First of All

Sermon for Sunday, October 31, 2021 || Proper 26B || Mark 12:28-34

You all know that one of my favorite things to do in sermons is to look at the way Jesus responds to questions people ask him. More often than not, Jesus ignores the question and answers the one he wished were asked, usually a much deeper question than was originally posed. But not today. In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus directly answers the question the scribe asks him: “Which commandment is first of all?”

Jesus responds by paraphrasing the book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 6: “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 neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

The scribe is delighted by Jesus’ answer. And I think the reason the scribe is delighted is that his question was actually a trick question. Which commandment is first of all? The first of the ten commandments is this: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”

What Jesus says is not even part of the ten commandments. What Jesus says is not part of the hundreds of rules that come after the ten commandments. What Jesus says is not first by book, chapter, and verse. What Jesus says is not first in any way you slice it.

So, even here, while Jesus answers the question he is asked, he answers it in a wonderfully disruptive and insightful way. Jesus’ answer is like the abstract at the top of a long scientific paper. The abstract is a few sentences that summarizes the in-depth study that is to come. Jesus’ answer is basically a summary of the entire Bible in two sentences.

There is nothing better than these two sentences to align us on the path of following Jesus. So let’s use the two great commandments to realign ourselves this morning. And we’ll start with the first half of the first command: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

The Lord is One. This was the fundamental statement of faith for the people of Israel, a people surrounded by other cultures with vastly different understandings of the gods. By claiming God was One, Israel focused their belief on a single deity that was both the transcendent creator and the intimate companion. When we say, “The Lord is One,” we echo that foundational belief, and we reject all forms of idolatry. We claim God as the only God and our only God. With God’s help, we do not let anything else in our lives rise to the level of godhood. Nothing replaces God as the foundation of our existence: not wealth or fame or security or knowledge or country or family or self. Nothing. Our being has exactly one foundation, and that foundation is God. If we build our lives on anything else, as Jesus says, it will be like when someone builds a house on the sand (Matthew 7:24-27).

So the foundation of our being is God. But we would have no way to be in relationship with this foundation without the next part of the commandment: “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 word ‘love’ is our shorthand for the way God relates to God’s creation. We tend to use the word ‘love’ to speak only about ‘affection,’ but ‘love’ is not just an intense form of ‘liking.’ God did not intensely like creation into being. God loved creation into being. God’s essence is love, and in creation, God made an object for God to love, a beloved. Every element of creation loves God when it fulfills the purpose for which God made it. And these purposes are always about the various elements in creation being in right relationship with each other and with God.

Thus, the tree loves God by spreading its leaves to the sun and drinking in light and holding the soil to the ground by its roots and giving countless organisms a home and finally dying and decaying to make life happen anew. The only way we can make sense of creation is by talking about relationships. We cannot understand photosynthesis without recognizing the tree’s relationship to the sun or the various chemical reactions that are really just more tiny relationships. 

When we realign ourselves to start looking for the relationships between and among things, we begin to see the foundational love that God gave to creation. And we realize that we ourselves are part of that loving gift. That’s why Jesus calls us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Jesus so desires for us to live in concert with the rest of creation and fulfill God’s loving purpose.

When Jesus names heart, soul, mind and strength, he’s not speaking about each of these independently. He links these four elements of our personhood as a way of talking about our whole selves, the totality of our emotional, spiritual, psychological, and physical selves. Just as the Lord is One, we most fully live into our love for God when we love with every facet of our being, when we hold nothing back from the God who knitted us together in the womb and knows the number of hairs on our heads. Jesus commands us to love God with all of everything we are, not because we will be punished if we don’t, but because when we do we become truly ourselves.

And we practice this love of God every single day with the second commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We remember that love is the way God, as revealed in creation. As the First Letter of John proclaims, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (4:16). The letter continues with the exercise of Jesus’ second great commandment: “We love because [God] first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from [God] is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (4:19-21).

We love our neighbors and ourselves by righting relationships that have become distorted by greed or lust or the desire to dominate. These relationships happen on individual and societal levels. And they happen between us and the environment, which is a catch-all world for the countless relationships that exist to make life flourish. And so we love through working for justice and living sustainably and honoring the dignity of every person and everything this creation holds.

Jesus’ great commandments align us along his life-giving path. We follow Jesus by loving our One God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and by loving our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus says, “There is no other commandment greater than these.” And that’s because these paired commands stitch together all of creation, including us, into the foundational love of God.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash.

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