A sermon on Mark 12: 28-34 & Hebrews 9: 11-14 by Nathan Nettleton
There is a debate which runs right the way through the Bible and right the way through the history of the Church. It is a debate about what it really takes to please God and be accepted into the Realm of God. On one side of the debate are those who say that it is primarily about ethics: God accepts those who do what is right and live as God would have us live. On the other side are those who say that our efforts to do what is right will always fall so far short of the mark that they are useless, and that therefore if we are to be accepted by God, certain prayers and religious actions must be undertaken in order to cleanse us of sin and make us fit for the realm of God. Now it is very easy to argue for either of these positions by explaining them in ways that make one look self-evident and the other look silly, but the fact that this debate is not settled for one side or the other in the Bible, or indeed in the traditions of the Church since, should warn us against trying to find an easy solution in that way. But tonight we have both positions represented in our readings, so I do want to have a go at finding a way of being true to both.
The gospel reading tonight makes a good starting point if you wanted to argue for the ethics position. Jesus is asked by an expert in the religious law for his opinion on what was the most important commandment in the law. The question itself was potentially controversial, because some people would have wanted to argue that you can’t make such distinctions within the law. “The word of God is the word of God and all equally important.” But this expert assumes that some things are more important than others, and in giving an answer, Jesus accepts his assumption. Having accepted his assumption, Jesus’ answer is about the least controversial answer possible for his religious Jewish listeners. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” This quote from Deuteronomy 6 was known as the “Shema” and was, and still is, recited morning, noon and night by all religious Jews. Any Jew who accepted that you might distinguish between laws would have been likely to choose this one as the most important.
But Jesus goes on to add a second: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Again, this was not likely to cause an argument, and it doesn’t. The expert commends him for his answer. Putting the two together though is important for our question, because in putting love of God and love of others together like this, Jesus seems to be telling us that the two are intimately related. And indeed the Apostle James later explicitly says that you can’t love God without loving your neighbour. Loving God involves loving your neighbour, and loving your neighbour is an essential part of expressing your love for God. And what is even more interesting for our consideration of this debate is what the religious expert goes on to say when he commends Jesus for his answer. Listen again: “Teacher; you have truly said that ‘God is one’; and ‘to love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbour as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And, we are told, Jesus considered these to be wise words, and said to the expert, “You are not far from the realm of God.”
So, here we have a pretty clear statement: it is love put into action that really matters, that really brings us near to the realm of God, not religious acts designed to clean up our sin. It would be easy to say that this is what is new about the gospel of Jesus Christ; that the law of love is now central and religious sacrifices and rituals are no longer needed. But that would be to over simplify, because this debate was running long before Jesus arrived. Amos reports God as thundering, “I hate, I despise your religious feasts and your offerings; but let justice flow like a river, and righteousness like an everlasting stream.” (Amos 5:21-24) And Micah says:
With what shall I come before the LORD,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, people, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6: 6-8)
So the belief that it was living a life of justice and righteousness that pleased God, rather than our religious offerings, was not a new idea that came with Jesus. And as easy as it is to quote these verses to dismiss the other view, it can not be said that Christian faith has had no place for the belief that sacrifices and religious rituals matter in our relationship with God. Indeed our readings over the last few weeks from the letter to the Hebrews describe our relationship with God almost entirely in the language of religious ritual and sacrifice. Tonight’s reading depicts Jesus as a high priest offering a blood sacrifice to purify us and put us back in the good books with God. And although it is critical of the Jewish Temple and its priests and sacrifices, it doesn’t say they were useless, it just says that Jesus can do the same thing even better. It is not at all uncommon to hear Christians assert that the main purpose of Jesus’ life was to die for us, as a sacrifice to appease God and purchase forgiveness for our sins. Nor is it uncommon to hear Christians say that the way you are reconciled to God is by praying a prayer which acknowledges the sacrificial death of Jesus and asks God to forgive your sins on the basis of that sacrifice. And each time we gather here, we participate in religious rituals which clearly seem to assume that there is some relevance and some importance to such participation.
