This post has been updated to reflect the version preached at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio, October 26th.
Which commandment is the greatest? they asked. It is not, in fact, a difficult question. How else can you even imagine Jesus answering? The first commandment is based in the simple statement delivered through Moses: “I am the Lord your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” (Deuteronomy 5:6-7) Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and with all your mind and there will be no room for other gods.
Moses goes on to interpret the Law to the people:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
The first commandment, the greatest commandment, can be a little hard to grasp. Literally. We can’t grasp God. We can’t wrap our arms around God, we can’t even wrap our heads around God; how, then, are we to wrap our hearts, our souls, our strength around God?
Yet God, in all love, commands nothing less. You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, and all your soul, and all your mind.
How often do we really find ourselves just loving God? We spend a whole lot of time and energy and prayer breath blaming God and berating God, bargaining and bartering with God. We can get up a whole head of steam second-guessing God and stressing over God. How often do we give God the benefit of the doubt, let God be God, and let the love flow?
Barbara Brown Taylor describes, at the end of the day, giving God a peck on the cheek, while she was “drying up inside for want of making love.”[i]
That’s why it starts with loving God; because a loving God, the God who loves us knows that without that loving relationship, we are lost, adrift, alone.
Love that isn’t fed fades.
The first and the greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all of your heart and soul, your mind and strength. And the second is like it. The second is like loving God. Loving our neighbour is like loving God because each of them, all of them, whether we like them or not, is made in the image of God.
That’s why loving God comes first. Because if we’re stuck on blaming and bargaining, berating and bartering, second-guessing and stressing over God, we will do the same to one another, those ones made in the image of God, the ones we can see, and wrap our arms around, or push away; wrap our hearts around, or freeze out.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “You have never talked to a mere mortal… It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”[ii] It is through loving the holy, living, immortal God that we learn how to love our holy, living, immortal neighbour. The danger of neglecting the first commandment is that we forget to love our neighbours and ourselves.
Martin Luther, in his Small Catechism, began every interpretation of each of the Ten Commandments with, “We should fear and love God [so] that…” So the fifth commandment: “Thou shalt not kill. What does this mean?” asks the catechumen. “We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbour in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need.”[iii] For the love of God, we should not hurt or harm but befriend our neighbour, that one made in the image of God.
And that should be the end of it. Love one another, for the love of God. Except for this:
We need to make room in our lives for loving God, or else the space will be filled with everything else that should come second, even with things that should come last: we need to make room in our lives to love God first. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind: there should be no room for other gods.
Jesus tells his disciples elsewhere, regarding children, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks!” (Matthew 18:5-7)
We are failing our children, we are causing them to stumble and fall. We are causing them to stumble and fall through our addiction to violence and our idolatry of weaponry, laying our fear of God on our guns, the things that should come last coming too often first to hand.
I am sick of preaching Sundays after school shootings; that shouldn’t even be a turn of phrase, but it is all too familiar. SWAT teams practice “active shooter” drills in our school buildings over the vacations. Every school has a plan in place. I don’t know a single teenager who hasn’t heard threats to their school, their community. I don’t know a teacher who hasn’t wondered what they would do.
The boy who ended up on the wrong end of that gun on Friday, who killed one, hurt others, dealt incalculable harm to his community, and then killed himself; so much grief: he, and his victims, and their loved ones, and their teachers and helpers all bore, all bear the image of God. And now, that image has been bloodied once more.
Whoever places a stumbling block before a child, it would be better for him to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Our idolatry of readily available weaponry is, our love of guns is, I am afraid, the stumbling block we set in the paths of our children. For the love of God, we need to do better. Whether through self-regulation or legislation, we need to do better. For the love of God.
“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 neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Loving God can be as easy as breathing, for, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” Loving God can be as easy as letting the Spirit breathe for us.
Loving God can be as hard as holding the hand of grief, as forgiving the one who hurts and harms; as tricky as loving ourselves and our neighbours, those made in the image of God, and doing something about it, something to keep the blood from staining those images. It can be hard. But for the love of God, remembering whose image we bear, who loves us and forgives us all, we have to try.
I found this prayer by Malcolm Boyd, to which I’ve made a few personal additions:
- Take fire and burn away our guilt and our lying hypocrises.
- Take water and wash away our brothers’ [and our sisters’] blood which we have caused to be shed.
- Take hot sunlight and dry the tears of those we have hurt, and heal their wounded souls, minds, and bodies.
- Take love and root it in our hearts, so that brotherhood [and sisterhood] may grow, transforming the dry desert of our prejudices and hatreds.
- Take our imperfect prayers and purify them, so that we mean what we pray and are prepared to give ourselves to you along with our words, through Jesus Christ, who did not disdain to take our humanness upon him and live among us, sharing our life, our joys, and our pains. [for loving hearts are broken until they rest in you*] [iv]
[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: a memoir of faith (HarperCollins, 2006), 99
[ii] C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (HarperCollins edn, 2001), 46
[iii] Luther’s Small Catechism, annotated by Edward W. A. Koehler (Concordia Publishing House, 1971), 75
[iv] “Prayer of repentance” from Are You Running With Me, Jesus? – Prayers by Malcolm Boyd (Avon Books, 1965), 138 [with the preacher’s additions] *after St Augustine