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Sermon: Love Your Neighbour As Yourself

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

I wonder whether you have heard the story of the churchgoer who wanted to abolish the Old Testament. His argument was that Jesus said, “Hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

Well, Jesus did say, “Hang all the Law and the Prophets”, but the problem with the argument was that the man quoted Jesus out of context. Jesus says these words when he is asked what the greatest commandment is, and his reply goes like this:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is, you shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. [Emphasis added]

You can’t abolish the Old Testament, then. Jesus said it contained the two greatest commandments.

And today’s Lectionary takes us to the second of these commandments: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

So, for only the second time in over thirty years of preaching, I find myself preaching on a text from Leviticus! It might not be a book we would rush to preach from usually, but whatever its reputation for obscure Jewish dietary laws and the like, it also contains this commandment and a host of other commandments that enshrine God’s commitment to compassion and justice. And it all gets summed up at the end of our first reading with these words: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (verse 18).

How, then, do we explore these famous words? I suggest that if the basis of loving our neighbour is the way we love ourselves, then I’m going to start with what it means in biblical terms to love ourselves and work back to loving our neighbour from there.

First of all, then, loving ourselves. It seems to me there are two equal and opposite errors into which we can fall in appreciating the assumption that we love ourselves. One is the assumption often made in our society today, and perhaps encapsulated by that dreadful series of adverts from the world’s largest cosmetics company, L’Oreal. Beginning with famous actresses closing the ads with the words, “Because I’m worth it”, they changed it in the middle of the last decade to “Because you’re worth it.” Then in 2009 they modified it again to “Because we’re worth it.”

You get the message? I am so good and so deserving that I should have the very best. It’s something that in a different way politicians have picked up on. They talk about welfare benefits as something that the right people deserve. It makes me out to be so good and perfect that the last thing you would dare to do is criticise me. The Christian notion of sin is entirely absent. There is nothing about responsibility, it is all about rights. As such, it’s unreliable as a gauge for understanding how God loves us, and we can only base love for ourselves on the way God loves us.

The opposite error takes this to the other extreme. It is what some people have called ‘worm theology’. It is the approach that says, “Lord, I am worth no more than a worm, because I am only a terrible sinner.” It is an attitude to life that leads to low self-esteem and even self-hatred, quite the opposite of ‘Because I’m worth it.’

At first glance this might seem to take seriously the Christian doctrine of sin, but it actually distorts the Christian view of God’s love for people. It makes it sound like the Cross of Christ is no more than the appeasing of an angry God, and not an expression of God’s sacrificial love in Christ.

So – loving ourselves can neither be based on “I’m wonderful”, nor on “I’m terrible.” What can it rest on, then? I believe it requires a big picture of the way God views us, and when we appreciate that, we shall be free to love ourselves healthily.

I believe it goes something like this. It begins not with sin, but with the fact that God made human beings in his image. Now whatever it means to be made in the image of God, and I’m not going to touch that this morning, what is clear is that it means that God accords human beings a special, indeed unique, dignity. It speaks of the amazing value that God puts on us.

Yes, we go on from there to speak about sin and the rupture it causes in our relationship with a holy God. But we also bring into play the fact that this holy God sets out on the journey of redemption, because his love is not incompatible with his holiness. He even gives up his only begotten Son for us. He draws us to himself by his Holy Spirit, and when we respond in faith to him through Jesus Christ, that Spirit comes to dwell within our lives.

All in all, it’s very Trinitarian: we are loved by the Father, redeemed by the Son and indwelt by the Spirit. This is the measure of God’s love for us.

Now when we know we are deeply loved, what does that do for us? A friend of mine who has suffered for much of her life with depression once told me that nothing boosted her sense of self-worth more than remembering that her husband had wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. In the midst of her illness, that knowledge gave her dignity.

So it is with the love of God. Because we are so wonderfully loved by God – extravagantly and sacrificially – we may love ourselves. It isn’t that self-love becomes self-indulgence, for then it would stand contrary to the love of God. But it is that we have an amazing sense of wonder and value. It is a firm foundation for life. We can begin to achieve a balance of taking proper care of ourselves, but also being ready to show that same sacrificial love of God to others.

