By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 25, 2020
Matthew 22:34–46 (ESV)
34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” 41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, 42 saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, 44 “ ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet” ’? 45 If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” 46 And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
Throughout the history of the Church, those that follow Christ have spent a great deal of energy trying to determine who real Christians are. I am certain we have participated in this activity; I know I have. It is difficult to not be drawn into this activity. This week I posted a meme on Facebook that was created from someone that worked in food service that complained about the Sunday afternoon crowd. The complaint was that the people on Sunday afternoon are some of the worst behaved people of the week. The implication in that statement is that these people are those that would call themselves Christians. I have mentioned it before because I have had several friends that have worked at restaurants and they have mentioned how they received the worst tips of the week on the Sunday lunch crowd, while the people eating out demand the most. Many of these friends were so discouraged by those customers that when I invited them to attend church with me, they refused. Their entire knowledge of God was jaded by the manner they were treated while they worked.
The early Friends were confounded by these sorts of things as well. When George Fox was a young man, he eagerly sought spiritual direction. He met with several men of respected position. The direction the young Fox was given did not speak to the heart of his condition. One minister encouraged the young man to smoke tobacco, another encouraged him to get married. These men thought that George just needed a distraction to keep his mind or body occupied and the deeper question he carried would just go away. He visited a third man, and in this meeting, they walked in the man’s garden and talked. According to Fox this meeting seemed to be on the right track, until George accidently took a step off the garden’s pathway and crushed on the plants. This man went into a great rage over the minor offence and threw George out. The conversation was over. George was at a loss, everyone that he queried about life, pointed him in a different direction. Every person encouraged him to pursue something temporal when he sought to know God more deeply. George nearly lost faith, he finally took his book of scripture to a field and sat down alone in the wilderness. It was in that field that George reported that he heard the voice of God, telling him that Christ could speak to his condition. George then went out into the community to preach.
The early Friends did a great deal of preaching in that first generation. They would meet in silence waiting for Christ to speak to them, and when they sensed the Spirit of God speaking, they would be compelled to speak. The fact that they met in silence caused a stir in the community. How could they be Christian if all they did was sit there? No baptism, no communion, no ceremony, or sacraments? The early Friends spoke of this saying that all of life is sacred and should be lived for the Lord’s glory. All of life, not just Sunday morning, but Sunday afternoon as well as the rest of the week. Every moment you live, every journey you take should be lived as if it is a missionary journey appointed by God to expand his kingdom.
If you were to look at every denomination or revival movement within Church history you would find somewhere within a story like this. A small group of people sought to know God in a deeper more meaningful manner, and from that desire they were directed to reform the church in some way. The Franciscans left all worldly wealth and relied on God to provide all their needs as they walked around the European countryside, preaching the gospel wherever they would go, and when necessary they would use words. Martin Luther was so moved with a desire to adhere to the truth of scripture that he along with the early Lutherans would reject all church traditions that were not found in scripture. Each major movement had an aspect of faith that was being neglected, that neglect was causing a rift in the spiritual community, and the younger generation was called to minister in that area. And with each of those spiritual revivals there was opposition. This opposition caused division in the church, the first was the Coptic Church. Then the eastern churches were forced out. Then the Protestant reformations. Then within those protestant reformations, we began to see more and more division which became the various denominations that we see today. And these divisions continue because we are all trying our hardest to determine who is a real Christian.
Today the passage begins again with a conversation between Jesus and one of those religious groups within the Jewish faith. The people of the first century were also engaged in the debate of who had the true faith. The Pharisees and the Sadducees both had their theological ideas, and they were attempting to determine if Jesus as an enemy or an ally. Each group would send spokesmen to Jesus. Each group would ask questions that would test Jesus’ positions in reference to their own.
Jesus knowing that they were pitting him to the test provided answers that prompted deeper consideration. On the surface one could say he was in opposition, while at the same time he could be voicing support. This is unique, because the answers Jesus gives do necessarily give us a dualistic answer but instead engage those present in a deeper conversation.
The question the Sadducees asked dealt with the issue if whose wife a woman would be in heaven. The question we might not see as a great theological issue, but this was one of those points that caused division within the faith of Israel. Jesus answered in a manner that shook their understanding, no one is married in heaven. If God ordains marriage how can marriage not be present in heaven? The issue goes to the deeper meanings of marriage and intimacy, we do not need marriage in heaven because our identity and intimacy is found not in the acceptance of those around us but in God. This answer draws into question the very nature of human creation, and Adam’s fall. Adam desired companionship and a mate, this was the beginnings of the fall, Adam questioned God’s plan and execution of those plans. Humankind was created as a complete expression of love and grace, not man nor woman genders but a groundling in full possession of all humanity. Intimacy was found in God. When Jesus answered that there will be no need for marriage, he is saying that humanity will be restored to its proper place, we will be complete and restored.
Now the Pharisees come with a lawyer. This gives us a glimpse into the deeper expressions of this group. I mentioned last week that they were devoted to preserving the faith of Israel even when there was not a temple to provide devotional actions. Duty and legalism became the manner of religious expression and they were devout in this. When Jesus states that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, he is speaking of the religious mantle that is being placed on the people attempting to participate in religious devotion. They labored vigorously to determine the proper lifestyle, yet they debated among each other as to which laws held the most importance. We might consider this odd because to most of us we think mainly of the ten commandments, but if you were to study Torah there are more than six hundred laws that these religious leaders are considering. Laws dealing with food, hygiene, social responsibility, dealing with immigrants, and much more. When they ask Jesus, what law is the greatest, they are expecting to enter a great debate.
