Sermon: Pentecost 21, 29 October 2017, Bishop Ross Nicholson, St Alban’s

29 October 2017, Twenty-first Sunday After Pentecost, Bishop Ross Nicholson, St Alban’s

 Love- Matthew 22:34-46

-Arguably one of the greatest song-writers in Australia died this week.

-George Young with Harry Vanda was the writing genius behind the Easybeats in the Sixties.

-He was the producer behind the first six AC/DC albums.

-On the same day his death was announced,

-One of his songs,

-‘Love is in the Air’,

-Was inducted into the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra.

-Have you ever wondered how many love songs are out there on the airwaves?

-Love would have to be the most popular theme for a song,

-Love lost,

-Love won,

-Love misplaced, unrequited, desired or denied.

-The Beatles sang ‘All You Need is Love’,

-While Foreigner opined,

-‘I Wanna Know What Love Is’.

-Which strikes a surprisingly philosophical note for a pop song from the Eighties.

-But I should add that’s as deep as the lyrics get.

“I want to know what love is, I want you to show me,
I want to feel what love is, I know you can show me”

 

-Well let’s leave pop culture for a moment,

-And return to a confrontation that was occurring between Jesus and the religious hierarchy of his day,

-Which was less than loving.

-It all began with Jesus teaching in the Temple courts after he’d made his triumphal entry in to Jerusalem.

-The chief priests and the elders come demanding by whose authority Jesus is doing all these things.

-Jesus responds saying he’ll answer their question if they answer his;

“Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Matthew 21:25

-The leaders see through the trap,

-Realising if they say ‘From heaven’,

-Jesus will ask ‘Why didn’t you believe him then?’

-But if they say ‘From humans’ then the crowd,

-Who loved John the Baptist,

-Would go crazy.

-So they plead ignorance,

-And Jesus refuses to answer their question,

-At least at that moment and the way the religious hierarchy demanded it.

 

-Over the next couple of hours Jesus tells three parables,

-That pointedly highlighted the failures of the Jewish hierarchy to direct people to God.

-The religious leadership hit back with some trick questions of their own,

-Which only showed that staying away from a confrontation with Jesus would have been a smarter move.

-But despite the defeats,

-The Pharisees get together and come back for one last go.

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Matthew 22:36

-There was a tradition within Judaism of trying to come up with simple summaries of the Law,

-So this was another test of Jesus’ authority as a teacher or Rabbi.

-Jesus answers however, with a double barrel response;

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’” Matthew 22:37-40

-The first part of Jesus’ answer,

-‘To love God with all your heart, soul and mind’

-Was what was known as the Shema.

-This was the summation of the Jewish faith that Moses gave to the people.

-Because Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience he doesn’t need to quote the introductory line from Deuteronomy 6;

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Deuteronomy 6:4

-But that simple verse stresses the monotheistic nature of Jewish belief,

-Something which will become significant when Jesus asks his final questions of the Pharisees.

 

-But let’s just jump back to the Foreigner song and that existential cry from the human heart,

-‘I Wanna Know What Love is’,

-Because Jesus has used the word twice,

-Love the Lord your God,

-And Love your neighbour.

-Now if you’ve listened carefully to the love songs which populate the airwaves, MTV or YouTube,

-What would your answer be to someone asking ‘I wanna know what love is’?

-What is love?

-Maybe it has to do with the emotions.

-‘I want to feel what love is’.

-Maybe it has to do with romance,

“Love is in the air, in the rising of the sun

-Whispering trees, thundering seas.

-Of course sex has to be in there,

-If any second R&B or rapper track is anything to go by.

-In fact within modern western culture love and sex are virtually interchangeable.

 

-Even the way we use the word in English is a complication.

-An enthusiastic golfer may say ‘I love golf.’

-Clearly nothing romantic or sexual about that,

-Unlike a husband declaring ‘I love my wife’,

-With a wink of his eye.

-But if he was to say ‘I love my neighbour’s wife’,

-With or without a wink,

-That’d be a very sinister statement.

-The English professor and author CS Lewis wrote a book titled ‘The Four Loves’.

-Unlike English where we only have one word to describe all the nuances and meanings of love,

-In ancient Greek there were four different words for ‘love’.

-There’s ‘storge’ which is the devotion or affection similar to that of a parent for a child.

-The most recognisable for us is ‘eros’ from which we get the word erotic.

-As you’d imagine it’s the passionate, physical intimacy that desires the other for itself.

-A third word is ‘philia’ which is another recognisable word,

-But with negative connotations now in English.