All of which leads to the second part of our thinking, the part where the rubber hits the road – loving our neighbours. Now I don’t know about you, but when we are faced with something as stark and absolute in the Scriptures as ‘love your neighbour’, this is probably the time I want to start wriggling about the meaning. We know that some of the rabbis set complicated definitions about who was a neighbour and who wasn’t. In today’s Gospel passage Jesus is clearly aware of people who want to distort the plain meaning of Leviticus. He talks about those who twist the verse to say, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’ (Matthew 5:43), thus adding something to Holy Writ in order to undermine its meaning. We know, too, that this wasn’t the only time he faced this issue, since the lawyer who heard him proclaim the need to love one’s neighbour then wanted to justify himself by asking, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ and in response he tells that most shocking of parables about the Good Samaritan. Leviticus puts it bluntly, and Jesus won’t let anybody get out of the implications.

Why should it be that Leviticus and Jesus allow no limitations or exceptions on the definition of ‘neighbour’? Could it be ultimately that the same things which apply to us about God’s love for us also apply to every single human being? I think so.

In other words, it is not just me who is made in the image of God. You are, and everyone is, even our enemies, whoever they may be. All people are offered redemption in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is wooing all people to find faith in Jesus and follow him. Everyone has the same extraordinary dignity in the sight of God.

And that means anybody in need is our neighbour when it comes to the command to love. We can’t pick and choose simply the people who appeal to us, or who are like us. It includes the people we are ambivalent about, and even those we actively dislike. Our neighbours include our enemies.

However, that is not to say that we should be glib about the question of offering neighbour love to enemies. I receive a weekly devotional email from an American pastor called Brian Jones. In this week’s email, he talked about this very issue. He described the problem of reconciling all the Psalms that display anger and ask God to wreak vengeance on enemies with Jesus’ command to love our enemies. He talked of an occasion when he preached a sermon about it, one of his best, he thought, in showing how in his opinion the words of Jesus trumped the angry words of the Psalms.

After the service, though, he was brought down to earth with heavy bruising. A man spoke to him and said, ‘What would you say to me, then? This week I have pressed charges against a man who molested my son.’

Brian Jones said he realised that sometimes we can only get through to that point of loving even our enemies when we have fully felt our anger first.

You may consider this ‘love of enemies’ talk a bit of a detour from the basic ‘love your neighbour’ theme, but in fact it’s like what some people call the ‘worst case scenario’. It’s the hardest variation on love of neighbour. If we can work on this, other aspects of loving our neighbours will fall into place.

What all this talk of loving our neighbour as ourselves comes down to in the end is about being Christlike. Loving our neighbour as ourselves is about seeing people as Christ sees them. It is about having Christ’s heart for them. It is about thinking and acting like Christ. The plastic bracelets with the initials ‘WWJD’ – ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ – may have seemed cheesy, but they make a point.

So if we want to know what love of neighbour looks like, then view Jesus healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. Or see him crossing boundaries to talk to a Samaritan woman or heal a Roman centurion’s servant.

If we want to know what neighbour love looks like, go more than anywhere else to the Cross. See him caring for his mother and the disciple he loved, while dying. See him forgiving the penitent thief. See him asking the Father to forgive those who put him on the Cross – and all the while dying for their sins, for your sins and for mine.

Yes, Jesus looks on people as made in God’s image. He sees the damage caused by sin and by being sinned against and sets out on his mission of redeeming love. When he returns to heaven from that mission, he bestows the gift of the Holy Spirit on those who put their faith in him and follow him.

He has the right, then, to tell us not to resist evildoers, to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. He had the right to remind us not only to greet only our own brothers and sisters.

Walking this way may seem uncongenial and even impossible. But Jesus gives us the power to do so through the gift of the Holy Spirit. And he gives us motivation to love neighbours, even our enemies, when we consider how much he loves us and how much he has forgiven us.

Thus may we have the grace to live differently in our world.

Sermon: Love, Jesus-Style

John 13:31-35

One thing you learn early as a preacher is when to turn the lapel microphone on. In my case, I check that the sound operator will fade my microphone down during the hymns, as I wouldn’t want to add to the congregation’s agony by inflicting my singing on them. Many and legion are the stories of preachers who turned on the microphone too early, disappeared to a small room before the service, only for the entire congregation to learn where they had gone.

Sadly, our Prime Minister has not learned that lesson. This week, Gordon Brown has been The Preacher In The Loo.

