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The Greatest Commandment

July 5, 2020 Series: Stand Alone

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Good morning Immanuel. As we begin our time together, and as I have just came on the elder team here and joined up as one of the pastors here that will assist in assuming a leadership role among the elder board here at Immanuel, I figured that I would briefly take a minute or so and tell you what to expect from me for at least the summer months.

 

There are three things that I am focusing on as I get to know all of you and enter into this church:

 

1) Spend time with all of you. I have spent time with many of you already, and if I have not had the chance to, I have a planner with me this morning, and I’d love to schedule some time with you. The first priority as a shepherd here is to get to know you all.

 

2) Get to know fellow pastors in the community. I just spent some time with Will this week, and he is going to introduce me to some local pastors in the area. I have reached out to a few others, and if you have any friends who are pastors in the area, please introduce me to them. I want to befriend them and learn how to come along side of them and serve our fellow churches in Wilmington.

 

3) Third, is this ministry – pulpit and teaching ministry. From here I want to share with you the very heart of the Scriptures and meet Jesus with you from here, and I pray his Spirit does mighty and great things through our time hearing from his word.

 

As I continue to get settled here and as the Fall comes, along with the impending big holiday season of Thanksgiving and Christmas, we will be planning some ways that we can serve our community during that time. So please stay tune for that.

 

There is one more building block that under girds all of this: prayer. I wish I could say that I know how to pray. I’m still learning. However, I more than ever desperately need prayer, and this church needs to be covered and soaked in prayer from day one of my entrance here. I commit to praying more with the elders, and praying more with you all.

 

So in essence for the summer those are the things I am focusing on.

 

If it is helpful to know, I am not going to come in here with a jackhammer and start flipping everything upside down. That almost always causes more damage than it does good in this kind of scenarios. In these early stages, I am more of a learner than anything else, and as Rick Warren famously said, “we overestimate what we can do in a single year, and drastically understate what we can do in our lifetime.” That is my mentality, and one of my quotes of the year, if you will.

 

In the spirit of transparency, I do not know what I am preaching on next week. I’m selling a house, buying a house, living with my in laws and commuting 4 days a week from the Shore. Life is an adventure right now!

 

However, what I do know is that you can expect from these early sermons to be focusing on essentials of the faith. Hence our text this morning, which is really a summary of the entire bible. This week I should be able to begin developing some sort of series and a more detailed plan for it. So with that, let’s begin.

 

Please turn your Bibles to Mark 12:28-34

 

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And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, ‘Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is this: Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And 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 neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”

 

And the scribe said to him, “You are right Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.”

 

Mark 12:28-34

 

Revival of church life always brings in its train a richer understanding of the Scriptures. Behind all the slogans and catchwords of ecclesiastical controversy, necessary though they are, there arises a more determined quest for him who is the sole object of it all, for Jesus Christ himself. What did Jesus mean to say to us? What is his will for us today? How can he help us to be good Christians in the modern world? In the last resort, what we want to know is not, what would this or that man, or this or that Church, have of us, but what Jesus Christ himself wants of us.”

 

These words are not my own, although I wish they were. They are the opening words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christian spiritual classic, The Cost of Discipleship.

 

I labored over how I wanted to begin this sermon. What I speak to you in these early weeks is in many ways the beginning of my pastoral ministry here. I labored over the foundational stones that I wanted to lay down for you all. What must those be?

Simply said, it must be that of Jesus Christ. He is the Chief Cornerstone. He is our Chief Shepherd. For it is in him that we move and have our being. It is in him that we find all joy and pleasure and hope and salvation and treasures of hidden knowledge. The ultimate aim of the Gospel is wrapped up in the world being reconciled back to him, for through him it all came into being.

Revival of church life always brings in its train a richer understanding of Scripture, said Bonhoeffer. And he is correct. Today, we are in desperate need of revival, and also in desperate need of clarity of Scripture.