So, the debate is on, and the two sides are clear, but if both are so clearly part of our tradition, how are we to understand them and live them out? I can’t pretend to sort this out in a detailed and comprehensive way in a few minutes here tonight, but perhaps I can sketch a useful outline. What seems clear is that any answer which simply comes down on one side or the other is out of step with the ancient Christian tradition. In this matter, as in a number of others, the tradition has continued to preach both and to hold them in tension so that they each sound a balancing note of protest and warning about the other. In this case, to simplify again, the ritual tradition wants to point out the danger of taking our own contributions to justice too seriously and becoming self-righteous about our radical commitment to ridding the world of evil and suffering without taking the time to face the darkness within ourselves. And the ethical tradition wants to point out the folly of becoming so preoccupied with the religious carryings on that we miss the call to live as forgiven people who have been set free to do the world aright.
The two do not just hold one another to account though, as important as that is. They also serve one another in constructive ways. What we experience of the world in its brokenness and its yearning for justice provides much of the content for our prayers and religious ritual. This is, I hope, clear in our weekly liturgy here. In our gathering prayers near the start, there are all sorts of images of the world in need and expressions of our solidarity with the suffering of all the earth. In our prayers of intercession in a few minutes, it is what you know and experience of the world and its needs for justice and righteousness and healing that will provide the content of your prayers. Our knowledge of a hungry world shapes our prayers and actions as we share bread and wine and pray for the day when all will be fed and the wine of justice will be poured. And as we conclude our worship, it will be our expectations of the needs and ethical challenges of the week to come that give content to our parting commitments to proclaim with our words and our lives that the reign of God has come. So the gift that we offer to God in our gathered worship is full of the fruits of our experience of the world and our solidarity with its crying needs for justice and peace and mercy and faithfulness.
But the line runs the other way too, for if we are to live out the law of love – love of God and love of neighbour – we will need to fill our lives with the fruits of our worship with all its rituals, prayers and ceremonies. For it is in our worship that we catch a glimpse of the world as it could be. It is in our worship that we anticipate a world where the Word of God is listened to and taken seriously; a world which celebrates around the banqueting table of God where the hungry are fed and the downtrodden honoured. It is in our worship that we see that the world will not be changed by people who are despairing of changing even themselves. We human beings are ritual creatures. We do the things that matter to us in ritual ways, because it is the ritual that gives expression to the meanings we hold dear. If you don’t believe that, just imagine trying to persuade a child that we don’t need the rituals of party, presents, cake and singing to express our love for them on their birthday. The rituals are not enough to communicate our love if we do not show any other ongoing loving behaviour, but they are an important expression in themselves, and an important way of passing on our beliefs about what we hold to be important.
The rituals of our worship are an important part of expressing our love for God and our commitment of ourselves to doing and being what God wants. But part of the way they do that is to immerse us in a vision of the world as God would wish it to be and to write the details of that vision on our hearts and minds. It is as we repeatedly celebrate that vision and ritually offer ourselves to it and for it that we are shaped and equipped to live it out in the details of our living beyond the bounds of the worship service. Anne made the comment to me some time back, that one of the reasons she tries to get here as often as she can, even though her work has her in worship services all over the place every week, is that she finds that our liturgy holds her accountable for the ways she lives her faith the rest of the time. The commitment to love and justice is rarely, if ever, sustained in the face of the greed and hostility of the world unless we are participating in the rituals that continue to reinforce the vision and cleanse us, heal us, and nourish and strengthen us for the journey of living it out together.
And in the end, it is the commitment to the journey, forged in our worship and lived out in the world, that will see us through to the promised land. Knowing it and believing it will not get us there alone. When Jesus saw that the religious expert had answered wisely, he said, “You are not far from the realm of God.” Not far, but not there. Knowing the answers is not enough. The rituals must drive us out to put the theories into practice in the journey of life. Like Ruth in our first reading, we must commit everything to the journey:
I will not turn back from following you.
Where you go, I will go;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
And for us, as for Ruth, the saying of it is meaningless without the doing of it, but the doing of it is so challenging that we need the ritual of repeatedly saying it to hold us accountable and keep us from giving it up. Ultimately and always, we are dependent on grace – the extravagant mercy and generosity of God – grace that we hear and feed upon in our worship, and grace that is written onto our hearts and minds and we sing and pray and celebrate. It is grace that will enable us to begin to integrate our ritual commitment to love and justice with our living out of them in the world, and when all our efforts to live them out do little more than sharpen our hunger for them, it is grace that will bring us safely home into the promised land of God’s love and justice, through Jesus Christ, who both showed us what they looked like and showed us what they can cost, as he lived them out with a passion that not even death could overcome.