I refer, of course, to what has become known as ‘Bigotgate’. I pass no comment on whether Gillian Duffy’s question about eastern European immigration was racist, nor on whether the PM was right to call her a ‘bigoted woman’. Nor do I deny that many people in all kinds of occupations let off steam about difficult individuals when they [think they] are in private.

But what I think cannot be denied is that the Prime Minister was two-faced. When talking with Mrs Duffy, he praised her to the heights, but made his disdain for her known afterwards. If he had simply maintained a level of politeness with her publicly but not told her how wonderful she was, this might have been a lesser incident, rather than a potentially defining moment in the General Election campaign. Anyone who holds a position of responsibility that depends in some way on the favour of those you are meant to lead will surely have some sympathy with Mr Brown, because you sometimes find yourself having to be polite to someone when you’d rather not be. But Gordon Brown went beyond that to the point of contempt, in my opinion.

At the same time, isn’t it frightening to reflect on all those who have been quick to criticise, as if they wouldn’t do anything of the sort? Some chance. No doubt they are correct to say that the Prime Minister is a man with a hot temper – there seem to be too many other stories confirming that. But are we to imagine he is the only politician like that?

Isn’t it something, then, that we come to a famous passage in John’s Gospel this week about love? There’s never much love lost in a General Election campaign. The handshakes at the end of the televised leaders’ debates have to rank amongst the most insincere you will ever see.

But what about us in the church? Let’s go back to those words of Jesus:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (Verses 34-35)

I simply want to reflect on two aspects of this teaching about love. Firstly, what is ‘new’ about this new commandment? I think that’s a fair question to ask. It’s not the first command to love in the Bible. It’s not even the only reference to it in Jesus’ teaching. Elsewhere he was asked what the greatest commandment was. He replied that it was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. He then sneaked in a second one: love your neighbour as yourself. So hasn’t he already made the command to love plain?

I find that comes over to me strongly in one of the Methodist communion services, where we speak of hearing the ‘commandments’ before we confess our sins. What commandments do we read? These two – to love God wholeheartedly and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Then, tacked on after them, we hear the command in today’s reading, to love one another. How in heaven and earth can Jesus add a new commandment onto the two he has given as combining to form the greatest commandment? As the great theologian Tom Jones might put it, “What’s new, pussycat?

Principally what is new here is a new standard of love. Our standard for love is the example of Jesus. ‘Just as I have loved you, so you should love one another’ (verse 34). If we want any idea of what love means, we need to look at Jesus and how he loves. It wouldn’t take us long to think about a number of ways in which the love of Jesus challenges us to deeper love.

To begin with, take the way in which he took on human flesh and lived among us to bring God’s redeeming love to us. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14) or in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, ‘The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood’.

When I was serving in my first circuit, there was a painful split at the local United Reformed Church. Some had good and necessary reasons for leaving a damaging situation. Others left, they said, to set up a new church on a poor housing estate where there was no church building. They began to hire the St John’s Ambulance hall and hold services on a Sunday afternoon. However, they made little impact on that community.

It wasn’t hard to see why. None of these Christians moved onto the estate. They commuted in from their more comfortable estates every week. They weren’t prepared to pay the price of love that Jesus paid in becoming flesh and dwelling among the very people he wanted to love.

Because that is what love looks like, according to Jesus. You can’t love from a distance. Jesus loved close-up. It’s why I say we can’t expect to spread the love of God in this community unless we are taking that love into the community, rather than simply putting on attractive programmes here and expecting people to flock to our doors. Love Jesus-style doesn’t work like that.

It’s the same in terms of love for any person in need. In another previous church, we once had a mission team visit us for a few days. They partnered some of our members in visiting local houses and pubs, looking for opportunities to share the Gospel.

At the end of the time, we held a service, and afterwards I was sitting down, talking with a young mum who had just joined the congregation, along with her husband, daughter and son. She was telling me how she had lived in fear for the previous six months, because she had found a lump in her breast. Worse, by profession she was a radiographer and she was sure she knew what it was.

Sitting in the row in front was one of the mission team. He overheard this and swooped in with all sorts of platitudes about how she was failing to trust in God. Today, eleven years later, the memory of that incident still makes me mad. That mission team member made no attempt to get alongside Carolyn in her pain and fear. He just launched sentiments and Bible verses like missiles. He didn’t ‘dwell with’ Carolyn, as Jesus would have done. But that’s love ‘as he has loved us’. Hands get dirty. Time and energy are spent. Money and possessions are deployed for others. Because we move into the neighbourhood of those who need love.

