What I said on Sunday – Last after Trinity

Here’s my sermon from last sunday.

Matthew 22.34-end

A to Z maps are very useful when you are visiting a city you haven’t been to before. As long as the street names are in a big enough font then you can find your destination. Once you know where you’re going, then you can work out the best way to get there. Of course, it is also essential that you know where you are because if you don’t know where you are starting from you still won’t know which way to go. As the old joke goes: a man was lost so asked someone for directions. The reply came: Well, if I were you and wanting to get there I wouldn’t be starting from here. Of course, in these days of satellite navigation systems, we can work out our route somewhat more exactly. SatNavs are pretty good at getting you to your destination no matter where you start from, providing you enter the destination correctly and use your common sense. Unlike the amateur sailor who had to be rescued after his boat ran aground near Canvey Island. He had been trying to reach Rochester in his boat and had no charts, no flares, no radio – he just thought that a SatNav designed for a car would get him there.

And there are numerous stories of people who appear to drive with their eyes closed when using their SatNav. Like the woman who, in 2007 – and this was widely reported in the press – was on her way to a christening party in Leicestershire when she was sent down a winding track normally used only by farmers in their 4x4s. The track was signposted ”Unsuitable for motor vehicles” so she ignored the sign and carried on only to find that the track ended crossing a river in the sleepy village of Sheepy Magna – and I’m sure there’s a joke in there somewhere about “all we like sheep have gone astray.” The river was swollen by days of heavy rain so, since her SatNav told her to carry on, she drove her £96,000 Mercedes into the river. She barely managed to escape from drowning as the car was swept downriver and submerged. It was, needless to say, a write-off. Of course, if you find that SatNavs aren’t accurate enough for you, you’ll have been pleased to hear the news on the Today programme on Radio 4 this week that the European Space Agency, just in case the United States stops letting us use its satellites, is launching its own satellites that by the middle of this decade will be able to tell us our position to within 10 centimetres – which presumably should be accurate enough for anyone.

The purpose of these tools – whether an A to Z or a SatNav – is to help us to get to our destination, and the greater the accuracy the better. But ultimately that’s all they are, tools – not to be slavishly followed – for they don’t actually drive for you or teach you how to drive.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is giving us instructions, directions on how to get to our destination in life. The Jews knew that God had given them detailed commandments, covering every aspect of life, showing them how to live as he wanted. And the Law was for them, in a way, a kind of spiritual A to Z – it showed them how to get to their destination. And the greater the accuracy, the better – the more they could keep the rules, the better. The problem was that there were so many rules, and even more interpretations of them, that often people got bogged down in the details and so, as in today’s Gospel, they often asked teachers of the Law what was essential, what was the heart of the Law.

These days, of course, they’d ask their iPhone. Those of you who are into such things can’t have missed the news that Apple released a new iPhone a week last Friday that you can speak to and ask things like “what’s my next appointment?” or “Show me John Smith’s address” and even, amazingly, “where’s my wife?”. According to today’s Times you can ask it, rather appropriately given today’s gospel, “What’s the meaning of life?” and get the response:

Try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.

Except I tried it this morning and the answer to the question “What’s the meaning of life?” is apparently

All evidence to date suggests it’s chocolate.

Never let it be said that a giant corporation like Apple doesn’t have a sense of humour!

Jesus’ answer to the question he was asked was nothing to do with chocolate. It was far more serious. Love God and to love our neighbour – and perhaps it is so familiar to us, that we miss the revolutionary impact it must have had on his audience. Every Jew knew that their first duty was to love God, but Jesus made the second, lesser known commandment, just as important as this first commandment. Love God, love your neighbour – keep the first, but keep the second also – for that sums up the whole Law. Many of the people of Jesus time expressed their desire to love God by their strict observance of the tiny rules of the Law. Which of these were the most important? And Jesus sums up the whole of the rest of the Law in just five words in English – love your neighbour as yourself. For at its heart, the Christian faith is not about rules and regulations. It is about relationship with God, which by definition is a relationship with love. And that relationship with God is a relationship that involves every part of us and it reaches into every aspect of our lives. As it does so, then our relationships with other people become marked by this love as well, and so does our relationship with ourselves. We are not called to hate ourselves, but to love ourselves and to know ourselves loved by God. We are not called to hate others, but to love them and ensure that they too know themselves loved. All this becomes – or should become – natural as we receive and respond to God’s love for us.

It is of course very important to love God and to honour him. But Jesus helps us realise that such idealism needs to be put into practice. You must love God, but you must also love your neighbour – and if you don’t love your neighbour, then you don’t love God. Saint John spells out this rather uncomfortable truth in his first letter:

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them… We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.

And yet sometimes we’re really not very good at loving one another. Tertullian, the Early Church Father who lived around the end of the 2nd century, commented on how non-Christians remarked on the love that Christians had for one another: He wrote:

Look,” they say, “how they love one another” (for they themselves hate one another); “and how they are ready to die for each other” (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).

Just ask yourselves this – if outsiders took a good long look at St John’s would they say “Look how they love one another” – or would they see a group of people much like any other, characterised by the traits that any other group would have.
Take any group of people – people belonging to the same cricket club, perhaps, or the same exercise class, or who are parents of children in the same year at school. And you’ll find a group of people who while they might appear to get on most of the time when face to face can be remarkably rude to each other when communicating by email or phone or text message over the smallest things, and who could win Gold Medals at the Olympics for gossiping behind people’s backs. Gossip, in particular, can become a real problem in a community – it has been said that Gossip is bullying a person when they’re not there. And too often these problems can characterise churches, too. Churches are not exempt from the problems of rudeness and gossip. The Bible makes it absolutely clear that a Christian community must be different. It must reflect the love of God in the love its members show for one another as well as in the love it shows for those outside. Saint John goes on: The commandment we have from him (from God) is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was. The problem was that the Jewish leaders thought that keeping all the rules would get you to heaven – a bit like making sure that you followed every instruction that a SatNav gives you – but unfortunately they often did it with their eyes closed. What they had failed to realise was that it wasn’t keeping all the instructions that got you there, it was how well you lived and how well you loved. The Law, like a SatNav, was a tool – it helped you on the journey but it couldn’t do the journey for you – that you had to do yourself.

When we realise that without love for one another our love of God is empty, then we are on the right track. When we start to try to show love in every aspect of our lives – and there’ll always be times when we don’t get it right because we’re only human – then we’ll start to truly live the journey as God wants us to. Hold on to what the Bible says and live it out: First love God and then love your neighbour says Jesus. Love your brother and sister, for only then can you love God says Saint John.
Love should characterise every Christian community – including ours – so that people say: Look how those Christians love one another.

One of them, a lawyer, asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your hearts, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hand all the law and the prophets.