Sermon preached at Lincoln College, Oxford. Evensong.
Matthew 22:34-end. 1 Thess 2:1-8
May I speak in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The Pharisees are incredulous, outraged, and perhaps a little scared – they have heard how Jesus has silenced the Sadduccees, and are feeling increasingly desperate.
They ask one of their party, a lawyer, an expert in Torah, to pose a test. The question seems incredibly simple… too simple
maybe. Which commandment in the law is the greatest?
Perhaps they have heard so much about Jesus’ ‘radical’ teaching, his openness and his strange dining practices, eating with sinful women, and tax collectors. Perhaps they remember how he stopped the rightful punishment of an adulteress. Or that hate your father and mother and follow me act. So who knows which commandment he might say?
Or perhaps they hope that he will say that one isn’t important, maybe that adultery one… Maybe they think that he won’t choose God… after all, these Pharisees are the ones doing things properly, putting God first, of course they are.
And of course Jesus choses the greatest commandment, to Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind. This is indeed the greatest, and primary commandment. But then all the others, in fact all the law, and all the prophets too are wrapped up in Jesus’ second – ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’.
Simple. Love of God and love of neighbour.
He’ll elaborate on this later – I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me…. in those love of neighbour actions, for
love is in Jesus’ time predominantly a verb, rather than a state of feeling , a doing word as they teach in school. In these doing things, love of Jesus, love of God is shown.
I wonder which of these we find it easiest to do? Which of these we can most confidently say that we do do? I wonder which you would choose? I’d like to think that the first one, although seemingly impossible at times, is the goal, the telos meaning the pinnacle or end of all Christians. It’s what we aim for, even if, of course, we slip and fall along the way, it is the aim, the promise, that one day, every bit of ourselves, heart and mind and soul – all of us, will love the Lord our God.
I’d like to think that Christians love their neighbours too – I work in a ‘normal’ sort of run-down parish and the love for neighbour that I witness there shocks me. The take away of my curacy so far, is that people are astonishingly kind.
And yet of course, until they are not.
Until faced with something different, or strange, or intrusive. I think that sometimes then, we are all not.
We shape our images of neighbour into either people who are like us, or people who we have deemed worthy – the helpless. And when we fail to see our true neighbours, all people, all children of God, well, then Christians can act terribly.
I was saddened this week to see faithful Christian MPs vote to not feed children, blaming the mismanagement of their parents, the apparent sin of fecklessness, or joblessness, fearing that an 8 year old might become dependant upon state help, as though it was were some class A drug more damaging than hunger, or poverty, or shame.
And if we look across the pond, we see atrocities. And we are not blameless here, the Church has often chosen to abuse rather than to love.
So love of neighbour is often left beaten by the wayside.
And when I read these passages, I was struck by another facet which is sneaked in here
too. It’s not a commandment as such, but more of an implication, or rather a starting point, the fertile ground from which the seeds of love can shoot and blossom. We are to love our neighbours as ourselves. As ourselves.
How many of us, even the kindest most giving of us, can say that we love ourselves. How often do we look at ourselves, metaphorically or physically and see the face of Christ. Does that idea, that each of us holds the image of God too ever make us feel uncomfortable? Do we forget it? Do we surpress it? What do I even mean by this self-love?
Well to start with, the idea of loving ourselves has a bit of a bad rep. To me, so much self- love, or often body-positivity, reclamation is exactly that, reclaiming the self from how it has been deeply damaged. In most cases, these kind of ‘inspirational’ statements, often on social media are aimed at repairing the damage that society has done, when it tells us that we can’t be this size, or this expression of gender, or that our brains can’t work in this way, or that who we have no choice but to love is wrong.
I think this work is great, but that true love, goes beyond just the mere acceptance that we might, possibly, be ok. But it’s a start.
To love yourself in Christian circles is often seen as narcissistic, self-obsessed, puffed up as Paul would say – a quick google brought me this quote on a popular Anglican blog-site – ‘self-love is not real love and is in fact, sinful and selfish’. Sinful and selfish. And yet, Jesus uses it as the example for how we are to love others.
Self love is seen as narrow and excluding, the idea that if we love ourselves we turn inward and focus our attention on over building our own selves up (which of course can happen), rather than the idea that loving ourselves, with a love that is so deep and true, with a love that sees us as we all are, fearfully and wonderfully made, that it settles and cannot help but overspill – the love of God rooted in us, reaching out to those around us.
In this case, it is a love that gives without wondering what, whether gift, or reward, or attention, or love, may be given in return.
I think that so much damage is done to others, as an extension of the damage we do to our own selves, to our own souls. When we see ourselves as unworthy, less, wrong, when we lack stability and sureness, then we can so easily hurt others. To paraphrase Ru Paul, if we can’t love ourselves, how can we ever love someone else.
If we turn to Thessalonians we see a little about what love looks like, perhaps, in these really kind words to others, we see something for ourselves – appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives Paul writes…. we cannot love ourselves, we cannot believe ourselves to be radically loved by God, if we cannot see ourselves as we are. Just as one would not deceive a neighbour, to thine own self be true.
Often this journey of acceptance is hard, but it does not have to be lonely so, without wanting to sound all public service announcement, reach out if you are struggling with how you see yourself or how God has made you.
And finally Paul says, ‘we were gentle among you, like a nurse caring for her own children’,
like God, the mother hen, drawing in, and nurturing, and protecting.
I read one of those kind of agony aunt letters to a magazine lately, maybe you did too, from a woman worried about how she’d handled being a single mum in lockdown, how, in recovering from COVID herself, she’d “let herself go”, how she was disgusted with herself. Be kind to yourself, the letter wrote in return, treat yourself as you’d treat your
child. Treat yourself as you’d treat a child of God, sit with the radical proposition that you are a much beloved child of God. And be gentle, cosset yourself. The world is harsh, and the work is tiring, let yourself be loved, and as you do, know and love yourself. Realise that it is possible. More than possible.
Love does not flatter or seek praise. This is about that sense of stability, the solid love of God that just is, a love that, as I’ve already touched on, allows love to overflow.
Of course, as many would argue, perhaps I’ve read too much into this passage, I’ve overworked, overstretched the ‘as’ in that commandment. Perhaps self-love is selfish and un-godly after all.
But I look at the life of Jesus, and I cannot believe that. I look at a God who chose to come here, to this messy, messed up
world. Who chose an ordinary body, in an ordinary womb. Who left the angels and chose flesh and blood, bone and sinew. Who chose humanity – mind and emotion and body. Who chose an ordinary life, who came ‘to share their life with them’ as blessed Charles de Foucauld puts it.
Who chose all of this – to hallow and to love.
These are hard times, and we as Christians are called to be that salt and light, to bring joy and healing and God’s justice to a world which is wounded and aching. We are called to unbelievable acts of love. If we root these in the love of God, and the awareness that we are loved and worthy of love, then our ground will be fertile, and our actions true.
Self love is not selfish, it is an act of holy resistance, the refusal to shore up the narratives of a world who would seek to tell us we are less and that what we can do is less. In these strange times it is more needed than ever.
The poet Mary Oliver wrote, and on this I’ll end
‘Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually. Maybe the desire to make something beautiful is the piece of God that is inside each of us’.
Let us love that, for it is woven into every fibre of our being.