“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, 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 neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37–39).
February is the month for lovers. So let’s talk about God’s love, and loving God.
A lot of folks today — especially in a secular place like Portland — may express discomfort with traditional religious language and observances, but they readily confess their interest in “spiritual” reality and “spiritual” quests. So our culture today is full of gurus and spiritual exercises and new forms of “church” that seem to focus, in all their variety, on me and my self-realization.
Of course I must admit that for some folks today, the religious quest — no matter how you define it or express it — is a fool’s errand. But everybody needs some sense of value, some purpose in life, some primary orientation. In a word, “faith.”
The words of Jesus quoted above cut right to the heart of our quest for a faith that makes sense. A lawyer from the party of the Pharisees has asked him, “Teacher, which commandment in the Law is greatest?” (Matthew 22:36). It may be that Jesus’ questioner was trying to trip him up or embarrass him with an unanswerable question. But Jesus takes his question seriously and answers him directly: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (22:37).
Jesus’ answer comes direct from the Shema, Israel’s ancient declaration of faith in the one, unique, incomparable God, a declaration that every Jewish boy would learn, then and now, in Hebrew School. By his answer, Jesus affirms that before we address issues of “religion” — “all the law and the prophets” (22:40) — we do one simple yet awesome thing: we lay open our entire being to that Ultimate Reality who is our origin and our destiny, our beginning and our end.
We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, that is, our volition. We yearn for God with every fiber of our being. God is to be the goal and meaning of our every plan and dream. We are to love the Lord our God with all our soul, that is, the vital energy that identifies us as who we are, our very self. We are to love the Lord our God with all our mind, that is, the part of us that analyzes and makes decisions. Our self in all of its dimensions is caught up into love and loyalty to the One who is the basis of all meaning and all reality.
Now every vision of God is indirect and requires faith. But there are signs of God’s reality woven through this magical world of ours. From the billions of galaxies that stretch across the universe as far as we can observe to the dancing atoms that make up our bodies, congealed energy according to Einstein’s famous formula, E=mc²… From the 100 billion stars that make up our Milky Way galaxy to the hundred billion neurons in our brains, a galaxy of imagination and meaning … From a tree full of golden autumn leaves to the complexity and subtle beauty of the 25¢ goldfish Annie Dillard celebrates in her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, all of creation declares God’s wonder.
God, the awesome Mystery, God, the eternal Parent, God, the Author of boundless love, can be celebrated in wordless, imageless imagination. But God can also be known and celebrated in and through what God has made. Therefore, according to, Jesus, loving God is not a retreat from the world, or a substitution for loving the world. If we truly love God, we will love what God loves, that is, what God has made. So Jesus continues, in response to the lawyer’s question. There is a second commandment like the first great commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (22:39).
From this insight it follows necessarily that worship divorced from service cannot please and honor the Lord. And it further follows that “religion” is always yoked with a celebration of the beauty and dignity and worth of the so-called “secular” world. Many versions of Christian faith have separated and even opposed the “sacred” and the “secular”. A Christian faith that is true to its Hebrew roots and true to the teaching of Jesus will proclaim that our faith in God incorporates every dimension of our lives — the way we make and spend our money, the way we exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, the way we treat the members of our family circles, our stewardship of the earth, and our compassionate engagement with “the least of these who are members of my family” (Matthew 25:40).
Do we love our senior adult members and neighbors? Do we call them and visit them, especially if they are shut-ins? Do we respect them and seek out their counsel? Do we love our youth? Do we learn their names? Do we find out what they like and dislike? Do we plan worship with them in mind? Do we love, really, the “hard-living” people who come to see us here at church from our neighboring streets? Often they are looking for something from us – and not always money or a meal. Sometimes it’s just a listening ear. Do we really believe Christ lived and died and rose again for them, too?
We may say that we love God, and we may go to great lengths to display that love in elaborate religious pageantry, but our worship mocks God if we do not give ourselves away and make ourselves vulnerable, in love, to those whom God loves.
—Dr. David L. Wheeler