Yet a new revival will look very different than in times past. Even the word revival may bring about images of an 19th century old fashion tent ministry with firery preaching and altar calls. Perhaps that worked in times past, and today I cannot claim to know how it will begin in 2020, but what I can do is, as the new pastor at Immanuel Church, try to point you towards what I feel is the most important and most central object of our faith: that of Jesus Christ. If fresh winds of the Spirit is to blow in our day, and be sustaining winds for years to come, it must come from knowing Jesus, and raising him up as our Lord and Savior – for when the son of man is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself. All people.

 

To do so is a mighty task, because it implies a responsibility on you and I, the worshiper. The Spirit of God is sent to those who are in Christ, and we become his ambassadors, his agent of reconciliation for the world. We become his very body – in other words, through us is the presence of Jesus found in this world, by the indwelling of the Spirit. Wherever you and I go, we carry about us the Temple of God. To a watching and searching world, us as the people of Christ are living examples of the Christ we worship – it is indeed an awesome responsibility. And a joyful, liberating one.

How you and I live matters, because we represent the Christ we worship. In all of my theological training, which was thoroughly protestant, I have not really been trained well on how to talk about our work in the Christian life. I’ve been training to talk about faith, what it means to have intellectual assent to the doctrines of the Scriptures, of repentance and confession of sin, and security in Christ for eternal life.

And this is deeply problematic. Christianity is so much MORE than mere intellectual assent. It is so much more than agreeing to its words. It is so much more than Sunday attendance, and private prayer and bible reading at home. All of those things are important – deeply important.

If my task is to have Jesus lifted high this morning, and to see his body, us, conformed to the image of Christ that we may fulfill our task as ambassadors and disciples of him – we need to learn how to understand this life we are given, and how to live it.

Jesus cares how we live our life. Our western world, going as far back as the 4th century with St. Augustine, has developed a deeply introspective tradition where we look deep inside the crevices of our heart, find all the things wrong with us personally, and we feel bad about it all and develop anxiety about all that is wrong with us. And even with the words “Jesus cares how we live our life,” it is easy to immediately feel like a failure.

Scratch that. In Christ we are victors. In Christ we are forgiven. In Christ we are saints, we are all priests in him. Of course you are not perfect. And of course Christ extends forgiveness 77x7.

This is not a sermon about shaming and guilting you into better behavior. Far from it. It is to cast the vision of how we as a Church are to understand the very core summary of the entire Bible, and how God originally designed human beings to live.

If we can put our finger on that – than we can put our finger on Jesus. Jesus’ favorite way to refer to himself was with the title, the Son of Man – all that means is really “The Human.” He was The Human – the Second Adam – the perfect example of what it means to be human in light of God’s design.

So is it possible this morning, in one sermon, to summarize the entire Bible’s vision for how to live as a human being? Is it possible, even in one or two sentences, to describe the entire life of Christ and the orientation of Jesus’ heart, mind, soul and strength?

It is indeed possible, and Jesus did it for us. All three of the synoptic Gospels tell the story in different ways, but this morning we are going to look at Mark’s telling:

 

THE TEXT

 

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, ‘Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is this: Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And 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 neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”

 

And the scribe said to him, “You are right Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.”

 

Mark 12:28-34

 

This passage in Mark dives in the middle of series of debates between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel. They didn’t trust Jesus, they had missed his ultimate message concerning himself and who he is. They began correctly realizing that the claims he was making about himself and the authority by which he was teaching had a divine claim to it – and that is blasphemy. Unless, of course, Jesus really was divine, which he was.

 

So they went toe to toe with Christ, trying to put him into a corner with difficult questions, some being highly controversial and complex questions. Just like Joel did with me the last time I was here. That was a joke, by the way, and I think Joel is good for it, am I right? OK, good.

 

This passage arises when a scribe desires to know the summation of the entire Old Testament Law in one great commandment.

