When the Pharisees heard that Jesus 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 neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ - Matthew 22:34-40
Since mid-April the Methodist Church has been running a campaign called #loveyourself #loveyourneighbour. As part of this they have been highlighting some of the things people have been doing. and could do, both to care for themselves and to care for those around them during the period of lockdown for COVID-19.
As we emerge from lockdown this perhaps becomes more critical. In addition to adhering to government rules, we have to our make personal choices and decisions.
In exploring how we do the 'right thing', I came across this helpful reference point, written by Paul Fitzgerald, a Jesuit and professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley:
To orient oneself means, literally, to turn to the East, where the sun rises, to get one's bearings. Faith serves the same purpose as the sun, in a figurative sense, in the practice of ethical judgment. Faith allows individuals and groups to search out the present good against a (relatively) stable backdrop.
And what better basis for this really could the Methodist Church have chosen during COVID-19 than the Greatest Commandment. This Bible passage is one that we know well, but that also means it is easy to forget quite how incredible this passage is, and how much Jesus is telling us.
The Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus and he gives the ‘right’ answer and tells them the most important thing we can do is to ‘love the Lord’. But he goes beyond what he needs to say on that occasion and this is where he tells us we must love our neighbour as ourselves. Of course he does not quite tell us we must #loveourselves but to love our neighbour as we love ourselves tells us we must first love ourselves and then love our neighbour just as much.
So Jesus tells us everything in the Old Testament in some sense depends on these two commandments: the commandment to love God and the commandment to love our neighbour.
John Piper, in a wonderful two-part sermon delivered in 1995, says this:
"Love your neighbour as yourself" is a very radical command. It cuts to the root of our sinfulness and exposes it and, by God's grace, severs it. The root of our sinfulness is the desire for our own happiness apart from God and apart from the happiness of others in God.
Jesus is telling us that we all want to be happy, we all want a place to live, we all want new clothes to wear, we all want good food to eat, we all want to be safe from COVID-19. And that this is a human trait. We all have this desire. And in fact it is part of God’s plan, this is how we are born. And Jesus is telling us it is not wrong, it is not wrong to want food, shelter, clothes, safety or happiness for ourselves.
John Piper puts it something like this: Whether it has become wrong in our life will be revealed as we hear and respond to Jesus' commandment. He commands, "As you love yourself, so love your neighbour." Which means: As you long for food when you are hungry, so long to feed your neighbour when they are hungry. As you long for nice clothes for yourself, so long for nice clothes for your neighbour. As you work for a comfortable place to live, so desire a comfortable place to live for your neighbour. As you seek to be safe and secure from COVID-19, so seek comfort and security for your neighbour.
So first we must love God completely, and then we must love ourselves, and then, because we love God, we share this love with others. John Piper (again) puts it like this:
God has called me—indeed he has commanded me—to come to him first for all these things. He commands that my love for him be the form of my love for me. That all my longings for me I find in him. That is what my self-love is now. It is my love for God. They have become one. My quest for happiness is now nothing other than a quest for God. And he has been found in Jesus.
This does not mean that choices will be easy. There are competing claims on our time. There are hard choices about what to give up and what to keep. There are different interpretations of what is good for another person and good for ourselves. But loving God sustains us through all the joys and difficulties of what loving our neighbour and loving ourselves should be.
Walter Klaiber, who is a retired Methodist bishop from Germany has written: ‘The first thing that strikes me during this pandemic is that it shows with impressive clarity what is in people’s hearts. And that’s good and bad.’
During this crisis, we have lots of competing concerns: what do I need to do for myself in the short- and long- term? What is best for my family and those immediately around me? What is best for our society, our country, and others around the world?
During lockdown should I use the time as an opportunity to go out to exercise more, or stay in my home to stay most safe from the virus?
And as we slowly open up, do I support local businesses, or do I continue to ‘shield’? Do I go into the post office really quickly, trying not to touch anything? Or do I not go? How do I behave in public spaces to protect myself and others?
When will it be safe to reopen our churches and chapels? How should we do it? And for whom will it be safe?
Many of us are thinking about similar things right now. In reminding us of #loveyourself #loveyourneighbour the Methodist Church is giving us a way to get our bearings and start conversations about this. At the heart of all our decisions should be one thing: love.
Here is a worship song by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend all about God's Kingdom:
The reflections here are written by members of our congregation.