“Beyond the Metrics”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
28One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”
29Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
32Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
After that no one dared to ask him any question. (NRSV)
The first version of creation in the Bible shows God creating humankind after having created water, land, plants, and animals. And in that story, there’s no Adam and Eve. No dust, or breath, or rib. Just humankind. All at once. Poof. Made in God’s image.
In the second version of creation, God creates water, land, and plants, then the human being, the adam. In Genesis 2:18 we read this remarkable sentence: “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the [adam] should be alone.’” (Gen. 2:18a) To be complete, the adam must be in relationship. So, God creates the animals, but ultimately it takes another adam, because it takes two human beings to make a whole.
The creation stories transcend history and science. They’re poetry. Revelation not information. Mystery not metrics. So, the fact that they can’t be reconciled – and aren’t supposed to be – is good news. That allows us to hear them bearing common witness to two fundamental things: Before, beneath, and beyond the creation is the presence of an eternal, creative, relationship-seeking energy. There have been countless names for that energy. The ancient Hebrews used Yahweh, or the Lord. We usually use the name God, and we think in terms of the dynamic image of Trinity – Father/Son/Holy Spirit.
Imagining God as one and three at the same time implies the second thing: Relationship. And not simply relationship, but wholeness in relationship.
Human beings are the image of God by virtue of relationship. And the word that defines that foundational, identifying relationship is love. According to 1John, “God is love.” (1John 4:16b) Pure and unsentimental, but animated and animating love. So, we are created by love, in love, for love. Everything that follows the creation stories, the entire Law and the Prophets, is commentary on that fundamental faith statement. So, anything that follows the creation stories and contradicts the affirmation that God is love, anything that follows the creation stories and suggests that love can’t be trusted to enlighten, redeem, and overcome the reality of un-love at work in the world, is just another bite into the apple, another attempt to occupy God’s place.
Having said that, it often appears that holy and eternal love is a fantasy. That’s why, adam added laws and limits, constructs and creeds – to create comprehensible metrics by which we compare and judge, by which we reward and rebuke. There are over 600 convoluted laws in the Torah, and I imagine that for faithful, first-century Jews, the question of which laws were most important was probably as urgent as asking why, if God is powerful, loving, and just, do bad things happen.
The scribe’s question is simple and direct. “Which commandment is first of all?”
Jesus’ response is equally simple and direct. Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And love others no less than you love yourself. That’s it, he says. “There is no other commandment greater than these.”
I agree, says the scribe. To love God and neighbor surpasses everything else.
Good for you,says Jesus. You are standing at the threshold of God’s kingdom.
The trouble with this Jesus-love is that it defies neat categories and measurements. As a posture we take before God and before each other, Jesus-love is a way of life in relationship, in community. According to the Gospel of John, one of the last things Jesus says to his disciples is “love one another…as I have loved you…By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.” (John 13:34a, 35a) To love as Jesus loves does not and cannot earn us favor with God. To love as Jesus loves puts us in God’s presence. So, to practice Jesus-love bears witness to God, and to our faith in God, far more concretely and memorably than any I believestatement ever can.
The metrics we create for ourselves – the statements of dogma, the intricacies of polity, and the observable acts of morality – can help to define what we believe, but such things cannot save us. Indeed, if the belief systems we develop and the communities we build do not free us to love beyond the boundaries of our fears, then they separate us from God. When that happens, they become, by definition, sin.
“It is not good that the [human being] should be alone.”
Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And love others no less than you love yourself.
I think these two passages establish the bedrock of all religious faith. We are fashioned by a creator whose own essence is vibrant relationship. Because we have been created for relationship with our creator and with other creatures – and that means all creation not simply other human beings – we cannot be whole until we accept and celebrate our intimate connectedness to all things.
Studies have shown that living in isolation causes significant psychological, emotional, and even physical trauma. Jesus’ healings are less about restoring an individual to physical health than they are about restoring community – for everyone. Creating space for relationship is one reason communities do things like build Senior Centers, organize civic clubs, repertory theaters, sports teams, and hold parades, storytelling festivals, and concerts on town square. It’s why one of the things churches must do, and must do well, is to encourage visitation – and not simply by pastors and parish nurses. Ours is a shared ministry. We don’t gather in Jesus’ name only in Sunday school, worship, at book studies, family lunches, and choir practice. Every time we gather we gather in the presence of Love,and we embody incarnate Love.
Sure, it’s much easier to limit our realm of connectedness. I often try to spare myself a lot of hassle by saying, This is what’s real – right here, inside these walls, where people look like me, talk like me, believe like me, and won’t hold me accountable for the sins we share.
It’s also true that we all need solitude. Creating time to think, reflect, and pray is to create time to grow and heal in God’s presence. And the point is to return to community refreshed, ready to be whole and fully human, again. To sequester ourselves too much, however, is to choose isolation. It’s to choose to live outside the kingdom of God.
There’s a crucial attribute to loving beyond the metrics. In a recent interview, Presbyterian pastor, teacher, and author Eugene Peterson names humility as utterly indispensable to healthy human relationships and communities. He defines humility as “a way of living your life in relationship to others without competing.”1 We’re brought up to be ambitions, he says, and when ambition devolves into competition, relationships and communities fall apart.
Competition can be fun. It can also be instructive. It can teach us how to value our strengths and admit our weaknesses. It can teach us how to value, cooperate with, and rely on others. However, when we live competitively, when we exalt ourselves as winners and belittle others as losers, we lose touch with God and neighbor. And we create little pockets of hell around us.
Love God. Love neighbor.To love is not simply to do what’s right. To love is to become fully and gratefully human, so that even here and now, we inhabit and proclaim the kingdom of God.
*To read sermons, newsletters, and other posts from earlier years, please visit: https://pastorallentn.blogspot.com.