 

There are 613 laws in the Old Testament. Is it possible to sum them all up into one?

 

Yes, according to popular teachers of the 1st century and more important, according to Jesus, it is possible to do.

 

Let’s begin:

 

1) Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all of your mind, all of your soul and all of your strength.

 

 

How are we to follow Jesus? How are we to live as disciples? How does the Bible summarize it for us? The Bible says it begins with the love of God. The love of God with all your heart, all of your mind, all of your soul, and all of your strength.

 

I don’t think that Jesus had in mind these particular four things as some formula to be observed. Most scholars believe that Jesus was just trying to summarize all of you. All of you must love God. All of you. All of your heart and all of your longings and desires. All of your mind and thinking and praying and listening. All of your soul’s deep depths and hollows must be filled with love for God. And you must give all of your strength to loving God. For whatever you love, you are shaped by. So we must give all of your love to God.

 

Then, of course, we are forced to define the word Love. The reality of love is nearly indefinable. How do you do it?

 

One of my favorite novelist and essayists of all time, Wendell Berry, a Christian farmer out of Kentucky, writes the most human and beautiful novels written today. His book, Jayber Crow is one of favorite novels of all time. And this is how he describes love, as he has the love of Christ in mind:

But love, sooner or later, forces us out of time...of all that we feel and do, all the virtues and all the sins, love alone crowds us at last over the edge of the world. For love is always more than a little strange here...It is in the world, but is not altogether of it. It is of eternity. It takes us there when it most holds us here.”

 

True, genuine love is not of this world. True and genuine love is proof that there is something beyond this world. Paul says that love never passes away, because God is love and he will never pass away, and therefore it is the greatest gift we should desire and to pursue.

 

The very word love in our english language is rather cheap. I can say in one breath, I love pizza, which I so far am impressed with Delaware’s pizza, seems pretty comparable to Jersey. Although I’m sure your pork roll doesn’t keep up.

 

Anyhow, in one breathe, I can say “I love Pizza” and then “I love my children.”

 

Now, surely, and hopefully, my love for pizza is different than my love for my children. And you can see that our English language can not be very helpful here.

 

There were six Greek words for love in our new testament. Each referred to different kinds of love. Some are:

 

Marital, intimate love – Eros

Philia -Brotherly or sibling love, friendship, where we get the word “Philadelphia” from.

 

In this passage, Jesus uses the greek word “agape” – which is the idea of a long, devoted love. A love that requires deep commitment, almost what could be described as a covenant love, the most synonymous Hebrew word in the Old Testament being “hesed” love – lovingkindness, a commitment of love that is not dependent on the object of your love’s response. Your love is committed regardless of how it is received – a beautiful description of God’s covenant love for us.

 

Now, I am not deeply committed to my pizza. As I am into my 30s now, in fact, pizza no longer responds to me as it used to, and I usually have a bad day following a night of eating pizza, and the next day I want to distance any potential commitment to pizza.

 

My love for my kids is different, however. I am committed to them. If they were in harms way, I would place myself in harms way to save them. That is true love, is it not?

 

That is agape love. That is the love Jesus says that we are to have for God, because it is the kind of love that he has for us.

 

That is precisely why love is not of this world, as Wendell Berry so aptly observed. God is love, as John says, and in him there is no darkness at all. Love, true and genuine love, just may lead you to sacrifice something in order to get the object of your love.

 

To love God with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength is truly an impossible task as long as sin resides. It is more of an ideal of our human existence. It is statement of what we should be in our natural state, and that is why it is the best ideal path to describe how to conform to be like Jesus – we must love God with all of our inner being.

 

Now, how is love for God found? What exactly does it look like?

 

It is tempting to want to reduce love of God to religious deeds. Sometimes I am hesitant to initially tell people I first meet that I am clergy, because immediately what often surfaces in people is this religious guilt that they suddenly feel burdened to tell me in order that they feel somewhat justified before me. It almost always goes like this:

 

Oh you’re a pastor of a Church? Oh yea I was in Church recently, I gave some money to the Church. I went to confession, I served at the soup kitchen, I read my bible recently….”

