s143g00 Somerton Park Sunday 31 5/11/2000

"You shall love the Lord your God ... and ... your neighbour as yourself." Mark 12:30-31

Just a couple of weeks ago it struck me with some force that these commandments omit any reference to Jesus. I suppose I had realised it before, but this is an example of Jesus again pushing away from himself any personal status. Consistently Jesus says to those who are healed "your faith has made you well" - not my power ... And when questioned about the essence of life, again he pushes the spotlight away from himself. Jesus always focusses our attention on God and on others.

And this is not just modesty, which he expects us to disregard. It is truth, and we disregard it at our own peril. As soon as we shift our focus away from God and others, even if it is towards "Jesus" we make that other, even if we label it "Jesus", an idol. If we do this to Jesus, we make him into just another sectarian leader, one amongst many competing for our attention. I find it not in the least surprising that post-modern humanity looks at Jesus and the church in this way. However I wouldn't blame the world or God for this; the blame lies fairly and squarely with us, those who claim to know something of the revelation of the love and grace of God.

And the cross and resurrection alters this not one iota. The cross and resurrection does not call us to love and follow Jesus, they call us to love God and our neighbour.

If we beat people over the head with the cross, it is to misuse it, just as surely as "Bible - bashers" misuse the Bible if they do this, also.

For I am not the only person who has come to the conclusion that people of other faiths can love God (however they perceive God to be) equally as forcefully as us. People of other faiths, and of no faith, can love their neighbours as successfully as we are enabled to do so.

Jesus always shifts the focus to God and to others, because our happiness and the happiness of the whole of society for whom Jesus died, depends not on how much we love Jesus and magnify his name, but on how we love God and others, who ever they are.

We cannot use the name of Jesus to exclude others. This would be to deny the Cross.

I was wondering recently how many of my own unresolved issues with my own father colour my "relationship" with God. One of the difficulties is that few of us escape having some negative feelings about the parent of the same gender as ourselves. Generally the relationships between mothers and sons and those between fathers and daughters are positive. But expectations and rivalries exist between boys and their fathers and daughters and their mothers. I reflect on this because often the heat in the opposition to the female side of God being expressed comes from females. And it begs the question whether the, often greater, population of females in congregations is a result of our stress on God the Father being "male". I strongly suspect men find themselves in rivalry with God the Father which they feel is inappropriate and alienating as a "Christian". The Church alienates men because there is no way to defuse this inherent rivalry they feel with any other male authority figure, let alone the ultimate authority figure. I mean most men find their lives being forced into conquering and eliminating rivals, not being submissive. With their traditional role as provider, men have a good deal of competitiveness in their nature, built in. This is not necessarily a personality defect, the well-being of a number of people other than himself, traditionally depended on the male's success at being competitive. As "Christians" now men are supposed to trust and love a being that rivals them. How many men have resented the fact that their partners went to Church? Having a "male" stereotype might be comfortable for those of the female gender, and I would be the first to say that, all in all, those of the female gender traditionally have got a pretty raw deal in life, so they do indeed deserve a more "comfortable" stereotype - but such a stereotype is not the whole truth.

Often Churches with strong male congregations are those which are strongly patriarchal, where in effect males are "god", and others, and not just females, are demeaned.

None of us came with sufficiently detailed instruction manuals when we were born and our parents were as much learners at the business of raising children as we find ourselves to be. So none of us can escape these negative feelings.

Ideally, the love and grace of God transcends the sadnesses of our early formative years when our all too frail parents whom we looked up to with a certain amount of awe, we found to be less than perfect. But I suppose it depends on how deeply we have been hurt and how with grace we might have managed to resolve and to forgive. Such things need grace and sympathetic ears. They cannot be conquered head on.

It is easy to love the starving Ethiopians with whom we will never come in contact. How much more difficult it is to love those with whom we live! How much more difficult it is to love those whom age or custom have "authority" over us! How much more difficult it is to love the neighbour who would be lost if they weren't having a dispute about this or that ...

When I was young it used to be said, with a good deal of truth - how can one love one's neighbour if one doesn't love oneself? If a person hates themselves, it is quite counter-productive to say: "love your neighbour as yourself", for in effect this translates - you're excused from your hatred of your neighbour since you hate yourself anyway ... Perhaps we should say: "If you hate yourself, at least try not to hate your neighbour quite as much as you hate yourself ..."

I wonder how many people might be saved from being killed in the various trouble spots around the world with which we are all too familiar, if we were to say, more frequently and more realistically: "hate a little less ..." rather than "love your neighbour ..."

Often in life, I have thought I did not deserve God to love me enough to send Jesus to live and to die and to rise again for me. I think as one gets older and one begins to regret some of the rash things of youth, one's sense of feeling unworthy increases. And getting older, one begins to realise the depth of our impotence to make any lasting changes to the world. Yet despite our feelings of unworthiness, or indeed our lack of feelings of unworthiness, there it is. God has already done it. God has sent Jesus, to live and to die and to rise again for me, and for you and for all, if nothing else, to show us the extent of that love God has for us all.

So there is little point in wallowing in our feelings of unworthiness however; for real life will soon show us another person who does not deserve either God's love or ours; and yet God loves that other person equally as God loves us. My mind immediately turns to the person or persons who set fire to the Church Hall at Clarence Gardens recently. Certainly they don't deserve God's love, and yet God loves them as much as he loves us. They don't deserve God's love any more (or less) than we ever deserved God's love ourselves. So our feelings of unworthiness should lead us, not to spend our lives "beating our breasts" in endless religious mortifications, but to thoughts and actions of compassion towards those who are similarly unworthy of God's love, and yet God loves them. Our feelings of unworthiness should lead us to thoughts and actions of compassion towards those who are unworthy of our love, and yet God calls us to love them - whatever their faith or lack of it - whatever their gender - whatever their lifestyle ...

The chasm has been crossed already, and if there is anything we ought to do as "Christians" it will be to proclaim by word and deed, that which we know - that the chasm has been crossed. I find it interesting that the two great commandments, from today's gospel reading, come as a result of a question to test Jesus: which is the greatest (Matthew), or first (Mark) commandment, by the official representatives of Judaism. Jesus points them, again away from himself, to their own writings and bids them practice their own faith. In this sense the two great commandments are not "Christian" at all.

For us it is more distinctively "Christian": to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (Mat 7.12, Luk 6.31), because this comes in Jesus' unbidden teaching during the sermon on the Mount. This implies some taking of the initiative, quite regardless of any expectation of response. It does not mean that we are friendly to those who have already been friendly towards us. But again, this has everything to do with our relationship with others, not our relationship with Jesus.

For again of course God has already taken the initiative. It is only God's love and grace poured out on the cross and through the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, that has the ability to begin to cut through all this, if we ourselves allow it. Only the love of God is completely selfless; all our human imitations contain not a little self interest. Jesus' love is also completely selfless, again he pushes the limelight away from himself towards our neighbours.

We only follow this example as we are bidden and are given grace to do so.

 

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