October 29, 2023

Easy to Say, Hard to Do

Matthew 22:34-46

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

41 While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, 42 “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”

“The son of David,” they replied.

43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,

44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
under your feet.”’[

45 If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” 46 No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.

This is the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

The first thing I want to say is thank you. I am so grateful for the sabbatical I just completed. The space and time and travel allowed me to reconnect with myself, with Caitlin and our children, with God, and with my vocation. The wonderful preachers who filled this pulpit during this time inspired and challenged you – I feel grateful and slightly intimated. To my colleagues, thank you for hitting it out of the park in every way. And, I am especially grateful to you for being the strong, committed, and active congregation that you are.

I’ve never heard anyone say preaching is “like riding a bike,” but it’s been almost three months, so let’s hope.

Have you ever felt frustrated when someone gives you advice that is easy to say but hard to do? Just relax. Try to let go. Forgive and forget. Don’t worry. Do the right thing. That’s how I feel, very often, when I hear or read a sermon on the Great Commandment. If only it were as easy as it sounds.

The Great Commandment is Jesus’ theology and ethics in a nutshell, is in recorded in three of the four gospels. Each time, he gives the commandment in response to a question. In Matthew, religious leaders were testing Jesus and a lawyer asked Jesus the Rabbi: Teacher, what is the greatest commandment?

Jesus replied, first, with an answer many Rabbis would give, a verse from Deuteronomy: “You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, and mind, and strength.” Then, he added something unique, a single verse from Leviticus. He said, “And a second is like it.” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus brilliance and uniqueness is that he brings the vertical and horizontal dimensions together, theology and ethics. Love the Lord our God with our whole self and love our neighbor as ourselves, in one motion: up and out, our hearts to God, our hearts to others, in one fluid and connected life.

In many ways, it feels like the job of a preacher on this passage is simply to stand up and say, “Go do it.” Jesus has made it simple, now we go do it. Love God. Love your neighbor. Up and out, up and out. And you can do it – I know you can.

Last Sunday, 70 members of this congregation stayed after worship for an event we called Love Asheville – a day of service and learning with our mission partners. Seventy of you – a very biblical number – learned about the concerns facing our city, and you worked to serve alongside our mission partners and put your hand where your heart is. Love the lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself; and I know you know how to do that because you know how to show up and how serve.

On Tuesday of this week, Shannon, David, and I, along with other pastors and members and members of session of our congregation attended a meeting of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina, where we were called on to care about the needs of our neighbors around the world. They asked us to pray for our friends in Guatemala, who are in deep political turmoil, to pray for them and learn about their challenges because the news has been pushed from the headlines. We heard a report calling us to advocate and take practical steps to end the epidemic of gun violence. Little did we know how painfully relevant that would feel on Tuesday night with the events in Maine. And, of course, we prayed for peace in Israel, and for Jews and Palestinians who are victims of violence and hatred.

As I listened, I thought our congregation knows how to do these things. You know how to pay attention to what’s going on in the world, you know how to pray, and you know how to advocate. That’s loving God with your heart and mind and loving your neighbor in one fluid motion. You know how to do that.

And I thought of our stewardship campaign for 2024. Stewardship as a Way of Life is another of saying love God and love neighbor. The session is asking us to make a financial commitment to this congregation in 2024, and, if possible, to increasing our giving to meet increasing costs. Giving generously to the church, and to others who do God’s work in the world, is a fundamental way that we express love for God and love for our neighbors. We are almost halfway to our goal. We have more work to do – will get there, because you are a generous congregation. You know how to give.

You know how to serve, you how to pray and study, you know how to give. Yes, you can love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself. But still, it’s easier said than done. We have our good days, but we also have our bad days; for every good deed, there are a hundred good intentions left unfulfilled.

Let me tell you a story from my sabbatical. One of the goals I had for sabbatical – a small, personal goal – was to get better at golf. I know, that doesn’t sound very spiritual; but I’ve always wanted to play golf well enough to feel comfortable playing with others, and I never played enough to get good enough to feel good about it. And true confession, I’m not much of an athlete.

So, I signed up for some golf lessons with a coach. She is an excellent instructor and good at making it simple. You see, explaining a golf swing to someone who is not athletic is like to trying to explain a joke – it can take all the fun out of it. At one lesson, she was trying to tell me how I needed to shift my weight, turn my hip, rotate my shoulders, and drop my arms in one fluid motion. Easy to say. I was getting frustrated, and she was running out of ways to say it, when finally, it clicked and I did it. I hit the ball well, and she looked at me and said, “How did that feel?” “Great,” I said, “really good, definitely different.” Without blinking, she said, “Welcome to the world of athletics.” That’s quite a thing to hear at 43 years old. So, I stepped, with confidence, up to another ball, and I planned to do it again, and I shanked it into the woods.

