These are common words people outside the church use to describe the church, and they are used to describe you and me simply because we are part of the Church.
People have the tendency to speak in broad generalities. Applying to a whole group of people what they have experienced at the hands of a few. So most of the people around us who have these feeling generally keep them to themselves. Because they know and like you, and you are not like THOSE people.
But sometimes they will hurl the insults directly at you. There is the co-worker who sits across the lunch table from you, and, discovering you go to church, says, “Those places are full of hypocrites!” There is the family member who considers you narrow-minded because you dare to believe Jesus is the only way to have a relationship with God. Maybe it is the Gay or Lesbian friend who knows your church must hate them.
These words and descriptions are really just a criticism of what they have seen and experienced at the hands of other “christians”, and when faced with criticism there are two ways to respond.
1. You can get upset and blast them. They are wrong, and you know it. Only you really understand. You are in the right, and it doesn’t matter anyway because they are stupid!
2. You can look for the truth in what they are saying. Not everything every critics says is right, but there will often be some truth in what the person is saying. We miss it because we are too close to the situation or we just haven’t seen things from a different perspective.
We are Christians, but it is easy to react in some not so Christian ways when we hear things like this. But if we approach it with a willingness to hear and learn, it should forces us to ask ourselves a very simple and necessary question, “What message should the world see when they look at us as Disciples of Jesus Christ and the People of God?”
So today, we are looking at a classic passage of Scripture that boils down the entirety of God’s message and gives us the foundation upon which we are meant to function as Disciples of Jesus Christ and people of this things called the Kingdom of God.
28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.
This passage marks the end of section that begins with Mark 11 and the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and ends here in Mark 12. It contains a series of stories that describe a people who have gotten God’s message completely wrong. The people of Israel were the People of God...they were given the responsibility of living in a way that God was glorified and people were drawn to Him...and they had failed miserably.
As we take a quick glance over Mark 10-11 we see story after story where Jesus points out the failures of Israel as the People of God.
Mark 11:12-19 we see how they have used their authority to rob God’s people in order to turn a profit. They have so clogged up the temple with money-making opportunities that the hustle and bustle keeps people from being able to pray.
Mark 11:20-25 we Jesus’ judgment on Israel in the form of a fig tree that has all the appearance of being fruitful...but has no fruit.
Mark 11:27-33 the Pharisees have seen all that Jesus has said and done...they know the testimony of the Scriptures describing what the Messiah would be like...and yet they refuse to accept Jesus’ authority as being from God because he doesn’t fit their mold.
Mark 12:1-12 Jesus gives a parable about some tenants entrusted with a vineyard who kill everyone sent by the owner because they want to keep all the profits and glory for themselves. They want to define what the vineyard will be like.
Mark 12:13-27 we see them trying to trap him with questions about government and specific theological doctrines...but completely miss the point of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus is looking at the people who should have gotten it...they should have seen his coming as a great thing...they should have been living to bring glory to God, and they weren’t. They had hijacked the message of God and were using it for their benefit.
In order to find the core of a Rabbi’s teaching, the leaders and people often asked him to sum up all of his teaching in one or two sentences...to boil it down to it’s core. This gave them a starting point out of which all other teaching could be understood. Jesus’ answer to this question comes in this short passage.
Everything about Jesus’ expectation of the Christian life and Discipleship...what it means to be the People of God is summed up in these verses. Jesus is right here answering the question about what message we should be sending to the world around around us.
The first thing we see is...
1. We should be sending a message of love for God.
For Jesus, the first commandment that has to start this whole thing off is “Love the Lord your God...”
There are so many things upon which people attempt to build a relationship with God, and a lot of it is negative or selfish. For some it is fear. We are taught to fear punishment, fear hell, fear retribution. For others it is what God will give us. He will bless me, save me, protect me. None of these result in love.
One scholar writers, Loving God is a grateful response to God’s love for us. In order to fully obey and follow God...we have to love Him. And our love for Him comes as a response to His great love for us.
What the world needs most is to see a people who truly love God. Not because we are afraid of Him, but because we have been forgiven and freed from our sin. A people who are able to experience true life because they serve a God whom they love and they know loves them.
A few weeks ago, we did a bit of a thought experiment. I asked you to finish this sentence...My life would be meaningless if I ever lost...By finishing that statment we reveal our truest and deepest love, and we ultimately reveal our god.
Notice the statement is not...My life would be filled with pain if I ever lost...no, we are human. There are valuable things that would fill our lives with unimaginable pain if we lost them. What we are aiming at is the true essence upon which we build our lives.
Only when we start with love is the second half of that verse able to be a reality. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’” Love for God requires the totality of our being. It will not take second place in our lives. The 10 Commandments have as its foundation that we are to have no other gods before God...and that is only demonstrated through our actions.
