It is amazing how often we fail a most basic mark of the faith.
It is a downright scandal how rarely it is preached.
It's questionable how directly our religious and moral practices stem from it.
Yet if we believe the direct words of Jesus Himself--you know, God--the very ability of others to recognize our Christian identity is dependent on how we follow this.
We gather in churches. We have elaborate worship and praise. And yet we barely give lip service to the first and foremost of the commandments. When we do, it is often to give exceptions--No, Jesus didn't really mean that . . .
I'm talking about the Greatest Commandment--love God and love neighbor. Abundantly.
Christians often spend more time talking about obscure lines from the Bible or obscure doctrines about obscure topics, and it's amazing how very little time we actually spend on the fundamental, core command that Jesus Himself preached to us.
If you want to take the Bible literally: God Himself actually told us what to focus on!
Jesus is very clear that the fundamental commandment is to love God and neighbor and that our public witness of this will be the very mark of our Christian identity (John 13:34-35), that our closeness to the Kingdom (Mark 12:28-34) and participation in eternity (Luke 10:25-37) are contingent on it, that all other rules and parameters can be understood only in light of it (Matthew 22:34-40). That's it. All else gets at best a distant second or third place.
And yet our denial knows no bounds. It's rubrics. It's obscure passages. It's theologizing about the finer points of a Baptism--full immersion or partial? Oil or water?
How about loving God and neighbor as the only full immersion God asks for?
Given the seriousness and centrality of the Greatest Commandment, you would think two out of every three sermons would be focused on it. You would think we'd have task forces set up to evaluate how good we are doing in living it out and suggesting ways to do it better and better.
It is so simple, yet so difficult. We do everything we can to make being "Christian" about something else--it's about church membership, a certain baptismal formula or having the right "beliefs." Even denominations at odds with one another have this in common! Way to go, ecumenism!
You could argue those other things are important, too. But we put them front and center when Jesus was clear that something else was front and center. He actually comes out and tells us to put this commandment first, and we do everything except that.
We don't outright deny the Greatest Commandment. Oh no, we would never be so bold. Rather, we do something far more sinister--we just sort of brush it aside, put it on a pedestal and otherwise ignore it.
We box it in, limit it, put the ropes around it because, in truth, it scares the living daylights out of us.
Rubrics, rules, doctrines, Morse code, alien symbols and Cracker Jack box toys--all of these only make sense in their proper place. All too often, we place them first and foremost rather than as secondary or tertiary matters which can only be properly viewed and understood in light of the primary commandment, according to the passage from Matthew above.
We find ways to rationalize. We claim that God must want our bitterness, divisions, hatreds and such, so "loving God" then becomes manifesting these things. We find every excuse NOT to love abundantly, NOT to overflow with mercy, NOT to do all that love requires of us. We can contort anything into what we want, but much of it isn't in the spirit of the New Testament. For example, we can find all sorts of examples in Scripture and Church history to support all sorts of actions. The Bible is full of war and violence of all kinds, so we could claim Biblical support for these actions. Before we blindly imitate them and claim some Scriptural backing, we should ask--does this love God and love neighbor abundantly? If not, it should go to the fires of Gehenna.
Still, individuals and churches do everything they can to wiggle out of these requirements and try to make it out to be about something else. It's not that those other things aren't important--the scandal is the disproportionate amount of energy we put into those obscure things compared to what should be first and foremost.
And let's be clear: It's absolutely and totally a scandal how we treat the Greatest Commandment.
We give lip service to love. We attempt it here and there. But we are like unruly teenagers whose parents have told us to clean the house while they are gone. So we first spend several hours watching TV, talking to our friends, and yes, thinking about cleaning the house from time to time. About 10 minutes before they return, we run roughshod over the house to give the appearance of cleanliness. That is how I see us regarding the commandment to love. We do talk about it, just enough to get that monkey off our back and claim that we are following it. But the level of enthusiasm and energy we put into it is not anywhere near what we are commanded to do by Jesus--you know, God Himself.
I'll stand up and say that theology matters. We need to ponder over the deep stuff. I'm doing it right now. We need to meditate on who Jesus was and is and what that means for us today. Our churches have all been enriched by deep theological traditions. Rituals, church institutions, doctrines--all these matter, too. They have their place--the problem is that they are not staying in their place but have all-too-often assumed center stage.
We shouldn't make the mistake of assuming that theologizing about God is the same thing as being a Christian. That would be like mistaking the pre-game huddle with the football game itself. The preparation time is NOT the game. For far too many, simply "figuring out" their personal theology is an end unto itself. Pope Francis challenges us on this: It 's not just church leaders, but also theologians who should "smell like the sheep." No one is exempt from the hard work of living out the Commandment.
I love theology, but I have to admit my faith is pretty simple.
To me, Jesus' message is both incredibly simple and also incredibly difficult at the same time. Little children get it. The poor get it. Those on the margins of society get it. The more and more "stuff" we have just makes it more difficult to hear the message. It doesn't matter if the "stuff" is material wealth or just something else we are holding onto. It could be anger. It could be our ego. It could be our need to be right. The Gospels predict this. The more attached people were to their stuff the harder time they had accepting the truth of Jesus and following.
Let that stuff go and you start to see Jesus.
Maybe the message of Jesus is like looking into the sun. It's just so bright we can't do it for long. All we can do is hint and squint at it and try to come back to it later when we are ready. There is a case to be made for that.
Maybe humankind will always be sun worshippers--the first and perhaps the only religion.
God Himself gave us the commandment. Why is this not being preached from the mountaintops? Why is this not the cornerstone of all that we say and do? Because:
Jesus is the cornerstone (Psalm 118:22, Ephesians 2:20)
Jesus is God (John 1:1, 1:14, Matthew 1:23)
"God is love.
Whoever lives in love
lives in God,
and God in them."
(1 John 4:16)
Therefore love is the cornerstone. Our active participation in love puts us in line with God, the Creator, as love is the creative energy of the universe, and love is the wavelength of eternity.
Part 1: The Elephant in the Living Room
Part 2: Like Looking at the Sun
Part 3: John 3:16 vs the Greatest Commandment
Part 4: The Law Hangs in the Balance of Love
Part 5: The First Commandment Shall Be Last