Which means also that Jesus-style love is sacrificial. For, as we know, ultimately he loved us by laying down his life for the world. Love is a lot more than dewy-eyed teenagers looking forward to another romantic liaison. Love comes with a cost. It cost Jesus everything. It is hardly likely to cost us any less.

We know how seriously the early church took this. Famously one Christian from around the end of the second century to beginning of the third called Tertullian said, “We share everything except our wives.”

Another early story is of the Christian craftsman who, in order to make ends meet, had accepted a job to make idols for a pagan temple. When challenged about this by a church leader he replied, “But I must live!” The leader replied: “Must you?”

We could find countless examples from other places and times of Christians who knew that real love meant a willingness to sacrifice, even to lay down one’s life – because that is what Jesus had done in love for the world.

And that is why the second aspect of Jesus’ teaching in this passage is about the outcomes of love. Loving one another according to the pattern of Jesus isn’t just a new standard of love, it’s about a new order. The outcome is described in verse 35:

‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

The mark of the Christian community, according to Jesus, is love. It is what distinguishes us. Just as Jesus and the Father were so united with each other, so the Christian church is to be bound up as one with each other in mutual love. As the pagans looked at the early Christians and wondered, “See how these Christians love one another!” so that is not meant to have changed.

Some of you have told me examples of when such sticking-together, sacrificial love has been the gift of this church to you in times of need. Most notably I have heard people speak about such love here in bereavement or in chronic illness.

Nevertheless, it’s always good to be challenged and stretched. As Christians we cannot be complacent and opt for the kind of faith that is merely comfortable and just looks all the time to be patted on the back and sent on our way rejoicing. Given the importance Jesus places here on the world being able to tell that we are his disciples by our love for one another, it seems apt to raise a few simple challenges about our love for one another.

Let’s name a few, then. If Jesus and his Father were and are so at one in their love for one another, isn’t it time to drop all the talk about whether we are ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ a particular person?

Or – if we see how wrong Gordon Brown’s behaviour was towards Gillian Duffy, is it worthy of us to tell people to their faces how wonderful they are, all the while behind their back running a campaign against them?

Similarly, if we truly believe in love like Jesus did, can we treat people as objects, or as means to an end, or even just as bait to attract others?

And if love unites us, can we entertain the idea of cliques in a church?

Oh – and by the way, if these examples shock or surprise you, I have based every one of them on incidents or attitudes I have witnessed in Methodist churches.

What should we do? If we have hurt someone else and they know that it was us, then we need to ask their forgiveness. The sharing of The Peace in a few minutes’ time could be a time for that. If the boot is on the other foot, and we are the wronged party and the other person knows they have hurt us, then in love we need to offer forgiveness. Again, The Peace would be a good time to do this.

Naturally, if one party does not know about the hurt, that might not be advisable. If the other party is not present today, loving offers of reconciliation in repentance or forgiveness need to be offered outside this service.

If one party does not know about the hurt, then perhaps it is best simply to settle this privately with God, unless he directs us otherwise.

But however God leads us, let us remember this. It is not by our beautiful buildings that the world will know we are Jesus’ disciples. It is not by our attractive programme of events that the world will know we follow Jesus. It is by the quality of our love that the world will see our devotion to Jesus.

Nothing could be more important.

Sabbatical, Day 35: Missional Party-Going

If there’s one thing I struggle with Missional Jesus over, it’s parties. He loved them. I hate them.

OK, ‘hate’ is the wrong word, but they have too many connotations of embarrassment from the past. And tonight, Debbie and I were at a party for missional reasons.

M has become a friend of ours through pre-school and school. She has children of a similar age to ours. Major aspects of her life have been horrendous in recent times – I’m not going to detail them in a public medium here – and we have stood with her through some difficult and painful decisions. Most of the time, it has simply meant inviting her for coffee or lunch. We gave her a few spare possessions when she needed to move her accommodation. Occasionally, there have been overtly spiritual conversations.

But today was her thirtieth birthday. She could not afford a party, but good friends hired a hall and a DJ. They decorated it and provided food. We were among eighty or so guests who were invited, and we felt it right to accept the invitation, even though we knew it would be the kind of event where I in particular would feel uncomfortable.