1 John 3:18 says, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth”
John understood it, and deep down we understand it too...that words are meaningless unless they are backed up by action. Our words, if they are authentic produce action.
So we love God by surrendering our lives to His will. We love God through our obedience to His commands. We love God by serving and using our strength to expand His Kingdom. We love God by using our minds to seek out Truth. We love God with the entirety of our being.
Our goal as Disciples of Jesus is to will one thing...to “Love the Lord [o]ur God with all [o]ur heart and with all [o]ur soul and with all [o]ur mind and with all [o]ur strength.” with the entirety of our being.
And once we build on this foundation, then...
2. We should be sending a message of love for others.
Our passage says, “The second [command] is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
It is very important to get this order right. Before we can love others, we must start with a completely devoted love for God. If we start with a love for our neighbor, over a love for God, we are like the parent who gives their child whatever he wants because it makes him happy...then they get a little demon child a few years down the road.
Our calling is not to love for the sake of love...it is to love with God’s love. It must start with having God’s ideals and priorities in mind, and God’s Kingdom front and center in our thinking because loving others really means seeking God’s best for them.
The command to love our neighbor has always been a challenge. When telling this story, Luke includes an additional teaching about the Good Samaritan...challenging the Israelite to accept love and help from the most despicable person they can think of...a Samaritan.
The power of this command lies in one small addition at the end of it...“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Things change when we love others as ourselves. We give ourselves a lot of leeway. We are very understanding of ourselves when we make a mistake. We comfort ourselves...you didn’t mean it that way.
What would it mean to make allowance for other’s mistakes in the same way we give ourselves a pass when we mess up. What would it mean for us to give time to others in the same way we would like others to give us of their time. What would it mean to be tolerant of others in the same way we want them to be tolerant of us.
And let’s remember that love is not seen in our words or speech...love is seen in our actions.
We love others when we serve in them in ways we would want to be served...when we care for them in ways we would want to be cared for...When we root our love for others in the love of God and then demonstrate that love in our actions toward them...it transforms everything about how we react and respond...it changes the very character of our love for them. It is no longer based on preference, or hindered by prejudice.
Just think of how this kind of love would change the way we love the person gossiping about us? How it would change the way we forgive? And How we respond to other’s mistakes.
Just this week the Huffingtonpost, tells the story of Patrick Greene, an atheist in Texas, who filed a lawsuit to have the Nativity removed from public property. In the midst of his battle, he was informed he was going blind due to a detached retina. This forced him to drop the lawsuit and to retire from His job. But in the process created a great deal of financial difficulty for he and his wife.
Some might say this is God’s judgment. Some Christians might celebrate the difficulties that caused him to drop his lawsuit. But one group of Christians saw it as an opportunity to love their neighbor as they would want to be loved. Greene said the group raised money to help he and his family. Greene states, "They said they wanted to do what real Christians are supposed to do – love you – and they wanted to help.”
I don’t know what the end result will be for Patrick Greene, but I do know that a group of Christians acting like the Kingdom of God described in today’s passage has definitely made a difference in the world.
We started out by asking ourselves the question, “What message should the world see when they look at us as Disciples of Jesus Christ and the People of God?” And if we apply this passage to answer that...the world should see us loving God and loving others through our actions and with every aspect of our being.
This passage ends in a rather strange way. It leaves things unresolved. The Scribe is impressed with Jesus’ answer and tells him he agrees with everything Jesus said. Jesus responds, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God...”
The story just ends there. We don’t know if, like Bartimaeus, the Scribe casts aside everything and followed Jesus or he continues on as before. The writer does that to indicate that He is really asking us...challenging us to move from being “not far from the Kingdom of God” to being IN the Kingdom of God?
You see it isn’t enough for us to agree with Jesus that we are to love God and love our neighbor. This isn’t just some good idea we get to nod in agreement with...no, this is a challenge to live out a life of love for God and neighbor...to be the People of God where others have failed. This is a challenge to center our lives around loving God and loving our neighbor in such a way that we change the world...and it starts with one practical act of love followed by another...spend time worshipping God...refuse to gossip about your co-worker...learn to be in God’s presence through prayer...stopping to help the person stranded on the road even though it will make you late...removing that sinful activity from your life...taking the extra time to mow your elderly neighbor’s yard. Love God...love your neighbor.
There are times when our message is sent out clearly and is well understood and a person just doesn’t like it. There will be times when our message and our life as Disciples of Jesus will be rejected...and we have done nothing wrong.
There are times when our message is simply misunderstood. We think we are living and speaking clearly, but our words and actions are misunderstood by the other person. Somewhere along the way a wrong perception short circuits everything.
But hopefully we can avoid the times...when our expression of the message of Jesus...when our life of discipleship is completely off kilter with the Truth of Jesus Christ. May there never be a time when we respond with anything but the grace and love and forgiveness of Christ. But when we do...may we quickly return to the grace and forgiveness of God.