What does Christianity look like if we are less worried about beliefs, creeds, and doctrines and more concerned with what Jesus call the two greatest commandments: the love of God and the love of neighbor?
Great Commandment Christianity
The Rev. J. Carl Gregg
14 November 2010
Broadview Church; Chesapeake Beach, Maryland
When I read Mark chapter 12, I’m drawn to Jesus’ “double love commandment” like a moth to a flame. In the first of the double loves, Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to love God. The second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor. I do not believe we can overestimate the importance of Jesus highlighting those double loves — the love of God and the love of neighbor — as the most significant of the commandments.
The Torah — the first five books of the Bible — are central to Jewish life, and traditionally, there are understood to be 613 commandments in the Torah as a whole. When Jesus highlights the love of God and neighbor as the most important of those 613 commandments, we get a clear insight into how Jesus read the Bible. We get an example of what Jesus was drawn to, like a moth to a flame.
So if the love of God is first and greatest commandment, what does the love of God look like? I grew up in a Southern Baptist congregation, attending church at least twice a week. But I’m not sure we ever directly talked about what it would mean to practice the commandment that Jesus found so important: to love God. Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 a verse that was a central part of Jewish worship in Jesus’ day and remains a central part of Jewish worship today: “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 first time I remember thinking about what it would really mean to “love God” was as an undergraduate religion major. In a Christian ethics class, I was assigned to read an essay titled, “An Eclipse of Love for God,” in which the author, Edward Collins Vacek, made the following indictment:
Some volunteer that loving God means keeping the commandments, like not killing or stealing. Most say that loving God means helping one’s neighbor. The more theologically educated add that it means taking care of the poor. Lastly, those steeped in our psychological age share that loving God means caring for one’s own deepest self. All seem not to notice that atheists affirm these four practices.
Looking back, I think that if I thought about the love of God at all in my childhood, it was in the first sense of keeping the Ten Commandments — which was less about loving God and more about a list of things not to do such as idolatry, working on Sabbath, killing, adultery, stealing, lying, or coveting. But this list of bad things to avoid is less about actively loving God and more about avoiding punishment or fearing the wrath of God or neighbor if you were to break one of the commandments.
The essay’s author named the following as the second sense of how the commandment to love God has been understood: “Most say that loving God means helping one’s neighbor. The more theologically educated add that it means taking care of the poor.” The more I have read the Bible for myself, the more I have noticed the strong biblical themes of caring for the poor and marginalized; however, loving God by loving your neighbor is to conflate the two greatest commandments and fail to wrestle with what it means to follow the first and greatest commandment in and of itself: to love God with your whole self.
Finally, the essay’s author added that “those steeped in our psychological age share that loving God means caring for one’s own deepest self.” And, indeed, the call to “love your neighbor as yourself” does call for us to have a basic sense of self-worth and love for ourselves, but, again, each of these efforts, “All seem not to notice that atheists affirm these four practices.” There are atheists and secular humanists who would say that we do not need a conception of God to postulate that, in order to live peacefully together, we can agree on pragmatic grounds that acts like killing, adultery, stealing, lying, or coveting should be avoided; that helping the poor supports the common good; or that a healthy sense of self-worth is commendable.
So the point that the author is trying to make is that we often fail to take seriously what Jesus called the first and greatest commandment — not to be a good person or to fear God — but to love God with your whole self.
In preparation for this sermon, I took some time this past week to walk the labyrinth at All Saint’s Episcopal Church. The labyrinth is a unicursal pattern, meaning that there is only one way in and only one path out — and thankfully there is no minotaur in the center! When I reflect on what it means to love God, walking the labyrinth or practicing contemplative prayer are some of the first things that come to mind.
William James called God “The More,” and slowing walking a set path or silently sitting in prayer are tangible ways of opening yourself to the love of God — to the possibility and reality that no matter where we go or what we do there is Love and Life that is both closer to us that we are to ourselves and beyond what we can imagine.
Choosing to open ourselves to this larger reality is what Jesus called the Greatest Commandment, and this commandment to love God with your whole self is, I believe, at the heart of authentic Christianity down through the ages.
Mark helpfully pairs this teaching of Jesus about the love of God with the story of Jesus saying, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” I shared briefly with you last week that I believe Jesus is actually being subversive here and subtly implying that everything is actually God’s — and that if you want to give the coin with Caesar’s picture on it back to Caesar, then Jesus wasn’t that concerned with imperial currency one way or the other. Instead, Jesus’ concern is with the love of God.
Similarly, when the Roman emperor Constantine allegedly converted to Christianity in the fourth-century, we see the immediate rise in early monastic communities. Christians fled to the desert to live in community and seek a more authentic way of loving God as they saw official Christianity becoming increasingly indistinguishable from simply being a Roman citizen. Similarly, in the Middle Ages, groups like the Waldensians, the Beguines, and the Franciscans sought an alternative to the status quo through concrete practices of loving God and neighbor. In our own time, communities like The Open Door in Atlanta, the L’Arche Communities founded by Jean Vanier, the Catholic Worker Houses founded by Dorothy Day, and the Christian Peacemaker Teams founded by the Mennonites seek to demonstrate what we could call “Great Commandment Christianity” — a way of following Jesus that is less worried about what you believe and more concerned with what Jesus call the two greatest commandments: the love of God and the love of neighbor.
In this spirit, I believe that a central part of what we are called to do as Broadview Church is to provide a space and an example of what it looks like to practice “Great Commandment Christianity” — that is, to be a church that holds the love of God and neighbor as centrally important.
This past week, I had the privilege of attending a summit on the movement to “End Hunger in Calvert County.”
To consider further how we as Broadview Church are called to embody the love of God and neighbor, I invite you to watch the following short video titled “Hunger in Southern Maryland”:
In a few moments I will ring the bell to invite us into two minutes of contemplative silence. During that time I invite you to reflect about what it would look like for us to be a “Great Commandment” church, a congregation that holds as centrally important what Jesus called the two greatest commandments: the love of God and neighbor.
1 Edward Collins Vacek, “An Eclipse of Love for God,” America 174, no. 8 (March 9, 1996), 13-16. Quoted in Moral Issues and Christian Response, 6th edition, edited by Paul Jersild, Dale Johnson, Patricia Beattie Jung, and Shannon Jung (Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998), 7.
2 Saint Augustine of Hippo famously wrote that God is “interior intimo meo et superior summo meo,” which can be translated as “more inward than my innermost and higher than my uppermost” (in Confessions 3.6.11). James wrote about “The More” in the final lecture of his The Varieties of Religious Experience.
3 For an introductory historical survey of “Great Commandment Christianity,” see Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity.
4 For more information on the campaign, visit http://endhungercalvert.org/.