This sermon was delivered at St. Paul Cathedral as part of a pulpit exchange for Reformation Sunday.
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator, and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I would like to thank Msgr. Ecker and Bishop Tyson for the great privilege of speaking to you this morning. It is truly an honor to stand here in this place and share the good news of the gospel with you , especially today, when we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
There are so many more things that we share in common, than there are things that divide us. Even though it is often easier to see our differences, we can work together to lift up the message of the gospel that we share.
Sadly, it has always been easier to see our differences than to remember what we have in common. It started at the very beginning. Cain and Abel argued over whether it was better to be a hunter or a farmer and over whose offering was better.
In our Old Testament reading this morning, we heard instructions about how to treat people who were different - the resident aliens, widows, and orphans. Clearly, in those days, God’s people were emphasizing their differences rather than the things they had in common with their neighbors, or these laws would not be recorded for them and for us.
In this morning’s gospel we hear about the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These were the two main Jewish religious groups in the time of Jesus. And God’s people were still arguing about their differences. This time it was about theological issues and which books belong in the bible. Sounds, familiar, doesn’t it?
You will remember that the Sadducees had been trying to trick Jesus with a ridiculous scenario about a woman who outlived the seven brothers she had married because of the levirate marriage law. That law said if a man died, his widow must marry his brother and bear a child that would belong to the first husband.
You see, Sadducees only used the first five books of the Bible, and the idea of resurrection of the dead isn’t mentioned until later in scripture. So, the Sadducees asked Jesus whose wife she would be in the resurrection.
The Pharisees who read the books of the prophets, and did believe in the resurrection, decided to get one of their lawyers to try to trick Jesus. They had hundreds of laws and they believed they were all important. So, they asked Jesus, which law is the most important?
We do that, too, don’t we? We argue about whether my rules are more important than your rules. For example, the color of the day is red at every Lutheran church in the world this morning for Reformation Sunday. This is such a part of our tradition that people will wear red clothes to church today. But, that is not your tradition, so we wear green here now.
Questions about whose rules are more important are not just academic or liturgical questions, though. For example, we don’t practice levirate marriage anymore, but many Christians have different opinions about what marriage means and who should be allowed to be married in the eyes of the church and the state.
Some Christians would even say that I should not be allowed to speak today because of my gender, while other Christians would say that both male and female are created in the image and likeness of God.
It would be very easy to get mired down in the details of the things that divide us. Jesus realized that when he heard the lawyer’s question. So, he summarized the answer for them:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Jesus wasn’t asked a two-part question, but he made it a two-part question. He didn’t just answer the “which commandment” part of the question. He answered the “how do you do that?” part of the question.
Jesus told them to love God with a wholehearted love. That’s agape love. It’s not the touchy-feely kind of love that you have when you see a cute puppy or kitten. It’s not the mushy kind of love that teenagers have when they see someone they would like to date.
Agape love is more than a warm feeling. It’s an active kind of love. Jesus tells us that we show we love God with our whole heart, with our whole selves, when we love our neighbors. And that means all our neighbors, not just the ones we have so much in common with.
Jesus isn’t just talking about the neighbors who look like us, and live near us, and think like us, talk like us, vote like us, and worship like us. Jesus means all our neighbors, even the ones who don’t look like us, live near us, talk like us, vote like us, or worship like us.
Jesus reminds us that we have more in common with these different neighbors than the things that divide us. First, and foremost, we and all our neighbors, are children of the same God. We, and all of our neighbors, are created in God’s image and likeness. All of our neighbors, even the ones we don’t like, they are all loved by the same God who loves each of us so very much.
All of our neighbors, even the strange and different ones, have so much more in common with us than the things that divide us. The theological differences between a Sadducee and a Pharisee are arguably greater than the differences between a Catholic and a Lutheran, especially these days.
We can celebrate that we agree on so many important theological issues. We confess the same creeds. Most Sundays, we read the same scriptures in worship. We follow the same order of the liturgy. We recognize one baptism. As far as the Eucharist goes, one theologian who participated in the Lutheran Catholic dialogue has summed it up this way, “We agree on the nutritional value of the meal. We disagree on the union cards that the waiters are carrying.”
Considering where we were 500 years ago, we have made good progress in our conversations over the last 50 years.
The most important thing we have in common though, is the most important thing. We all follow Jesus Christ. He is the One who taught us that, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’"
Keeping the greatest commandments is hard. We try, but we fall short. Only Jesus ever showed whole-hearted perfect love for God and for neighbors.
This is good news for us today. We are truly blessed because we are those neighbors that Jesus loves. Jesus showed us what it ultimately looks like to love your neighbors. He gave his life for us on the cross. But, Jesus didn’t just die for us, he rose for us. He conquered death and hell for us. He shows us how much the Lord our God loves us. Amen.