21st Sunday after Pentecost Year A
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
Following the way of Jesus is actually very simple, even breathtakingly simple, but it is not easy.
First and foremost, being a follower of Jesus is about loving God and loving what God loves.
Loving God, of course, that's the central point of the Gospel that you just heard. Jesus quotes a passage from the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy--"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind"--and so this is the heart of both the Jewish tradition and because Jesus speaks of it as the Great Commandment, the heart of the Christian tradition as well.
And in addition to loving God, we are to love what God loves. And what does God love? Remember the best known verse in the New Testament, John 3:16, provides the answer. "For God so loved the world...." God loves the world, not just me, not just you and me, not just Christians, not even just human beings, but the whole of creation. And, of course, this is also the central point of the first chapter of the Genesis story of creation. After each day in that six-day creation story, we are told "God saw that it was good," and at the very end, "God saw that it was very good." Now, of course, God doesn't love the world simply as it is. God has, to use a phrase from Robert Frost, a lover's quarrel with the world. God loves the world and wills that it be a better world.
The second statement: Being a follower of Jesus is about becoming the kind of person who can love God and love what God loves. In other words, we need transformation. The process of growing up does not incline us to that deep love of God and that deep love of what God loves. The growing up process inclines us to be concerned about ourselves. This is the predisposition the scriptures call sin, a preoccupation with what I want for myself. And it happens to all of us.
And so following Jesus is a way or a path of transformation. Again, it's not just about beliefs, but about putting those beliefs into action. And sometimes spiritual practice is about doing something in order to believe. The earliest name of the Christian movement in the years after Easter, according to the 9th chapter of the Book of Acts, is followers of “the way”. Following Jesus is about this path or way of transformation. And transformation involves practice.
The process of becoming more and more deeply centered in God, and centered in God is known decisively in Jesus, requires an attention to our relationship with God. In some ways our relationship with God is like the human relationship. How does a human relationship deepen and grow? It deepens and grows by paying attention to it, spending time in it, being present to it. And so it is with our relationship with God and this process of becoming more and more deeply centered in God. It happens through the traditional practices of the Christian tradition, worship being the most important collective practice, prayer being the most widely used individual practice. Prayer and worship are not because God needs them, but they are about our own transformation.
And the third statement: Being a follower of Jesus is about being part of a community of transformation. It's about living within the Christian tradition and Christian community as a means to the end of transformation. This is the church as a community of formation, reformation and transformation and all of us need this. We grow up, those of us who live in western culture, in a culture that has values very, very different from what is most central to the scriptures. That was our first socialization, our first formation. And so Christian community is about becoming involved in a process of re-socialization, so that our sense of ourselves, our identity, is shaped by involvement in Christian community.
It has struck me over the years that Christianity, is not just about believing, even though many people think of it that way. Believing, when you think about it, has very little transformative power. You can believe all the right things and still be quite untransformed. You can believe all the right things and still be mean. Rather, Christianity is about entering into this process of transformation. It is, in short, about entering into relationship with God and God’s people. The ancient understanding of belief is more akin to trusting someone, to relying upon someone, like a child trusts their parent.
Being a follower of Jesus is about passion. Now if you had told me this when I was twelve years old, I would have wondered what you were talking about. Sunday morning by that time was not the most passionate time of the week for me. But over the years I have become convinced that being a follower of Jesus is about passion. It's about our passion for God, that passion that St. Augustine spoke about when he said, "Our hearts are restless until they find their home in you."
And following Jesus is also about God's passion for the world, that the world itself be transformed in the direction of God's dream, a world of justice and peace. I believe that is what Jesus is talking about when he uses the phrase, “the kingdom of God,” or in Matthew’s version, “the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus is talking about God’s dream, God’s desire, for this world God has created. So much so, that in the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, that we pray every Sunday, Jesus tells them and us to pray that God’s will “be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That is God’s dream. And into that dream God has invited us to follow Jesus.
And so, ultimately, being a follower of Jesus is about loving God and loving the world the way God loves in order that we, and the world might be transformed into the loving kingdom of God’s dear Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
It's as simple and challenging as that. And with God’s help, together, we can make our part of God’s world a little more like God’s dream.