This is a radical message from Jesus to us on this Reformation Sunday: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).
Or to quote Jesus’ fuller response to the Pharisees question of which commandment was the greatest; to quote Jesus’ fuller response, which is actually itself a quote from the book of Leviticus and a quote from the Book of Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
This is Jesus’, perhaps radical for some of us, message here on this Reformation Sunday: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Yet how appropriate for Reformation Sunday! How appropriate to have this radical call for allegiance to God as the center point of our lives and counterpoint to all that would distract us from the holy and loving purposes of God.
How appropriate for Reformation Sunday; a day when we commemorate the work of Martin Luther and other reformers to change the heart of the Church and thereby the heart of all people; changing the hearts of the people in order to change the heart of the Church and realign the Church with God’s purposes made humbly and gloriously manifest through Christ on the cross, who revealed a redeeming and freely given gift of grace. Not a grace bought by works or money. Not a grace available only to those with prestige and power, but kept away from the poor and needy. A freely given grace bought only by Christ’s love for us on the cross; procured for us by God’s love for us; a love that was so primary that it poured itself out in the purest of expressions of love through Christ our Savior.
On this Reformation Sunday we commemorate, we proclaim, and we seek still today to be a part of the changing-the-heart-of-the-Church reforming work of God. For we will always need God’s freely given gift of grace through Christ to push the Church’s nose away from the worldly distractions of power and greed and sin so that the Church can better serve Christ’s purpose of realigning people’s own personal compasses - our own personal compasses - away from their distracted positions to be oriented “due Christ".
This may seem like a radical message from Jesus to us on this Reformation Sunday.
This may seem like a radical message first: because in this world where anything and everything seeks to distract us, Jesus reminds us that the love of God deserves the attention and devotion of every particulate of our beings: our hearts, our souls, our minds, and we can add our bodies. We are called to love God first and foremost with all of who we are – not our jobs or our hobbies or our political affiliations, not our favorite television shows or podcasts or holidays, not even our friends or families or denominational affiliations come first. The love of God comes first and is supposed to stay first. In today’s distracted world this is a radical message for reforming change of our lives indeed.
And this may seem like a radical message second, because it calls us to the love of our neighbor, and probably even to the continued reforming of our ideas about what it means to love our neighbor. To love our neighbors: Not to tepid tea water decency towards neighbor (though seeing more simple decency towards our neighbors in this world right now would be refreshing!); not to liking our neighbors (good heavens, who likes everyone around them in this world anyway?); but to the love of our neighbors, love such as we learn about love from the biblical context Jesus is quoting from Leviticus.
In Leviticus we learn that love of neighbor means being honest in your business dealings with them (35, 36), not defrauding or slandering our neighbor, and giving just judgments (13, 15, 16). My goodness, do you mean to tell me, pastor, that loving our neighbor means building a just economy that seeks to support the livelihood of all, as well as not cheating those around me and speaking the truth about those around me, and reforming the broken criminal justice systems of the world so that they actually help people to be reformed – reformed for their own healing and to participate in the healing and reforming of the world?
Yes. Now we might be beginning to see why Jesus’ message is so radical. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see such a world working for love of neighbor and striving for the good of all around us just yet. God is calling for a radical reforming so as to bring about the radical intended love of God expressed amongst humanity.
And there’s more to this radical love of neighbor: Just a few verses after the love your neighbor portion occurs in Leviticus, we also hear the following, and I quote: “When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the foreigner. The foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the foreigner as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (19:33-34). So loving neighbor means loving the “foreigners,” those who have come here from other countries to live among us, and breaking down the perceived barriers of “us” and “them” so that there is only “we.”
And once again, notice, just as Jesus’ greatest commandment of loving neighbor starts with and is made possible by loving God, so, too, here in Leviticus, the love of foreigner is predicated, made possible by remembering that God is the Lord our God. God is always at the center of these right attitudes and right actions. This radical action of love to which we are called is not something we do because we want to necessarily do it, and certainly not because we have the strength on our own to do it. Rather, because sacrificial love is the nature of God that has been watching over the people of this world since the world was created; and because in our Christian understanding this love of God was most potently and powerfully and sacrificially expressed through Christ for us so that, we, too, can have the capacity for radical love. Love so powerful and radical that it may even surprise us when it pours out of our hearts as love for neighbor.
Now wouldn’t that be a nice surprise? In a world filled with so much hatred and anger right now, wouldn’t that be a lovely surprise - for us and those around us – to see powerful love inspired and made possible by God pouring out of our hearts and pouring through our actions for and towards others?
Love in our social media posts and love on our grocery lines. Love in our churches and love pouring out from our churches so that the world might know that Christ is our root and our rock. Christ is our fortress, not to keep anyone out, but so that we might grow strong so as to pour ourselves out as a libation, as a holy gift in response to the God who in Christ freely gave us salvation, not expecting anything in return.
Maybe you’ve seen the signs and banners around different neighborhoods and in front of some churches; signs first created by our Quaker siblings some years ago:
“Love your neighbor! No exceptions.”
Other variations of this sign have proliferated since then, such as:
“Love your neighbor who doesn’t look like you,” or one that really tries to fit everything in: “Love your neighbor who doesn’t think like you, act like you, love like you, speak like you, pray like you, vote like you.” And there’s also one of these signs that says: “It’s really very simple: love your neighbor.”
All of these signs and their variations have a sort of beauty and power. Yet it is so important that our lives in and for faith and Christ be about much more than yard signs. We need to remember our root source. We need to remember that we are rooted by God through Christ in a freely given grace, a reforming and changing our whole lives kind of grace that makes it possible to love God first and foremost and then, rooted in this eternal stream, building lives of loving neighbor.
The world has perhaps never needed this radical message of reform more than it does now.