October 25, 2020


Matthew 22:34-40

“Reforming Towards Love”

The last Sunday in October is often marked in Lutheran, Presbyterian, and other Reformed Churches as Reformation Sunday. It’s the closest Sunday to that historic date of October 31st in 1517 when a German professor of theology named Martin Luther challenged the status quo of current Christian theology by nailing his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church, thus beginning the 16th Century Reformation of the Church.

In some contexts, Reformation Sunday is celebrated like a victory in which right thinking triumphed over wrong, and the church moved in new, more enlightened, directions. Of course, we must remember that while the 16th century movement brought needed change to our understanding of God’s grace and led to new opportunities for all Christians to read the Bible themselves and to interpret it together in community, it also led to brokenness and division in the church.

Change is difficult, and the church at that time was not successful in reforming together. The conflict over theology and church practice led not only to arguments, but to bloodshed. And the divisions made at that time still keep us separated today, even if most of the divisive issues have now been resolved.

For some, Reformation Sunday may be a time to remember, mark, or even celebrate the history. For me, it tends to be more of a moment to remember how difficult reformation can be. We talk about being a church that is Reformed, but also continually “being reformed” according to God’s Word and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

On issues of theology and polity (what we believe, and how we do things together as the church) Presbyterians don’t make changes quickly, but we do make changes. When a suggested change arises (like Luther’s posting of his theses) the courts of the church have a whole process for considering, studying, consulting, discerning, and approving a change. It takes time and involves lots of people and process, but the hope is that the Spirit will speak to us and guide us as we go through that process. And at the end of it, hopefully we’ll be able to make a good change together, rather than splitting because we cannot agree.

The last several years have been difficult in this regard, as our national church has been considering changes to become more welcoming and inclusive of members of the LGBTQ community. We’ve been following through the process to decide about opening up the definition of marriage to include same-sex marriages and to formally approve the ordination of ministers and elders, regardless of sexual orientation and marital status.

We’re at the stage now where recommendations to make these changes have been approved by one General Assembly, have been remitted to the presbyteries  and passed by a majority of presbyteries across the country, and next need to be confirmed by another meeting of the General Assembly (if the pandemic situation will allow for the Assembly to meet in 2021, possibly an online meeting at this point).

The worry is that this reform may well lead to some portions of the denomination leaving – folks who do not feel they can live with this change. I find it sad, because the recommendations were crafted in such a way that ministers and churches would be free to conduct same-sex marriages and ordain members of the LGBTQ community, but those who could not agree would maintain liberty of conscience and action, allowing them to respectfully choose not to participate.

It felt like a significant compromise for those who believe that the right thing to do is full inclusion. But at least at the 2019 General Assembly, it felt like a necessary compromise to maintain our relationship with those who are committed to a traditional perspective.

How do we know if we’re moving in the right direction when we make changes in our doctrines and practices as a church? Presbyterians believe that the Holy Spirit guides us when we pray, when we study, when we discuss, when we follow the process and discern together what God is leading us to do.

Some people want to say that it’s as simple as “What does the Bible say about it?” But the Bible is not a simple book with all the answers to our questions neatly laid out. We have to read it carefully, considering context and culture, considering language and translation, considering the fact that the questions that we are asking today were not necessarily questions that the biblical authors had or were trying to answer at that time.

I do believe that the Bible speaks to us and guides us as we discern how the church is being called to change and grow over time. But it’s a little more subtle than some folks want to suggest it is.

Last weekend, the Synod of Saskatchewan held its annual meeting online, and part of that meeting time was dedicated to learning and reflecting on the renewal and strengthening of our ministries in these days. Jen deCombe, who is the Associate Secretary for Canadian Ministries within The Presbyterian Church in Canada, shared about a number of programs and strategies for faithfully evaluating and renewing the ministries of our congregations.

As she began her presentation, she shared what seemed like a very simple tool for considering what we are doing and what God may be calling us to do next as churches. I think it applies equally to congregational priorities and denominational directions, and it’s rooted in this morning’s Gospel story.

Jen said that we should focus on loving God and loving our neighbours. Pause and consider what we are doing to love God, and what we are doing to love our neighbours. Both are important, and something has gone amiss if we are doing one, but not the other.

When the Pharisees tested Jesus with the question about what is the greatest commandment, he answered in a way that would have been perfectly acceptable among rabbis of his day. He quoted from Deuteronomy 6:5, a verse that figured prominently in Israelite liturgy and life: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” He doesn’t suggest that the other commandments are not important, but this one sums up the essence of the whole, or serves as the centre of them all.

