The First and Greatest Commandment


Sermon for July 4th, 2021


Ezekiel 2:1-5
Psalm 123
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

In each of the gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke, at some point somebody comes up to Jesus and asks him: “what is the greatest commandment?” And each time Jesus responds: “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 then Jesus adds: “and a second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Now y’all are familiar with this because I repeat it at the beginning of almost every mass here, but I want to talk about it a bit this morning, because understanding the order of these two commandments is important for doing the ministry that we are all called to do in this world. 

Jesus says that the first and greatest commandment is loving God. That comes first. That is the most important. The second command is to love your neighbor as yourself. It is related to the first command, Jesus says it is like it, but Jesus does not say that these two commands are exactly equal. They can’t be, and I’ll explain why they can’t be. 

In order for a command to have any meaning or power, the person giving the command, the commander, needs to have some authority, or needs to be someone that you love or respect. If Jesus was just some dude on the street telling people to “love thy neighbor” we could just walk on by and say “well, that’s just like your opinion man.” And keep on going. But we don’t do that. We have recorded those words in our scriptures and we have enshrined them in our worship. Why? Because we believe that the man who said it is the Son of God. Those words are a command from God, so our love for God, our respect for God, our fear of God even, that is what makes those words so important. The first commandment is what makes all the other commandments possible or meaningful. 

If I don’t care about God or believe in God, then why should I give a hoot about any divine commandments? Why bother? Why not just do what I want? Some of this stuff that Jesus tells us to do is flat-out hard. Just look at the gospel today. Jesus gives his disciples authority over unclean spirits, well that’s fun, but then he says, don’t take anything with you. No bread, no bag, no money, keep your clothes simple, oh and by the way, whenever you get to where you’re going, some folks won’t listen to you or accept you. You’ll be rejected. Oh fun! Sign me up! You know from the original twelve that are mentioned in today’s gospel: Judas killed himself and John died in old age, but every other one was killed for doing what Jesus commanded them to do. It was a similar situation for the prophet Ezekiel. God sent him on a mission to preach his word and call people to repentance, knowing that some people would refuse to listen; knowing that this was going to be hard work. 

There are blessings that come with doing God’s work and doing ministry, that is absolutely true, but there are also challenges and trials. The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians today talks about someone that he knows that had amazing visions of heaven; things he couldn’t even describe. What did Paul get? A thorn in the flesh. We don’t really know what the thorn in the flesh was, but we know it tormented Paul, and we know that Paul asked God to remove it from him and the Lord didn’t do it. Paul wanted to be strong and healthy and successful in ministry; Paul wanted to have it all, but the Lord’s response was No. My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. Paul’s ministry was a response to God’s grace and in the end that grace had to be sufficient, because there’s no guarantee of miraculous visions, there’s no guarantee of comfort or safety, there’s no guarantee of having the big church on the corner, there’s no guarantee of a private jet. In fact there’s no guarantee that people are gonna like you or even listen to you. They might even try and kill you. All that we are promised is God’s grace. That alone has to be enough. That has to be the reward. It has to be our love of God that compels us to serve God’s people. 

And I mean all of us, not just ordained ministers. Jesus’s command to love God and love thy neighbor, they are given to all of us. We are all called to some ministry in this world. And undoubtedly some people will say: well can’t serving or loving my neighbor draw me into the love of God? Can’t I find God in the face of God’s children? Well yes, of course. Serving others can draw us deeper into the mind and heart of God, but I think we underestimate how much loving God makes loving our neighbors consistently possible. Because here is a big revelation:

People are not always loveable.

I’m not; you’re not. Nobody is. People can be incredibly unlovable. People do and say hurtful things. They don’t think like us; they don’t act like us. That love thy neighbor commandment is the harder commandment, and it would be so great if we could just make that the optional extra Christian add-on, but we can’t because if we are really following that first command of loving God, then that first command binds us to the second command, because it is the same God that is giving both. I love God, some days I’m less sure about my neighbors, but Jesus keeps pointing me back to them and saying “they’re my kids too. ”So God never lets us give up on loving them, tempting as that may be.You see, it is an abiding love for the Lord that makes the Christian life possible. There is no substitution for the first and great commandment. Loving God with heart and soul and mind, that has to be the primary motivation behind all that we do. That relationship is the horse that makes the whole cart go. The Christian life is a response to God’s grace and at the end of the day the day, God’s grace is its only reward. We cannot expect anything else. God’s hasn’t promised us anything else. Just his grace. And that is enough.