Maundy Thursday Reflection: Loving God by Loving Our Neighbor

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To read: Mark 12:28-34John 14:15-21

If you are reading this today my guess is that you know the answer to the question, “what is 2+3?”  You probably didn’t even have to think about it.  In fact, from what I understand about how our crazy subconscious mind works, you saw the formula and didn’t even register the 2 or the 3 but just thought 5.  I am also guessing if you have gone anywhere near a church in the last 20 or so years and I say, “quote John 3:16,” in no time at all the words”For God so loved the world” will fly out of your mouth.

Some questions are too easy to answer.

So it is that Jesus’ time of testing in front the Chief Priests, the Pharisees and Sadducees comes to a close with the dumbest question of all questions, at least to a 1st century Jew.  “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment?”

They grilled him about his authority.  They tried to capture him on taxes.  Then they brought a ridiculously complex hypothetical about the resurrection.  Now all that is left is something akin to 5 year old theology.  They may as well have asked him to sing the song, “Jesus loves me, this I know.”

The question about the greatest commandment was not an opinion question.  It was not the stuff of political debates or news columns.  It had a right answer and a wrong answer and everybody around Jesus had learned the right answer at the beginning of their lives.  The greatest commandment was that there was one and only one God and we are to love that God with everything we have.  This had been clearly established for thousands of years.

On that note, I have no idea what the teacher of the law hoped to prove by asking the question.  He may have seen the failure of his friends and grasped at desperation.  He may have been something akin to a sophomore theology student who had just heard a convincing but vain argument that “loving God” wasn’t the most important and he seriously wanted Jesus to weigh in.  We have no idea but somehow Jesus is reduced to kindergarten status in the teacher of the law’s eyes and a slow ball is lobbed right across the plate.

Jesus hits the home run.

I imagine Jesus rolled his eyes before blandly reciting Deuteronomy 6:4 and 5 to appease the onlookers.  But then, after quoting everybody’s favorite Bible verse, Jesus didn’t stop talking.  He answered another question that hadn’t been asked, “And the second is like it.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  There is no greater commandment than these.”

There is convincing evidence that the second greatest commandment had all ready been agreed upon as well by the theologians of Jesus’ day.  What he said did not surprise them in the least.  There was little to no debate on the importance of loving your neighbor, even though that command is buried in more obscure parts of the Old Testament.

And yet, by including the second commandment, and by saying, “it is like it” Jesus is doing something far more subversive.  That phrase which we translate “is like it” suggests much more equality in Greek than it might in English.  Jesus is saying, “The second commandment is exactly like the first.”  There is no distinguishing mark between them.  The second is the first.  The first is the second.  We love God by loving our neighbor.

Today is Maundy Thursday.  Contrary to popular belief it is not “Monday Thursday” which I assume refers to the first day back at work after a 5 day weekend that began last Saturday.  It is “Maundy” which is Latin for “Mandate.”  We so named this Thursday because at the Last Supper before he was betrayed Jesus told his disciples, “This is my new mandate, that you love one another.” (John 13:38).

That same night Jesus goes on to say, “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me.”  The commands are to love.  We love God by loving our neighbor.  There is no separation between love of God and love of neighbor.  The first greatest commandment is the second.

In Mark 12, I am not sure if the teacher of the law picked up on this nuance but he still seemed pleased.  He recited a common line from the Old Testament prophets that, “These are more important than burnt offerings or sacrifices.”

And Jesus replied, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Tonight as we gather around the table of the Lord and hear again the new mandate to love one another, may we also not be far from the kingdom of God.

Heavenly father, in love draw us nearer to your presence.  And also with love breathe us out to continue to love one another.

Maundy Thursday Reflection: Fight or Flight or Follow

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Well we are nearing the end of Holy Week and that means we are getting to the good stuff.  Today we commemorate the Last Supper and the new command Jesus gave to “love one another.”  Tomorrow we end up at the cross and who knows what might happen on Sunday morning? (I know, but it isn’t as much fun if you admit it.)

But no matter what the weekend holds, today we eat of the bread and drink of the cup with Jesus.  Some of us may even wash a foot or two.

All of this is to remind ourselves that Holy Week is ultimately about love.  “Maundy” means “commandment” or “mandate” and “Mandate Thursday” is about the new commandment recorded in John 3:34, “A new command I give you: Love one another.”

Whatever else happens this weekend, we remember that as Christ followers, we are following love wherever love may go.

Most of us know that the disciples followed Jesus out of the upper room and into the garden of Gethsemane but there the following ended.  When guards showed up to arrest Jesus, they chose not to follow but to flee.

Mark focuses on two particular disciples.  The first fights.  He draws a sword and uses it to cut off the ear of a guard.  The second flees and in so doing ends up naked.

Both the zealous swordsman and the naked runner represent ways that we betray love.  The zealous swordsman, presumably clinging to his hope of a military Messiah, refuses to see Jesus for who Jesus is.  By taking up arms and lashing out for the sake of power, he rejects love, choosing might instead.  He does not deny himself but seeks to save himself or, worse, save God with his sword.

The naked runner too betrays love, by fleeing from it.  He is also seeking to save himself but his legs are his sword, the means by which he escape the consequences of love.

As we recommit ourselves today to this new mandate to love one another, I wonder about the ways we still betray love.  I think we forget that sometimes love has negative consequences.

In today’s world “love” poorly defined has become the way we try to solve all the problems.  I hear social activists, politicians, celebrities and, yes, even pastors claiming that if we just love people enough suddenly violence will end, addicts will become sober, the attendance of all Christian churches in America will double, unicorns will sprout from the ground and the federal budget will get balanced.

I wonder what will happen to those types when instead of unicorns, guards sprout up to arrest us.  Will we then betray love by drawing a sword?  Or will we flee from the scene naked?

For this reason, I am always a little bit frustrated when people suggest the best evangelism strategy is love.  They mean well and I am all about practicing compassion, but we don’t practice compassion to double our attendance.  Love is not a means to another end.  Love is the end, the telos, the goal for which we strive.

This side of eternity true love does not reward us but instead has consequences.  When we love the world, the world will hate us back.  When we show compassion to one person, someone else is going to jeer, “What worth are they?  You are sinning by loving them!”  All of our motives will be called into question and we may even be arrested just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  When we love truly, we should not expect unicorns and swords but rejection, humiliation and crosses.

Therefore, the words of Jesus in John 15, after the “new commandment” are all the more important, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own.  As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”

As we follow love out of the upper room and into the garden, may we not fight or flee but follow, not for any other goal but to be completely enraptured in the love of our God.  And may our tombs be emptied on Sunday morning as we embrace the new life of love.