Celebrating a New Ministry (a sermon)

My colleague Hugh Matheson did me the honour of asking me to preach at his induction as Rector of Immanuel Church, Wetaskiwin on Sunday evening (Sept. 29th). This is the sermon I preached; the text was Mark 12:28-34

I’d like to thank Hugh for inviting me to preach tonight at this celebration of his new ministry in this parish. Of course, I use the word ‘new’ rather loosely here, as he’s already been around for quite a while! But tonight we’re going to make it official; after tonight, Hugh, you may officially do what you’ve already been doing for the past nine months or so!

I realized earlier this year that attending ordination and induction services is really quite important for me. You see, it’s really easy in church land to get distracted by all sorts of fascinating things that don’t really have a great deal to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ and with the gospel ministry that he’s entrusted to us. And then along comes an ordination or an induction, and once again we’re reminded of the wonderful love of God in Christ, and of our calling as Christians to live and share that love.

And so it is tonight. In our gospel reading, a scribe comes to Jesus and asks him a ‘back to basics’ question: “Which commandment is the first of all?” and Jesus replies, in words that are so familiar to us that they just roll off our tongue,

“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you 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’. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31).

So here we have it. If you want a list of the things that the Lord thinks are really important, here it is: love God with all your heart, and love your neighbour as yourself. What else is there to say? You can all breathe a sigh of relief, because the preacher has obviously finished his sermon, and we can go on to the next part of the liturgy with no more delay!

Well, not so fast! I think these two commandments are vital and central to our lives as Christians, but in order for them to really do the work God wants them to do, we have to free them of two unnecessary burdens. Let me explain to you what I mean.

Firstly, these two commandments are not the basic Christian message. This might be a shock to some of you, but really, they’re not.

Now at this point some of you might be thinking, “Tim, you’re contradicting Jesus; he says that these are the greatest commandments of all”. Exactly! What was the question Jesus was asked? It was not, “What’s the essential Christian message?” It was more limited: “Which commandment is the first of all?” In his response, Jesus isolates two commands from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, the commands to love God and to love our neighbour.

But let me ask you this: in the Christian life, which comes first: our love for God, or God’s love for us? In the first letter of John we read these words:

‘In this is love; not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another… We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:10-11, 19).

In the New Testament, the Christian message is called the ‘Gospel’, which means the Good News. But commandments are not good news; they are good advice – and there’s a world of difference between good news and good advice!  So the two great commandments cannot be ‘the Gospel’. Rather, John tells us that the Good News is not that we love God, but that God loved us and sent Jesus to die for our sins.

The Gospel is like a brilliant diamond with many facets, or a Persian carpet with many strands. The New Testament uses many images to describe this treasure for us. The Gospel brings us forgiveness of sin, adoption into God’s family as his children, and the wonderful privilege of knowing God as our ‘Abba’ – our Father in heaven. It brings us the gift of the Holy Spirit and the strength to do what we could never do by ourselves. It brings us healing from the hurts of the past, and a sense of optimism about the future as we remember the promise that one day, God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. It brings us a sense of security in our relationship with God, and a sense of direction as we discover what God is calling us to do. And all of these lovely gifts are related to this central fact: that we love God, because he first loved us, and came among us in Christ to show us the true extent of that love. As Philip Yancey puts it, the gospel tells us that there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we can do to make God love us less, because God already loves us infinitely, and nothing we can do can ever change that fact.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, do you believe this? If you really do believe it, you’ll leave this place of worship tonight with your burdens lifted and a song in your heart. But it’s easy to forget it, and that’s one of the reasons why God has called Hugh to be your pastor. Tonight, in celebrating this ministry, you are saying to Hugh, “Hugh, we have a basic memory problem. Out in the world where we live our daily lives, we’re always judged by our achievements. Out there, there are hundreds of voices placing demands on us and telling us what we should be doing. Out there, the burdens are being piled more and more heavily on our shoulders and our hearts. And it’s so easy for us to forget that God’s love doesn’t depend on our successes or our achievements; it’s truly unconditional, and it’s expressed in the perfect work of Jesus Christ who died and rose again to save us. So Hugh, we need you to remind us of this – not just once, but every week, and maybe even several times a week! – so that we can go out there into the world strengthened by God’s love rather than burdened by the impossible demands that are placed on us”.

I know that Hugh will not forget this. I know that before he challenges you to do anything or to be anything, he will constantly be bringing you back to this wonderful news that God loves you. After all, Hugh has been to seminary, and so he knows that the Greek words behind our English phrase ‘preaching the gospel’ actually mean ‘joyfully announcing the good news’! And he’s going to do that!

So I said that we needed to free these two great commandments of a couple of unnecessary burdens. The first was the burden of being the centre of the Christian message, which they are not. The Christian message is about God’s love for us in Christ; the commandments then follow on: after we have put our trust in Christ, they show us the best way to live as followers of Jesus.

But there’s a second burden that we need to strip away from these commandments, and this is it: these two commandments are not telling us to feel anything. That’s because the word for ‘love’ here is not a feeling word; it’s an action word. In our culture, ‘love’ usually is a feeling word, but the Greek language had other words to do that job: ‘storge’, which meant ‘affection’, or ‘eros’, which meant romantic or sexual love. But the word used in this passage today is ‘agapé’, which is an action, not a feeling. It’s about practical, self-sacrificial care for another, whether we like them or not, whether we feel like it or not.

