Loving Neighbor as Self

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

When I was little, I learned in Sunday school that it was important to remember the two dimensions of the cross. A cross has an upward axis and that reminds us of our relationship with God. But the cross also has a horizontal axis, which reminds us of our relationships with each other. Both need to be in order for us to be right with God.

I learned that incredibly simple (if not simplistic) understanding of the cross maybe 40 years ago. But I’m not sure if I’m any closer at all to reflecting that kind of balance as I try to live my own life in the way of the cross.

The first great commandment: “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;” and the second, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” are at the center of what it means to walk in the way of the cross. Those two great commandments are at the center of the scripture readings today.

Some churches remind themselves of these words, sometimes referred to as “The Summary of the Law,” every Sunday at the beginning of the Holy Eucharist. Today, we hear it reverberate in the first lesson from Deuteronomy. Moses tells his people that God has promised to watch over them and to love them and to keep them safe. They will pass over from slavery into freedom, from bondage into liberty. They will be free. They will live. And so, he says, give thanks to the God who saves. The Lord is one. Love him with your heart, and your soul and all your might. Moses urges people to love God with their soul, but that word he uses for “soul” is a rich one.

It means to love God with your whole self, with your life, with the creature that you are, with your whole person, with your appetite, with your mind, with your desire, and with your passion.
The Second Commandment, “to love your neighbor as yourself” is sometimes thought by Christians to have originated with Jesus. But it is older. Rabbis long before Jesus had joined the commandment of loving God, with the command of loving neighbor. It’s found in the Book of Leviticus (19:18) and elsewhere. When Jesus links the love of God with the love of neighbor, he is simply following the great prophets of Israel, continuing the witness of Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Amos.

In today’s Gospel Jesus has a conversation with a man who is called a scribe, a man who is educated in the laws of God and in their interpretation. As the conversation plays out, the scribe and Jesus agree about the commandments. They agree that the mark of faith is to “love God and love neighbor,” and for that agreement, Jesus says to the man, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

This scribe agrees with the teachings of Jesus, in his head. He can assent to the essential doctrine and can even affirm the interpretations of Jesus. And according to Our Lord, this man is “not far from the kingdom.” But it is that distance, that space between apprehending the kingdom of God and actually reaching the kingdom of God that makes all the difference.

“Almost” doesn’t count, except in a couple of things, and neither of them are Biblical.

The Gospel of Mark has a momentum to it, and this momentum is moving toward the cross. The scribe is lacking something. Like the rich man in an earlier story, the scribe here is lacking the follow-through. It’s not enough just to agree with Jesus. It’s not enough simply to be familiar with his teaching. Faithfulness is shown in one’s willingness to follow the cross—and this means the whole cross, including the love of God and the love of neighbor. And that whole issue of “loving the self.”

During the month of October, at the 9:30AM hour, we’ve been reading from a little book by Rabbi Edwin Friedman. Friedman’s Fables offers odd little stories that point out various aspects of family systems theory, which tries to help us understand how we deal with family, friends, and coworkers. Throughout these fables and the theory of family systems is the important of what psychology calls “differentiation of self,” the idea that a person needs to spend some time understanding where he or she begins and ends, in relation to other people. In other words, if I don’t have a good sense of who “John” is, I might get all caught up in trying to be who you want me to be, or who I think I ought to be, or borrowing too much of your “self,” thus creating all kinds of problems for relationships.

When Jesus talks about loving neighbor as self, or when others scriptures refer to denying self, they assume what Friedman is getting at– that as each of us is created by a loving God, we are worthy of love and respect and life.

Love of neighbor without love of self can result in a kind of mission-driven frenzy that forgets people for the sake of success. Love of self without love of neighbor ends up with a preoccupation with what’s good for me and my family, while the rest of you have to fend for yourself.

Jesus calls us to love neighbor as self, but notice the emphasis is on the neighbor. He assumes we are operating out of a love of self.

As I think about the practicalities of trying to love my neighbor as myself, in the context of Christian teaching and practice, I think it involves two aspects of love.

I’ve been thinking and praying about this over the last few weeks in different contexts, but on Thursday, I had a good example to work through my own current practice of loving my neighbor. A collection of unions representing fire fighters and other first responders held a demonstration at Gracie Mansion, just down the street.

The first part of loving neighbor as self involves accepting that my neighbor HAS a self– her own self, his own self. They are not me.

The second part of loving my neighbor as myself involves wanting the very best for my neighbor– the best in terms of material goods and the best in terms of spiritual goods. Materially, loving my neighbor affects how I spend my money. How I contribute to helping others. How I vote, as my vote affects policy, which affects other people. And how I pray, as I pray for the very best thing to come for those other people.

Outside the church walls, it’s Halloween and people are dressing up– sometimes as things that scare them, to get power over them. Other times to dress up as something they admire and wish they were more like. That second idea might be a take-away for us today. As we think about Jesus’s encouragement to love your neighbor as yourself, who would you like to emulate in doing that? Is it a saint or someone in the Bible or religious history? Is it a relative– maybe someone living, maybe someone who has died? Or is it a neighbor, a coworker, or fellow church-member? I’m not suggesting we dress up as the person we admire for Halloween, but responding to today’s Gospel and with All Saint’s Day in mind, how might we begin to live towards being that person who balances love of neighbor and love of self? How might we live more deeply into that cross shaped faith connecting us to God and to others?

May all the saints, living and dead, show us the way.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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