Jesus answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Love God with everything you have and love your neighbor. If we were to focus all our efforts on these two things imagine the difference we could make? While I was attending Friends University, one of the books we worked through in class was called Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard. This book was amazing because it opened my eyes to aspects of who I am in relation to myself, God, and others in ways that I had not encountered before. In this book Mr. Willard places the heart at the center of our soul. It is in our hearts or will where our deepest identity resides, who we truly are. Because the heart is where our most real identity resides that is why we should guard our hearts. Willard goes on to say that there are two forces that directly influence our heart, those two forces are our mind and our emotions. These two forces are the greatest things we use to guard and to encourage our hearts.
When Jesus says love God with all your heart, he is saying that love and devotion to God should be at the very core of our identity. It should be the starting point of every endeavor we make, and it should the place we come back to find rest and restoration. Jesus also says to love God with all our mind. Since the mind is one of those forces that relate directly to our hearts, we should focus our minds to God as well, through discipline. How do we direct our minds to God? The easiest answer to this question is Bible study. This is one discipline that will direct our mind to the things of God but devoting our mind to God goes much deeper than that. We need to treat our minds as things cherished by God. Which means we should pursue greater knowledge and wisdom in many areas both inside and outside what we would call church pursuits. We should pursue knowledge with as much passion as we pursue God. I say this because when we pursue knowledge with God, we can often find ourselves in a state of awe. When we look at the structures of cell, it is amazing how many details there are and how precise our creator was. When we look at the vastness of space, we can see the vastness of God and get a fuller sense of the reality of grace. Scripture tells us that God removes our sins from us as far as the east is from the west. That distance is infinite in theory, but when we look at celestial bodies at distances measure in light continuously traveling in years, that grace becomes massive.
Devoting our mind to God also helps temper our emotions. We struggle with emotions. The positive emotions are not so bad, the things like love and joy, but what about anger and depression? When we commit our emotions to God, this allows our mind to process those things through something that remains constant. At this moment I might have feelings of anxiety, why do I have those feeling? Right now, it is because everyone is looking at me, I am speaking, and I do not want to look foolish. These are emotional triggers that are affecting my core identity. How can I deal with these emotions? Study is one way. I do not want to look foolish so I do everything I can to make sure what I say is filled with as much wisdom as possible. But that does not prevent those around me from seeing me as foolish. I cannot know someone outside of myself unless we have a conversation.
This leads us to loving God with all our soul. For many we were taught that our soul is that area of our lives that I previously said was our heart. But Dallas Willard proposes that the soul is our entire existence, or every aspect of our lives. This includes our heart, mind, body, interpersonal relationships, and even our environment. Every person here is part of who I am and part of who you are. How we react to and with each other affects something deep within us and reveals our identity. This is something that science calls systems theory. Each part within a system has a purpose, and when one part is in distress the entire system suffers. The best example of this I can think of is empathy and grief. When someone close to us suffers, we suffer too. And if someone close to us dies, we still feel the sting of that loss even years later. I personally struggle during this time of year. I struggle because twenty-three years ago this coming week my little sister died. That death had a profound impact on my life, one that caused changes to my perception of who I am. In my attempt to process the emotions of that loss, I initially made decisions that changed the course of my life. From those decisions and how they affected others around me, my life is completely different than it was before.
A more positive example of how interpersonal relationships affect our core identity, is children. Things change in our lives when we become responsible for another life. And the decisions we make as parents can encourage or discourage the hearts of our children. I have said many times that my son James brought me to Christ. I identified as a Christian before James was born, but when I held him in my arms the first time, my understanding of God changed. I had a greater understanding of love, and I also had a greater understanding of my own limitations.
Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. That is the first commandment. And the second is like it love your neighbor as yourself. If one aspect of our soul is interpersonal relationships, the command to love your neighbor as yourself is included in the first commandment. Jesus repeats this part because it is important. We get the love God part. We often struggle with the love your neighbor as yourself. We struggle with this because we do not love ourselves. Consider for a moment something that annoys you about a coworker, or even one of your children. The things that annoy me the most personally are the things that I see them doing, that I do. And the more someone resembles you, the more annoyed you often get. Jesus once illustrated this by a parable saying, do not take the speck out of your brother’s eye when you have a plank in your own eye. I get annoyed often by those around me, but it is often myself that I am annoyed with. And when we get into one of those places we need to step back and examine ourselves.
I began today by mentioning the amount of energy we often spend trying to determine who is a true Christian. The early Friends removed all the rites and rituals that are often associated with Christian practice, because they wanted to encourage people to make their lives a sacrament, holy and dedicated to the Lord. This means that every aspect of our lives is lived in a manner of worship and service. When we go to the store, it might be to make purchases for ourselves, but it is also a missions trip just as vital for the soul of the world as the missionaries that serve in Africa or Asia. When we eat at a restaurant, we are not only enjoying the food with friends and family, but we are making God’s joy complete by being a blessing to those that serve us. The religious lawyers wanted to know what the greatest commandment was, and Jesus told them to love God, love your neighbor, and love yourself. He is saying live our lives completely dedicated to God in all we do. And that is our mission and our purpose to love God, embrace the Holy Spirit and to live the love of Christ with others.