It would have helped me years ago to have known this. When I was a teenager I worked for a newsagent in our little village in England. One morning I went in to work and discovered that there had been a terrorist bombing at a pub in London the night before; the newspapers were full of it, and some of the photographs were horrible. My boss, Ian, said to me, “I’m glad I’m not a Christian because you Christians are supposed to love your enemies. There’s no way I could love people who would do something like that”.

I had no answer for Ian that day. However, if he said the same thing to me today, I would have replied something like this: “You’re right – no matter how hard I try, I don’t seem to be able to sit around and manufacture a good feeling for those people. But that’s not what Jesus is commanding us. He’s commanding me to act in a loving way toward them, rather than taking vengeance on them. I might not be able to feel good toward someone who hurts me – but I can still bring them a cup of coffee when they’re tired and thirsty. And that’s what Jesus is talking about”.

So when Jesus tells us to love God with out whole heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves, he’s talking primarily about actions, not feelings. We might be a little misled by the word ‘heart’ there, because in modern English the word ‘heart’ usually does mean feelings, but it didn’t in Jesus’ day. In Jesus’ day people thought the feelings lived in the bowels, not the heart; you might remember that in the King James Version the word ‘compassion’ is sometimes translated by the rather strange phrase ‘bowels of mercy’! But the heart was the centre of the personality, the place where you made choices and decisions. To love God with all your heart means to choose to walk with him and to do his will without reservation, when you feel like it and when you don’t feel like it.

Of course, this is one of the greatest struggles that Hugh will have as your pastor, and it is one of the greatest struggles that you will have as his parishioners. Because, of course, there are days when we don’t feel like loving each other! At the moment, of course, Hugh has only been with you for a few months, and you might not have discovered the shadow side of his personality yet! But trust me, you will! And he’s going to discover the ornery parts of your personalities, too! And as you get to know each other better – when you see Hugh on one of his bad days, and he sees you when you’re not exactly being a shining example of Christian discipleship – well, that’s when love is more of a challenge!

One of my favourite writers, Eugene Peterson, says that the doctrine of original sin is one of the most important doctrines for Christian pastors to believe. ‘Original sin’ means that since our first ancestors chose to turn away from God, sin has lived in the human race like a bad infection, and we’ve all gotten sick with it. It infects every single one of us without exception, and the struggle to be free of it will last our whole life long.

Why is it important for pastors to remember this? Well, Peterson says, if they remember it, they won’t be surprised when the members of their congregation turn out to be sinners! They won’t be surprised by the grumbling, and the factions, and the lack of enthusiasm, and the selfishness, and all the other kinds of sinfulness that are present in every Christian congregation. They won’t be surprised at this, and therefore they won’t be constantly scolding their congregations for being ordinary human sinners. Instead, they’ll be able to minister God’s grace – God’s unconditional love – the good news that Jesus came to save sinners.

And of course, congregations have to remember this, too! Please do not be surprised when your pastor turns out to be a sinner! Ordination is not an antidote to the infection of original sin! We have the same struggles as everyone else in our parishes, and the same need for the grace and mercy of God. Truly, we’re all in this together.

So this is what you will be working on together as priest and people in this parish; in fact this is what all of us are working on together, as Christians and as members of local churches. First of all, we’re working on remembering and celebrating the wonderful good news that long before we loved God, he first loved us, and came among us as one of us, to live and die and rise again to save us. This good news has touched us, and captivated us, and turned our lives around. And if we really believe this, and if we’ve really experienced it, we won’t need someone to browbeat us into sharing our faith with others. Like the first apostles, our attitude will be, “We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).

So we’re going to be a community that remembers and celebrates and lives the wonderful Gospel of the love of Jesus Christ. And the second thing we’re going to be doing is learning to be a community of love: a community that loves God, loves our fellow Christians, and loves the people in the world around us – loves them, not just when we feel like it, but when we don’t feel like it – loves them, not just in words, but in actions too.

Harold Percy likes to say that when some people die, God will have to write this epitaph for them: ‘Brilliant performance, but he missed the whole point”. I sometimes wonder whether God might not say that about some congregations too. We can so easily get excited and worked up about so many things that, in the long run, don’t really matter. And we can so easily fall into the trap of feeling that church life is very complicated. Well, it really isn’t! In fact, I would say that there are very few problems that we face in the Christian church today that couldn’t be solved by these two things: a renewed sense of joy and wonder in the good news of Jesus Christ, and a renewed commitment to love God and to love each other, not just in words but in actions.

So this evening, as we celebrate Hugh’s ministry in partnership with you in this parish, let’s take this opportunity to have a ‘back to basics’ movement. Let’s commit ourselves afresh to remembering and experiencing and celebrating and sharing the wonderful news that long before we loved God, he loved us and came among us in Jesus to save us. And let’s commit ourselves afresh to being communities marked by love in action: love for God, love for each other, love for the world around us. If we get those two things right, I’m pretty sure everything else will fall into place as well!

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