 

Loving God is not a religious burden to be carried. If the Church tries to systematize loving God to a bunch of religious deeds, then all we would be doing is giving you a burden that you will not be able to bear.

 

Yes, you should want to gather with Christians to worship Jesus. Yes, you should want to participate in discipling one another, reading Scripture with one another, praying together, giving some of your monies to Jesus and others. All of those things are indeed a natural outflow of our love for Jesus.

 

But do you know how Jesus described our love for God, and what it looks like?

 

It is deeply tied to the second part of this commandment: We love God by loving our neighbor.

 

2) Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no greater commandment than these.

 

Do you see how he stated this? He used the singular “commandment” while referring to these two commandments. They are essentially one in the same. They should not and cannot be separated. If you love God, you will express your love for God by loving your neighbor.

 

To further our definition of love as expounded upon in the Bible – love is self giving. Love is making life about God and others, and not about yourself. Love, as we said earlier, is the willingness to put yourself in harms way for the sake of someone else. It is carrying the burdens of those in great need around you. It is clothing those who need clothing, meeting with those who need to be met with. It is being willing to be self-giving, even at the expense of yourself.

 

Does this not describe how God has loved us? For as Matthew 25 and the parable of the Sheep and Goats shows us, when we love the least among us, when we pour ourselves out to our neighbors – we are pouring ourselves out for Jesus himself.

 

So therefore, the Christian life is essentially made up of this: Loving God by loving your neighbor. And as you will hear me often say: when we share the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus’ Life, death and resurrection – we do so with words, and as often as possible, while we are washing their feet. The two are not to be separated, if at all possible.

 

Loving God without loving your neighbor gives birth to hypocrisy. Loving neighbor without loving God is not a Christian love. Anyone can love neighbor, but that is why the idea of karma had developed – apart from God, you can really only love others in hopes that you get something in return, eventually. We already have Jesus – that is enough! Therefore, go and love others to death, like Jesus did for us.

 

Loving God by loving your neighbor turns the Church into a lampstand of loving brightness for all to see. As we share the Gospel and pour into each other and into our community, the Gospel becomes full of color and is fully rounded out. This is precisely how Jesus lived. When he walked around on this earth, he didn’t merely say “everyone should love God! OK, see you later.”

 

No, he was called the man of sorrows, antiquated with grief, because he took on the burdens of those around him. Those in great need, those who were often outcasts from society, unloved and pushed away, would rush to Jesus, and he would enter into their lives and love them because he loved his Father, and the very nature of love is to be self-giving.

 

In one of my favorite stories in the Gospel of Mark, reads:

 

Mark 1:40–42

 

Jesus Cleanses a Leper

 

[40] And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” [41] Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” [42] And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. (ESV)

 

Now, there is something very important to see in this brief story: Jesus didn’t have to touch this man. He didn’t need to do that. But leprosy could be caught by physical touch. That is why lepers were placed outside of society, away from their families, to die alone. Whenever someone would get close, in ancient Israel they were to yell “unclean!” in order to warn those around them about their leprosy.

 

Jesus, moved with pity, touched him. Who knows how long this guy had leprosy, but in years it is highly likely that this is the first time anyone had reached out and touched him. Jesus knew he didn’t just need healing – he needed to be loved.

 

God, if you will, took on our very leprosy – sin – because that is what love does. It drives us to take on the burdens of someone else and carry it for them. When we share with someone that Jesus died for their sins, we are sharing with them how God has loved us. And we are to then show them how God has loved us through loving them – even if it causes us to deep sacrifice. These two, whenever possible, are not to be separated.

 

 

 

 

LIVING OUT THE JESUS CREED AS VINDICATION FOR OUR FAITH

As we close, to be a Christian is to love God and love our neighbor. Loving God and neighbor is far from keeping a check list of religious deeds.

