life. According to the results of this poll, 74% of the students rated ‘Becoming very well off financially’ as ‘very important or essential’ and this goal achieved the highest rating in the entire survey. This was how the majority of American college students defined ‘success’.

By that standard, Bill Gates, who founded the Microsoft empire, must surely be one of the most successful people alive on earth today! In recent years, however, he seems to have taken a different tack altogether; I find it fascinating that over the last decade or so he and his wife have given vast sums of money to charitable projects in developing countries. To take just one aspect of the work of their ‘Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – the ‘Global Development Program’ – their organisation is currently funding projects supporting agricultural development, financial services for the poor, water, sanitation and hygiene, libraries, and emergency response programs around the world. If all this work has come from a genuine desire to help others, then it demonstrates that even Bill Gates has discovered that business success by itself isn’t enough. Has he, perhaps, begun to redefine what success means to him?

So - if we want to be successful in life, what should we aim for? How does God define success? Fortunately, Jesus hasn’t left us in the dark about this; this is exactly what today’s gospel reading is all about. True, it doesn’t mention the word ‘success’; the question the scribe asks Jesus is actually “Which commandment is the first of all?” (Mark 12:28), but the answer Jesus gives is a very clear picture of what success looks like in God’s eyes. He says,
“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31).
Let’s take a closer look at these verses and ask three questions about them.

Question One: Is this, in fact, the central Christian message? Sometimes at workshops and small group meetings I will ask people to define in one or two simple sentences what they think is the essential message of Christianity. Some people duck the question; one woman said to me “You ask such difficult questions!” But many people respond with some variation on these words of Jesus, especially the second commandment he quotes here; “love thy neighbour” is usually the form they quote it in. So let’s think carefully about this; is Jesus really saying that these two commandments are the central message of Christianity?

Look at the question Jesus was asked. It was not, “What’s the essential Christian message?” Rather, the scribe’s question was more limited: “Which commandment is the first of all?” In his response, Jesus isolates two commands from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, the commands to love God and to love our neighbour.

But let me ask you this: in the Christian life, which comes first: our love for God, or God’s love for us? In the first letter of John we read these words:
‘In this is love; not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another… We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:10-11, 19).
In the New Testament, the Christian message is called the ‘Gospel’, which means the Good News. Commandments are not news, and so the commandments cannot be the Gospel. Rather, John tells us that the Good News is not that we love God, but that God loved us and sent Jesus to die for our sins.

Mark Twain is said to have remarked “It’s not the things I don’t understand in the Bible that bother me; it’s the things I do!” Yes – the Bible can be a very disturbing book. It sets out for me very high moral standards. I understand the commandments very well; my problem is that I can’t seem to keep them! Every week when we come to church we all confess together our disobedience to these very commandments: ‘We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbour as ourselves’. If all Jesus is going to do for me is to define the commandments more accurately, that’s not going to help me very much, is it? That doesn’t sound like good news to me.

No – the Good News is that Jesus came into the world as a human being to heal our broken relationship with God. On the Cross he died for our sins, so that we could be forgiven and restored to relationship with God. Through his resurrection he has won the great victory over the forces of evil, and the New Testament tells us that God has made him ‘Lord of all’ (Acts 10:36). Each one of us is invited to come to him, to put our trust in him, and to receive the free gift of forgiveness and eternal life that he offers. Then, with our relationship with God restored by Jesus, we can call on all the resources of God to help us obey these two great commandments – not out of fear, but out of gratitude.

John tells us that at the last supper Jesus got down from the table, put a towel around his waist and went around washing the dust off his disciples’ feet – the job of the household slave. When he got to Peter, Peter was offended at this; he thought it would be much more appropriate for him to wash Jesus’ feet. But Jesus said to him “Unless I wash you, you have no part in me”. In other words, before we can do anything for Jesus, first of all we have to let Jesus do something for us. And before you and I attempt to obey these two great commandments, there’s a prior question we have to answer first: have I come to Jesus and asked him to wash me, to restore my broken relationship with God? These two great commandments are intended for people who have received the Good News and are now asking the question “How can I show my gratitude for all that the Lord has done for me?”

Question Two: What exactly is being commanded here? An American friend of my Mum and Dad’s was once eating at a formal dinner in England. She discovered that there was no napkin at her place at the table, so she asked the waiter if he could possibly bring her a napkin. The waiter was gone a very long time; but eventually he came back and said with impeccable politeness “I don’t know why you want it, Madam, but here it is”, and proceeded to give her a baby’s diaper! Sometimes, you see, people use the same vocabulary as you, but they use a different dictionary!

We get into these kinds of definition problems fairly often when we read the Bible. The Bible is a very old book, and people had different ways of thinking when it was written. So when we hear Jesus telling us to love God and love our neighbour, we assume that we know what he means by the word ‘love’. But in fact, we probably don’t. In our culture this word is used to describe an emotion, but the Greek language had other words for that: ‘storge’, which meant ‘affection’, or ‘eros’, which meant romantic or sexual love. But the word used in this passage today is ‘agapĂ©’, which is an action, not a feeling. It’s about practical, self-sacrificial care for another, whether we like them or not, whether we feel like it or not.

