Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd Nov 4, 2018
What is the heart of the Christian faith? In a one-liner nutshell, what would you say to someone who knows nothing about Christianity what it is all about? We have had a little clue from our gospel reading. Jesus is asked by a scribe, a Jewish leader, what is the first—the greatest commandment of all. Jesus replies by quoting the Shema—the oldest fixed prayer in Jewish history: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One; you shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Jesus actually added the part about the mind. The Shema, from Deuteronomy 6:4, only mentions loving God with our heart, soul and strength. Adding the mind is a helpful reminder not to park our brain at the door of the church. I like to believe that we are a thinking church, as well as a doing and a loving church.
Jesus then added a second commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves. There are no other commandments greater than these. This gives us a one-liner (or maybe two-liner) nutshell of Christianity: we are called to love God by loving our neighbour as we love ourselves emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically.
It’s easier to say than to do. The word that Jesus uses for love, as recorded by Mark in this passage, is agape. This is the highest standard of love. It is unconditional, requiring nothing in return. It all begins with God. We love because God first loved us. God showers upon us unconditional love and then asks us to simply receive it and then extend that love with no strings attached. We are to love our neighbour even if our neighbour does not love us in return. We are to love ourselves even if we feel undeserving. Unconditional love is the type of love that will transform our world.
Arno Michaelis founded a white supremacist gang and was the lead singer for a white-power metal band. He was fuelled by hate. The more people fought back, the more energy they gave him. One day an African American cashier spotted his Swastika on his middle finger and said to him, “I know you’re a better person than that. That’s not who you are.” He left the fast food joint quickly and never went back. But he kept running into people, like this cashier, who returned his insolence and anger with compassion and kindness. “Maintaining his hate in the face of so many who refused to lower themselves to his level began to exhaust him.” Slowly love began to eat away at his harsh exterior. One day he watched his daughter playing with other children of different races at a daycare. This broke through what was left of his wall of hate. He eventually became a Buddhist and learned compassion and self-forgiveness. He is now part of a group that connects former violent extremists with survivors of extremist violence. They work to overcome hate through understanding, love and compassion. Unconditional love for neighbours, even those who violently hate the world, may be the only way to break through.
Agape love is not only unconditional. It is also love at its best. We have learned to give comfortably. Often that means that giving comes from what’s leftover. We want to help our neighbour, but are not sure when we might have extra time. We might volunteer at West Broadway when we have more energy. We know we need to exercise more but just can’t get around to it. But this is a leftover type of love for our neighbour and for ourselves. It’s not agape love—it’s not our love at its best.
This also applies to how we give financially. When we budget, we make sure that we have enough money for our housing, transportation, health, food and entertainment. Whatever is leftover is set aside for savings and donations. But this is leftover giving.
Our Jewish and Christian ancestors of the faith were taught to tithe, which means to give 10% of what we have. And they were taught to tithe of their first fruits, not their last. They were taught to give their best, not whatever was left, as a way to love God and their neighbour as themselves.
Sometimes agape love is sacrificial. When God became human through Christ Jesus, God didn’t leave when the going got tough. God stayed the course, unwavering from the path of love and justice and God paid the ultimate self-sacrificial price for this love. Agape love can be costly.
Next Sunday we will be holding a Remembrance Day service when we’ll hear stories of sacrificial love. As we enter into this week of remembering, I offer you one story of a young soldier in the trenches of the first World War. One time, when he crawled back into the trench, he realized that his buddy had not come back. He prepared to crawl back out and look for him but his commanding officer told him to stay—that he probably wouldn’t find him and if he did, he wouldn’t be able to bring him back. He would simply be risking his life for nothing. It simply wasn’t worth it. However, if he was determined to go, it was his choice. So over he went. He did find him, but his buddy died as he struggled back with him. And then he was shot as he fell back into the trench. The officer rushed over to him to see if he could help, but saw that the young man was also dying. “Why did you do such a foolish thing as to risk your own life?” “It was worth it,” the young man replied, “because when I reached him he said to me, ‘I knew you would come.’ ”
We don’t sacrifice much any more. We often give leftover love. As I look at this commandment to love God, neighbour and self with my whole being, I am reminded of the importance of balance. How can I love my neighbour and myself with the best of my love? When I look back at the past week, who has received the best and who has received leftovers? Is there a pattern that needs to be changed in order to give God, our neighbour and ourselves the best of our love? What areas do you keep short-changing with leftover love? What areas are receiving too much attention? Can our church, our neighbour, even we, ourselves, confidently say to us, “I knew you would come”?
 Lindsay Kyte, “From Hate to Love: an Ex-Neo-Nazi’s Journey to Buddhism,” Lion’s Roar (May, 2018), p. 38.