 

I don’t like talking negative about the Church as a whole, because to begin with, the Church is described as Jesus’ wife in the Bible. His bride. I don’t want to talk negative about my wife, because I love her.

 

However, I must be honest and point out something before we proceed: if Christianity is to be meaningful in the 21st century, if Christianity is to have meaning to this current city of Wilmington, if the younger and older, rich and poor, black and brown and white generations of people out there in our community are to be drawn to Jesus, and if we are to become fully formed disciples of Jesus today in this room, living as a lampstand in this city, we must aim to live out the things we say we believe. We must, however imperfectly it will be.

 

This is not a way to condemn you, in claiming that you are not. That is not what I am trying to say. Our western would too often focuses on personal guilt, and I am not trying to appeal to guilt and shame here.

 

I am trying to cast the vision that the Bible lays out for us as an ideal. The entire BIBLE is summed up in loving God and loving our neighbor. This is the clarity of Scripture that I believe needs to be recovered today. That commandment sounds rather simple, or even easy, perhaps. It is! Even Jesus said, “whoever gives a cup of cold water in my name will by no means lose their reward.” My 2 year old can almost bring me a cup of cold water.

 

However, this call of LOVE towards God and neighbor led to the incarnation of Jesus. A costly love. In fact, it cost Jesus everything. If we don’t grasp this, we will wind up with cheap love. We will have claimed to receive costly love from God that cost him everything, while living out a cheap love that costs us nothing. When David had the opportunity to sacrifice greatly to God, he was marked as saying “I will not give to God that which cost me nothing.” Because what he gave us cost him everything.

 

This grace we have received in Christ has been costly for countless Christians throughout history. As we close, let me share with you the story of Peter, and the transformation that occurred in his life:

 

When Peter first met Jesus, his initial call was simple: “Follow me! And I will make you fishers of men” – Matthew 4. Peter dropped everything and followed him. Throughout his years with Jesus, he was continually told by Christ that being a disciple would be costly. And for himself, he was going to go to Jerusalem to die, and be raised three days later. Would Peter follow Jesus all the way to his death? For to do that could mean something very similar for Peter – that could mean his death.

When the time came, Peter denied knowing Jesus. Seeing his brutal treatment at the hand of the Romans, he called down curses on himself to avoid being associated with Jesus. Only to run away in weeping and sorrow for his turning from Jesus.

At the end of the Gospel of John, in chapter 21:22, Jesus after the resurrection and after reaffirming Peter’s love for him, says once again, “Follow me.”

 

As an old man, Peter found himself in a very similar circumstance once again, the same circumstance that he ran away from in his youth. A cross was before him, a cross that he would bear if he confessed the name of Jesus. He joyfully accepted, with only one request: that he die upside down, because of his unworthiness to die like Jesus did. Peter went from a man who ran from the cross, to a man who ran to the cross.

 

To follow Christ will be costly. Indeed, it may be said that Love by its nature is cross shaped. To love God and love our neighbor will be costly. We need to do so, and we will stumble and trip as we do it. We may feel as if we often fail. As one of your new pastors this morning, my prayer for my leadership is this: that I can not only speak of such a call to you, but that I myself can embody this. Part of the good news is that you always get a do-over in Christ. And as we have before us new beginnings, I pray that the surrounding community will know Immanuel as that church who shares in the life of Jesus by loving God and loving your neighbor – for I can tell you that many yearn for Christianity to be true, and they need to see Christians with all our shortcomings, embodying Jesus to them. Friends, let’s be like Peter, and run to the cross, and lets do so together. There are some in this room, this very morning, in fact, that are in need of the love of God. Christians are not exempt from this.

 

Let us pray.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More in Stand Alone

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Parable of the Sower

November 15, 2020

Jesus, Our Living Hope

October 4, 2020

God's Plan of Redemption