It’s that raging introvert issue again. Discos are not my thing. The style of music isn’t my taste, and you’re not likely to see me dance any time before the Second Coming. King David may have danced before the Lord, but this David doesn’t. Thankfully, nobody tonight applied any of the heavy social pressure to which I have been subjected on other occasions: this bunch of largely non-Christians was a lot more relaxed about people making their own decisions than many Christian-dominated parties I’ve attended in the past.

But I can’t escape the fact that in the Gospels, Jesus seemed so comfortable at parties. I know there is no verse which says, “And it came to pass that Jesus got up and danced to ‘You’re The One That I Want’,” but to my mind he seems chilled and at home at parties. If we’re going to share in people’s lives on their territory, not ours, it is going to involve actions that are uncomfortable for us. Not in the sense of ethics and moral decisions, but in terms of personal preferences and tastes. It may not be party-going for you, but if it isn’t that, it will be something else. 

So yes, the incarnational theology stuff is important. We need to be ‘in the world’ and also ‘not of the world’ without giving the appearance that we have landed from another planet. But the practice of such theological theory requires a dose of chilled-out Jesus.

Yet what exactly was that? Was he happy at parties because he was an extravert? If I take the Myers Briggs definition of extraversion as someone who derives energy from being with other people, then he certainly did enjoy the company of gatherings large and small. Yet at the same time he displayed introvert tendencies in his ability to go off on his own for extended times of prayer. So I don’t think this is a matter of personality type, however much I am thinking about that subject at present.

I think it’s a matter of security in his own identity. He knew he was the Father’s belovèd Son, and that the Father was well pleased with him. God reminded him of that twice in his life. The first time was at his baptism, just before his public ministry started. The second time was at the Transfiguration, just before he made his deliberate journey towards his Passion at Jerusalem.

And isn’t it that same knowledge in us – in our case a blessing of grace – of knowing that we are loved beyond measure by the Father – that is our security and foundation? Is this not the rock where our feet stand firm, and where it doesn’t matter how other people treat us or what social pressures they exert? Isn’t this vital for the whole spiritual life, mission and worship? May this knowledge, and an the experience of it, grow in each of us, not simply that we are blessed out of our socks, but that we are chilled-out little Jesuses who bless others.

We finally moved

Long time no blog. It’s three and a half weeks since we moved and finally we’ve nearly unpacked everything. A combination of moving with two small children plus having to move rather closer to the date I was beginning ministry here have had their effect. Just got to set up the hi-fi now, I think.

It’s a much smaller house. We knew that, of course. We’d been Mr and Mrs eBay for several months prior to the move. Some much-loved old possessions had to go. In my case I said goodbye to over a thousand vinyl LPs. Some I sold, others had to go to the dump.

But the house has been beautifully decorated and refurbished. A working party from one of my churches removed all the prickly plants from the garden to make it safe for our children. Some basic food and drink was here for us to see us through our first few days. They even bought some toys to amuse the kids while the removal men did their work.

We’ve also found them to be uncommonly principled and generous in what they pay for expenses, too. The circuit stewards (don’t worry if you’re not a Methodist, it’s simply the senior ‘lay’ office in a Methodist circuit) had told us repeatedly that they look after their ministers.

We’ve also found it to be a lovely area for bringing up the children. The area where our manse was situated in the last appointment was pretty grim. In the Old Testament ‘salvation’ can mean being brought into a spacious place: the house here may not be spacious, but the area has that feel. We feel peaceful about our children being here.

So if I think of the move as also being a spiritual journey what have I learned so far from it? A number of things:

I’ve learned to do without some cherished possessions. However I shouldn’t sound too virtuously ascetic there, because we were able to buy a new digital SLR camera, so I can revive an old hobby. I had had to sell my old film SLR gear.

Then there is the love we have received. It’s been amazing. The mantra we kept hearing, “We look after our ministers”, had been hard to believe before we came, mainly due to previous bad experiences, where much was trumpeted and little delivered. I have to learn not to let old scars damage the way I treat new people. I thought I was better at that than I obviously am.

Not that I am expecting a picnic here. I am clearly in a different spiritual tradition to at least two of the three churches I am serving, but we’ll see how it goes. We firmly believed God had led us to accept this appointment, and we wait to see some of the reasons why he brought us here. Watch this space.