Benediction Online

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Law of Love
The Rev. Donna Ross

There’s more in Leviticus than we ever knew! In his summary of the law, Jesus refers to a passage from Leviticus, a passage which would have been much more familiar to the Pharisees than it is to us:

You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
You shall not render an unjust judgment... with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people,
and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin...
You shall not... take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people,
but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.. (Lev. 19:1,15-18)

(Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Christian churches made these verses from Leviticus 19 as familiar to our culture as Leviticus 18, which is always quoted by fundamentalists when arguing about homosexuals?)

Jesus takes these words from Leviticus and adds them to the Shema, a commandment memorized and taken to heart by every member of Israel, child and adult, male and female. The Shema is the heart of Judaism. It is Israel’s Law of Love: in the Shema God calls us to move from self-love to loving God with all our being: Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deut. 6:5)

When Jesus combines the two commandments, they become his Summary of the Law: We are called to love beyond ourselves – we are to turn our hearts and minds, our hands and all our gifts and talents, to serve both God and neighbor.

Later, at his last supper, Jesus would state the law of love in another way: “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.” (John 13)

The early Christians were known for their love. Christians were known not for their worship, nor their biblical knowledge, nor their insight or wisdom, nor for their sanctity or moral uprightness. They were not known for their eloquent or convincing preaching; or their buildings or their budgets. Christians were known for their love.

Justin Martyr (c 125) wrote: “They walk in all humility and kindness, and falsehood is not found among them. And they love one another. They despise not the widow and grieve not the orphan. Those that have distribute liberally to those who have not. If they see a stranger, they bring him under their roof, and rejoice over him as if he were their own brother: for they call themselves brethren not after the flesh, but after the Spirit of God; and when one of their poor passes away from the world, and any of them see him, then he provides for his burial according to his ability. And if they hear that any of their number is imprisoned or oppressed for the name of their Messiah, all of them provide for his needs... And if there is among them someone that is poor and needy, and they have not an abundance of necessities, they fast two or three days that they may supply the needy with necessary food.”

Tertullian (c 200) wrote of “the astonishing love” witnessed in Christians for all those who had need: they would support the poor, and even pay for their burials. They would take in orphans. They would care for the elderly and the home-confined. They provided for those who suffered shipwreck, and took care of those sickened in epidemics. They sent money to those who had been banished to islands or mines for the sake of Christ.

And lest we think that early Christians, like Justin Martyr and Tertullian, were simply idealizing the Christian Way, we should hear the words of the Emperor Julian the Apostate (361-363), who hated the Christians and wanted to restore the pagan religions of the old empire. But Julian wrote of the Christians: “The godless Galileans fed not only their poor, but ours also.”

If I had to summarize my Christian faith in one sentence, it would be this: Love is at the heart of the universe, Love is the way to live, and Jesus shows us the way to love.

That God loves his creation and his people is a theme that winds its way through the Hebrew Scriptures from Exodus to Malachi. That Jesus demonstrated how to love – through his life, through his suffering, through his death – and through his teaching. (Remember the Father in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son?) is the theme that winds its way through the New Testament. That Jesus expects us to share the love God gives us is also a theme of the Christian Scriptures. In just a few short weeks, we’ll hear the great parable of the Sheep and the Goats, and in that story we’ll hear people ask the King, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and give you food, or thirsty and give you something to drink, a stranger and welcomed you, sick or in prison and visited you?” And the King will say, “When you did this for my brothers and sisters, you did it for me.”

Love is the way to follow Jesus. This love is not an emotion, but an action; this love is not a feeling, but doing. If we simply listened to Leviticus, reinforced by Jesus:

In our family life, we are called to forgive
In our neighborhoods, we are forbidden to hold grudges
In our politics, we are called to tell the truth, not half-truths that amount to slander
In the world, we are called to stop thinking only of ourselves

If someone writing about Christians today, if someone wanted to describe what today’s Christians are like, would they say (as Justin Martyr wrote in the second century) “See how they love?”
If Christians today have not earned the name of Love, how could we change ourselves?

The Book of Common Prayer shows us how to live a life of love. This is the Way of Love lived by Jesus; it is the Way of Love lived by the first Christians; it is still the way for us – to be so clothed in Jesus’ Spirit that we are made able to love his world:

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen. (BCP p. 101)


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