Being Close to the Reign of God Isn’t Enough – October 31

A sermon based on Mark 12:28-34
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 31, 2021
by Rev. Scott Elliott

This month the theme has been justice. And we’ve had a number of themes lately so I’ve wandered a bit away from the Lectionary lately, but today was lined up as the day to get back to it. And to my delight it just so happens the Gospel lesson in the Lectionary is the very first ever written account of Jesus teaching what’s called the “Greatest Commandment.” It’s called that because Jesus tells us no commandment is greater. He meant it is first in rank. In other words, NOTHING can outrank it–at least not for Jesus. And, well, nothing should out rank it for his followers either.

That Greatest of all commandments, in sum, is to love God and love others. If you’ve heard me preach before, even a few times, you’ve probably picked up on the fact I pretty much anchor my theology on the Greatest Commandment. I understand Christianity is supposed to be all about love. There’s a reason for that. I do it because the Gospels clearly indicate Jesus anchors his theology on the Greatest Commandment and made the Way he taught and lived all about love.

Our religion often seems very complicated, so I know that may sound simple, or even simplistic. But I am convinced it is Jesus’ way. I am convinced too that Jesus was a genius and knew that while love God and love others is simple sounding, compliance with the commandment was both the most difficult thing to do, and the only path to bringing in the Reign of God. In fact, according to the Lectionary reading just knowing the Greatest Commandment places us, as Jesus puts it in the reading, “not far from the kingdom of God.” Which might be better translated as “not distant from the Reign of God.”

One of a pastor’s jobs is to strive to bring us closer to the Reign of God– and to work to actually bring in the Reign of God. . Which is reason enough to talk about loving God and others. As I already mentioned, Jesus anchored his theology on that. But– and this is really important– Jesus did not just know the commandment to love God and others, Jesus acted it out– and taught us to do that too. Everything Jesus did ended up anchored in love. The difference between knowing the commandment (like the scribe in the story) and acting the commandment out (like Jesus in the Gospels) is the difference between “not being distant from the Reign of God” and bringing in the Reign of God. Simply put, love of God and others when put into action brings Heaven to earth.

I keep using the word simple because the idea is easy enough, and knowing the idea is not difficult. It is not hard to answer the question “Which commandment is the first of all?” We know the answer because Jesus told us, it is to love God and others . . . right? What’s hard is to actually do all that loving. It’s so hard the entire Bible can be understood to try and explain it in a numerous ways, in numerous contexts, over numerous years. It’s so hard Jesus himself had to repeatedly explain the nuances of love in various situations and in stories and parables. It’s so hard people rebelled against it, and lashed out at Jesus, most especially those in power. Rome’s elite did not want to love others and did not want someone telling others God commands us to love others, let alone claim it brought in a reign that was not Rome.

To state something simply horrifying, Jesus was crucified for preaching, and living out, the Greatest Commandment. Loathing of love killed Jesus. . . The honest-to-God truth is, it’s not easy to live into the commandment to love. It’s not easy to act out love, especially love of others. While the Greatest Commandment sure sounds great and good and something that would be accepted as such by most people and implemented far and wide, it isn’t. Jesus is not the only one to be berated, threatened with violence and had violence imposed on him over loving others. A number of those named apostles in the Bible faced similar fate. John is the only named apostle who is thought to have died of natural causes. Like Jesus all of the others including Paul are believed to have suffered violent deaths at the hands of the elite. 1. Why? because they taught and tried to live out love and act lovingly as Jesus did. They spread his simple theology anchored in love.

But that love theology is always complicated by humans not wanting that message out there, not wanting it acting out, not wanting to do hard work of loving everyone. It’s been like that for two thousand years. “Love of others” sounds so good, but putting it in action causes back lash and anger and hate. The pictures of horrifying attacks on peaceful love-centered civil rights marches and activists and the assignation of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are examples likely burned into most of our memories.

This church and many other churches were and have been involved in the civil rights movements in this country. But other churches have not. Some have even opposed love centered civil rights actions, some have even been a part of the lack love injustices that caused the need for such movements. Today church worship on Sundays still remains the most segregated hour in the United States. How can that be? I suspect most church going people know the Greatest Commandment and so are not distant from Reign of God in theory. But the Greatest Commandment is not theory. It must be put into action. There never should have been, nor still be, any segregated hour in America, least of all on Sundays in worship!

And it’s not just race issues. Since I was a teen I have encountered church people who literally oppose loving others who are LGBTQ+, not secretly but out-loud and in lack-love words and deeds. I have heard them wrongfully assert and act as if God’s goodly made creation of diverse sexuality and gender identity is somehow wrong. Sadly, tragically I’ve heard and seen them loath LGBTQ+ neighbors. I’ve even heard such church people mistakenly claim their wrongful opposition and loathing is somehow an act of love. But it isn’t love. How do I know? Love is defined by theological dictionaries (not me!) as the care and desire and action for the well-being of others. Moreover, First Corinthians 13 states in no uncertain terms that “love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” In the Book of Acts Peter learns the very basic way to do this love when God issues the crystal-clear commandment that we are not to call anyone profane or unclean. The book of First John instructs “God is love.”

I do not get many challenges by church people about justice work overcoming racism, but I do get it in justice work overcoming heterosexism– overcoming anti-Gay injustices. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence of the undeniable truth that being LGBTQ+ is a natural part of creation some Christians do not rejoice in that truth. They refuse to love that part of creation; they call it profane and unclean. They loath it. Even though there exists, scripture in Genesis recording God calling all of creation good and the Greatest Commandment and all the other love stuff in the Bible, some Christians and are unkind, rude, arrogant and insist on their own way when it comes to LGBTQ+ neighbors. They even rejoice in that wrongdoing.

And they not only attack those goodly Godly made neighbors, but attack those who oppose such attacks. Not long ago, I perceived some Christians behaving in lack-love ways toward my– our– LGBTQ+ neighbors. I opposed the behavior out loud, and relentlessly. One of them aimed their Bible at me and told me I was an “apostasy” and a “stumbling block” to the faith. As I walked away they scolded that I would be judged by my actions.

Here’s the thing, if being an apostasy means straying from lack-love religious notions, I am an apostasy, and always will be by being an adherent to the Greatest Commandment. If a stumbling block to faith means challenging Christians to make the Greatest Commandment, the greatest, I am a stumbling block to Christian faith without that challenge. If being judged by my actions to follow the Greatest Commandment means standing before the God of Love to be judged for passionately opposing lack-love, I have not one ounce of fear. Why? Because Jesus did all those things– and Christians are called to do them too. Why? Because not being distant from the Reign of God by knowing we are to love is not good enough– putting love into action is needed to bring in the Reign of God.

Love God. Love Neighbors. It’s simple, but ever so hard. Yet doing it is Heavenly. AMEN.