When we discussed this passage in our Bible Study on Zoom earlier this week, we reflected on what kinds of things we actually do to enact our love for God. After all, we’re not just commanded to feel love for God, but to actually LOVE God with all our heart, soul, and strength.

Of course, we worship. By showing up in church, turning on the livestream at home, or taking time to read this sermon text during the week, we show that we love God. God deserves our time, our attention, and our praise – and even during a pandemic when it becomes more difficult to do so, we find ways to worship God.

And just like we show love for each other by listening and talking with the people we love, prayer is an important way for us to love God every day. Studying the Scriptures expresses our love too, as we put effort into learning Jesus’ ways and trying to live according to God’s commands.

Of course, then we reflected that actually following God’s commands is an important way that we show love for God as well. So, first and foremost, when we love our neighbours (as God commands us to do) that also enacts our love for God. A passage from 1 John 4:20-21 comes to mind. It says, Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their siblings also.

By the time that passage in John’s pastoral letter to the churches was written, the connection between loving God and loving neighbour had become the norm for the Christian Church. But back when Jesus was answering the Pharisees’ question, it was a novel idea to put the two commands together.

After giving the expected answer that “loving God” was the greatest commandment, Jesus adds another comment saying, And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

It was a new and distinctive thing for Jesus to link the command to love God with one’s entire self to the command to love the neighbour. And by describing this command from Leviticus 19:18 as “like” the command from Deuteronomy 6:5, Jesus is placing the love of God and love of neighbour on equal footing. Both are the key, the hooks upon which all of the law hangs.

Although Jesus only quotes from one verse in Leviticus, he undoubtedly knew the whole passage, and his listeners likely did as well. When he declared the importance of loving our neighbours, he wasn’t talking about loving the people who are near us or like us.

In our Bible Study this week, one person raised the same question that was raised in the Gospel of Luke after Jesus declared both love of God and love of neighbour to be essential: “But who is my neighbour?” And that question is answered well by looking at the verses in Leviticus that lead up to the one that Jesus quoted from.

I was thinking of reading the whole section for you – Leviticus 19:9-18, but it is a bit long, so I’ll just summarize it.

Loving our neighbours means generosity towards the poor, attention to the needs of those with different abilities, honesty in business, fairness in judgments, respectful and upright treatment of workers, and all those over whom we have power or authority. Loving our neighbours means examining our hearts and rooting out feelings of anger and hatred, practising forgiveness, and refusing to stand by and let injustice continue against others without saying something.

As a congregation, we can evaluate and renew our ministry by thinking about how we are loving our neighbours and considering new ways that we may be called to do so in these days. During the pandemic, we’ve loved our neighbours in the church community by reaching out to people who are particularly isolated or alone through calls and cards. We’ve loved our neighbours in this local area by helping out with care packages of food and school supplies for families who were especially struggling while the schools were closed.

We’ve loved neighbours in other parts of the world by giving to Presbyterian World Service & Development’s appeals for COVID-19 response, for the emergency in Beirut, and for ongoing food programs in various parts of the world. And we’ve loved specific neighbours far away by continuing to gather funds and prepare to welcome refugee families from South Sudan and Pakistan.

I could add many other things to this list, of course, especially if I added all the ministries of healing, reconciliation, and social justice advocacy in which we participate through our gifts to Presbyterians Sharing.

The pandemic certainly pushed us to do things differently in the church, but it didn’t stop us from doing either of those two, interconnected, greatest commandments of God, as presented by Jesus. It just challenged us to enact them in new ways. Our primary call, as followers of Jesus, is to love God and to love our neighbours.

Here at First Church, I hope we can keep that call in mind as we continue to respond creatively, courageously, and generously to our current circumstances. And as our national church continues to discern the way forward with respect to human sexuality, I’m praying that we will hold onto those greatest commandments as well.

It seems to me that loving God will mean that we will take the Scriptures seriously, and ask for the Spirit’s help as we interpret them and let them reform our beliefs and practices. And it seems to me that loving our neighbours will mean that we will not remain silent when those in the LGBTQ community are excluded and denied access to the vocations of marriage and ministry. And it seems to me that loving our neighbours will also mean responding to others who disagree with respect, grace, and loving friendship. May God lead us together towards a path of “reforming towards love” for the love of God and neighbour.