It would have helped me years ago to have known this. When I was a teenager I worked for a newsagent in our little village in England. One morning I went in to work and discovered that there had been a terrorist bombing at a pub in London the night before; the newspapers were full of it and some of the photographs were horrible. My boss, Ian, said to me “I’m glad I’m not a Christian because you Christians are supposed to love your enemies. There’s no way I could love people who would do something like that”.

I had no answer for Ian that day. However, if he said the same thing to me today, I would have replied something like this: “You’re right – no matter how hard I try, I don’t seem to be able to sit around and womp up a good feeling for those people. But that’s not what Jesus is commanding us. Rather, he’s commanding me to act in a loving way toward them, rather than taking vengeance on them. I might not be able to feel good toward someone who hurts me – but I can still bring them a cup of coffee when they’re tired and thirsty. And that’s what Jesus is talking about”.

So Jesus’ two great commandments are not telling us to feel anything, but rather to love God and love our neighbour by our actions. Now: Question Three. How do I obey these commandments? What practical difference will they make to our lives?

It’s often been pointed out that when people are on their death beds, their regrets are usually to do with relationships, with their failure to love their friends and family as they would have liked to, and especially their failure to spend more time with them. We all understand instinctively that relationships are the central issue in life. Jesus agrees with this assessment; his two great commandments deal with our two fundamental relationships, with God and with our neighbours. If we get this wrong, we’ve missed the whole point of life, no matter how successful we may be in other areas. If we get this right, we’ve grasped the main issue, even if the rest of our life looks a little frayed around the edges.

The first great commandment gives us a description of four kinds of love we can offer to God in gratitude for what he has done for us. These are not four separate watertight compartments of our personality – our heart, soul, mind and strength. Rather, they are four overlapping ways in which we offer God our love.

The ‘heart’ would not have meant ‘feelings’ to Jesus’ hearers as it does for us; the New Testament people thought that feelings came from the bowels, not the heart! When they used the word ‘heart’ they meant the will – the part of us that makes choices and decisions. To love God with all our heart means to make choices that show his kingdom is my number one priority. ‘Soul’ in the Bible means ‘the whole person’; even today we sometimes say “There were one hundred and thirty souls on board that ship” – meaning ‘people’, not ‘disembodied spirits’! ‘Mind’ tells us that we will have to think carefully about what this faithful life will look like. A purely emotional response is not good enough; we have to ask hard questions and think through the issues as well. And the word ‘strength’ shows that this will not be easy; it will require effort, discipline, and good old-fashioned stick-to-it-ive-ness!
In the second command, in which we are told to love our neighbour, Jesus gives us a guide as to how to do it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”. Remember again that Jesus is not using a feeling word here. Rather, he’s drawing our attention to the way we instinctively care for ourselves. When my body tells me it’s cold, I put on a sweater or turn up the thermostat. When my body tells me it’s hungry, I feed it as soon as possible. Jesus is challenging us to give this same practical care to others.

And note the immediacy of the word Jesus uses: not ‘love everyone in the world’ but ‘love your neighbour’. In other words, I’m to care for the people I rub shoulders with regularly – my wife and children, the people who live in my condo project, the people I work with, the people who serve me coffee at my favourite coffee shop, my fellow Christians at church, and so on. How would Jesus treat them? What would he say to them? What would he do for them? I’m to follow his way of living by treating them as he would treat them.

In Luke’s version of this story, of course, Jesus gives a concrete example of neighbour love, in the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man gets beaten up and left for dead by the roadside on the way to Jericho; a priest and a Levite both see him, but they do nothing to help. But a Samaritan sees him, stops and helps him, puts him on his donkey and takes him to where he can get proper medical care. That, Jesus says, is how to be a neighbour; it means keeping your eyes open to the needs of the ordinary people you meet in your daily life, and doing what you can to help them.

So let’s sum up what we’ve learned. These two great commandments are not the Gospel: the Gospel is the good news that Jesus has come among us as a human being and died and risen again to defeat the power of evil and to reconcile us to God. All people are invited to put their faith in him and receive this gift of eternal life. When we have done so, these two great commandments guide us as to how we live our lives in such a way as to demonstrate our gratitude to the one who has loved us so absolutely. They don’t refer to our feelings, but to the loving actions with which God calls us to serve him and serve our neighbours. And they concern the fundamental issue of life: relationships, with God and with other people.

Let me conclude by saying again that this, and only this, is ‘success’ in God’s eyes. Harold Percy says that when some people die, God will have to write this epitaph for them: ‘Brilliant performance, but he missed the whole point”. The most important questions in life don’t deal with how successful my business is, or how rich or poor I am, or how fat or thin I am, or how pretty or plain I am. In Anthony Burgess’ novel about the Book of Acts he has the disciples saying over and over again “The time is coming when we will be questioned about love”. That’s the main issue.

So remembering what we have been saying about the relationship between the gospel and the great commandments, the most important issues we’ll ever face are these two: First, have I joyfully accepted the unconditional love of God by receiving from Jesus the free gift of eternal life, putting my faith in him and putting my life in his hands? Second, am I living out my gratitude for the love God has showered on me by loving him with my whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and by loving my neighbour as myself? In the end, these are the only two questions that will matter. Everything else will be irrelevant. So let’s take a moment of silence and think about our response.

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