It’s one thing to say that this is all there is, Jesus’ theology and ethics of life: Love the Lord your God with your whole self, and love your neighbor as yourself. Up and out, in one fluid motion. It’s easy to say, and sometimes we can do it – and sometimes – as Margaret Torrance said beautifully in her sermon two weeks ago – we miss.

Loving God with the whole self means all your mental, and emotional, and psychological, and spiritual, and physical energy – your whole-self. But truth is that we all live with divided selves. We have divided loyalties, competing thoughts, different loves. We are centered one moment, but we are hopelessly scattered and frantic the next. We are capable of selfless compassion and generosity in the morning, and self-righteous indignation and false-pride in the afternoon. Easy to say, but hard to do.

The second commandment is no easier: cherish every person who crosses your path. Well, some are easier to cherish than others; but the commandment is to love whoever crosses our path as they are. Not as we wish they were, but as they are. Not just the ones who have it together, but the ones who are falling apart. Not only the ones who are kind, but the ones who are thoughtless and offensive. Love them too. Yes, the ones who agree with you, but also the ones with whom you fiercely disagree, the ones you think are wrecking everything that matters. Love them too. As you love yourself. Whoever crosses your path, love as you love yourself. Easy to say, but hard to do.

For this reason, the Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin – whose names we remember on this Reformation Sunday – believed that this commandment is, first and foremost, not Jesus’ simple instructions for life, but they are first a word of judgment against us.[1] They show us how we fall short. We can love God, even with something approaching a whole-self, but not always; we can love our neighbors, sometimes as we love ourselves and even more – but not always. Some shots go down the middle, and some end up in the woods.

That’s why the second half of today’s gospel reading is so important to hear. It doesn’t sound like it relates to the first half, but it does. This whole chapter of Matthew is a series of questions, three from religious leaders to Jesus, and one from Jesus to them. The third question is from the lawyer, and then Jesus asks a question to the leaders.

In the earliest days of the church, when church leaders were trying to put together a lectionary of readings for each week, these two questions were always put together, and in the Reformation, Martin Luther believed that these two questions should always be read together. So, what does Jesus ask?

What do you think about the Messiah?,” he asks. “Whose son is he?

The religious leaders were asking Jesus about behavior – taxes, and marriage, and ethics – but Jesus asks them about belief. Whose son is the Messiah? The standard answer was, “David’s son,” and that’s the answer they give. But Jesus presses them harder. In Psalm 110, David, writing in the Spirit, says, “The Lord said to my Lord.” How does that work? Who is the Lord between God and David? David must be talking about the Messiah, but if the Messiah is David’s son, then how does David call him Lord?

As Christians we hear this conversation and jump to the answer: Jesus is God’s Son and David’s Son. But if we listen closely, Jesus is inviting his questioners and us to believe in him as the Messiah. Matthew does not record an answer to Jesus question, he just leaves it hanging. In fact, Matthew really wants the question to hang with us. You see, all the verbs in this passage are present tense. What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?

The answers that Christians have given over the centuries is that Jesus is David’s son and God’s son – the divine and human one. As the divine and human Savior, he is the One who does not fall short of the commandment, but keeps it in full. He is the One, the only one in human history, who loves God with an undivided self and who is faithful until death. He is the One, the only One, who loves his neighbors as he deeply loves himself. So, he lays down his life for his neighbors, for us, though we did nothing to deserve his love.

Jesus, the Savior, fulfills this commandment for us and offers us his love. You and I do not need to keep the commandment to earn God’s approval. You are accepted by God as you are. You and I do not keep the commandment to be good in God’s eyes. You are good because your life is in Christ. You and I do not need to do anything to be worthy of the gift of life. You are worthy because God loves you more than you can imagine.

And so, just so, Christ sets us free to love God and love neighbors, not as a burden, but as a gift. When we hold on to Christ by faith, our love has nothing to prove. We are loved, and so we are free to love. When we hold on to Christ by faith, our love is renewed daily by Christ working within us. When we fall short and miss terribly, the love of Christ within us sets us free from the shame and guilt that would turn our love to duty and resentment. When we are pushed to the limit and believe we have no more love to give, the love of Christ renews us from within, to love again and love more than we ever could on our own. And when, in some dark moments, we may even believe that we are not capable of love like this, when we are ready quit and turn inward or turn cold, the love of Christ within us says, “No. You are loved with an everlasting love. And you are made to love.”

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. Easy to say, and hard to do. So, the good news of the gospel is not, “It’s simple, go do it.” The good news of the gospel is have faith in Christ, trust in his love for you, and then – then go do it.

Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.

First Presbyterian Church

Asheville, North Carolina

[1] See Martin Luther’s sermon on Matthew 22:34-46, and Calvin’s Commentaries, Harmony of the Gospel, Vol. 3


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This