-That wasn’t the case in Greek where it signified care, compassion and respect.

-It also encompassed the idea of deep friendship.

 

-All of those meanings could sit comfortably in a pop song about love,

-But would be completely inappropriate in Jesus’ identification of the greatest commandment,

-‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’

-The word that Jesus used in that command was agape.

-In ancient Greek,

-The word agape was rarely used because it was seen as colourless.

-It had the very weak sense of ‘to seek after’ or ‘prefer’.

-Even to ‘love’ ice cream has a stronger sense than the word agape held.

-But some commentators think that’s why the New Testament writers grabbed hold of it.

-Because it was so rarely used,

-They could inject a new and more powerful meaning into it.

-The depth and strength of that new meaning can be seen by that command.

-It wasn’t just ‘love the Lord your God’,

-‘To seek after the Lord’

-Or ‘prefer the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob over Zeus, Artemis or Ra’

-It was to love the God of Israel,

-The Creator Lord of the Universe with the totality of your being,

-With all your heart,

-With all your soul,

-With all your mind.

-Every aspect of your humanity was to be directed towards the love of God.

 

-And although it may not seem it at first reading,

-Even the second command underscores the power of this love;

“the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” Matthew 22:39

-Jesus takes it as given that we human beings don’t have much difficulty loving ourselves,

-But the love the Kingdom of God calls for is far more than affection, preference or even compassion for others,

-The love Jesus is calling for goes far beyond anything the fallen human heart could envisage,

-It’s a love for your neighbour on par with the love of God.

-And if there were any confusion as to the extent of that love,

-Jesus has already enunciated it in the Sermon on the Mount;

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven;” Matthew 5:43-45

-Rather than a focus on ourselves and our own self love,

-Jesus wants us to turn our eyes to our heavenly Father.

 

-If, like Foreigner, you want to know what love is,

-You can’t look to earthly conceptions,

-You need to look to God,

-Which is what John does in his first letter.

-He gives us the answer;

“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

-God shows us his love.

-God’s love is active,

-It’s no mere proposition or philosophical construct,

-It was a costly step towards us;

“He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.” 1John 4:9

-Which benefitted us,

-We gained life through Jesus.

-And so there can be no mistake in thinking this is anything we’ve earned, deserved or warranted in the least,

-John makes it clear;

“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” 1John 4:

-God loves his enemies,

-God loves us so much that he deals with the problem that has separated us from himself.

 

-Can you see how deficient any human understanding of love is compared to this love from God?

-It gives you a bit of an understanding why the Apostles took that weak and rarely used word agape,

-And let it speak for a love that was self-sacrificing, life affirming, other person centred.

-All other words fall short in describing this love from God.

-And that may be why Jesus ends this confrontation with the religious hierarchy with one final question;

“‘What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ ‘The son of David,” they replied.43 He said to them, ‘How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says, 44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.’ 45 If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” Matthew 22:42-45

 

-There was an understanding that the Messiah would be a descendant of King David.

-He would be the saviour of Israel who God would send to rescue his people from their foreign oppressors.

-But the quote from Psalm 110 and Jesus’ question of David calling him Lord,

-Adds a new dimension to the understanding of the Messiah.

-Why would David call the Messiah ‘Lord’ if he’s his descendant,

-When in the Psalm he’s seeing the Messiah being invited by God to sit at his right hand?

-Later in that same Psalm David says of the Messiah;

“You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” Psalm 110:4

-The point Jesus is making through these questions,

-Is that the Messiah is a divine character,

-Not any ordinary human being.

-The Jewish leadership’s expectation of the Messiah is way too small.

-What Jesus has done in these questions is to answer that original question that brought him into this conflict,

-‘By whose authority are you doing these things?’

-Jesus’ answer is ‘by my own!’

-‘By my Father’s!’

-This is a veiled claim of divinity.

 

-Do you wanna know what love is?

-Do you want to experience true love?

-It’s not in the feeble imitations promulgated by pop culture and a self worshipping consumer culture,

-It’s by opening yourself up to the love of God,

-A love that sent his Son from the throne of heaven into our world,

-To deal with our sin and selfishness and bring us life,

-A life of loving God and loving our neighbour.

-What is love?

-It’s what Jesus showed us on the cross,

-A self-sacrificing, life affirming, other person centred act which brought life to us,

-But which cost him his.

-What we’ve received from God is the same love we’re to give to our neighbour.

-As John said;

“We love because he first loved us.” 1John 4