(A sermon based on Matthew 22:34-46; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8)
A few years ago I heard an award-winning writer and director talking about how he had become successful. He told us about the first play he ever wrote. He said that he wanted to write a play but he didn’t know how. So he found a play he liked and studied it very carefully. He copied that playwright’s style and mimicked it as closely as he could. The play he wrote won an award and the rest, as they say, is history. So how did he approach reaching his goal? He wanted to write a play. He found someone who wrote like he wanted to write. He copied that writer’s style. And he wrote a successful play.
What do we want? If we are Christians, we want to do what Jesus would do. We want to do Jesus things. But the only way to do Jesus things is to do them in the Jesus way. Why should we be so interested in doing Jesus things in the Jesus way? To answer that question we have to answer the question of who Jesus is, anyway.
Jesus asked the Pharisees to tell him whose son the Messiah was. They answered, and it was an answer based on Scripture, that the Messiah was the son of David. Jesus’ reply to their reply was not meant to deny that the Messiah was the son of David but was rather to imply that the Messiah was more than that. The implication is that the Messiah was the Son of God [cf. Dale C. Allison, “Gospel Lesson: Matthew 22:34-46,” in The Lectionary Commentary, ed. Roger E. Van Harn (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 135-136].
Have we really come to grips with that great truth? Jesus Christ was a great leader, but he was not just a great leader. Jesus Christ was a great teacher, but he was not just a great teacher. As C. S. Lewis put it, “The idea of a great moral teacher saying what Christ said is out of the question. In my opinion, the only person who can say that sort of thing is either God or a complete lunatic suffering from that form of delusion which undermines the whole mind of man” [C. S. Lewis, “What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 158].
If we’ve put our faith in him to save us from our sins and to give us eternal life, then clearly we’ve concluded that he’s not a lunatic. We have concluded, therefore, that he is the Son of God. And if he’s the Son of God who came to take away the sin of the world, who was God in the flesh, who was resurrected on the third day, then he deserves, demands, and has every right to expect our faithfulness and our allegiance. To do things in our own way is our predisposed behavior; we need to learn to do things in Jesus’ way.
So our stance toward Jesus’ example and teachings should be one of willing obedience. We want what mattered the most to him to matter the most to us. What mattered the most to him? I think that we can safely say that his answer to the question about the greatest commandment tells us what mattered the most to him. What mattered the most to him was loving God with all his heart, soul, and mind and loving his neighbor as himself. Therefore, what should matter the most to us is loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
So to do Jesus things in the Jesus way means to love God with all we are, with all our being. Our great love for God is awakened by God’s amazing grace for us. If you are like I am, there is somebody out there to whom you owe an awful lot. If your heart is right, you would do anything you could for that person who did so much for you. Well, God saved you from your sin. He gave you eternal life. He loved you so much that he gave his Son for you. How can we help but want to do whatever we can for him in response to all that he has done for us? This is so basic but it is so very important. Do we love God like we ought to?
Our love for God is to be characterized by submission. This is not a relationship between equals. God is God and we are his human creation. We know that he loves us and wants want is best for us. Because we love him we gladly submit to his lordship. We come to God by faith through his Son Jesus Christ. To be a Christian is to confess that Jesus is Lord. Therefore we show our love for God by submitting to his will and way as they are seen in his Son Jesus. Most of us have work to do in this area. Most of us have a lot of work to do in bringing our will under the control of God’s will. But that is what loving him with our entire beings requires.
Our love for God is to be characterized by devotion. That devotion is always to be becoming more and more complete. We are always to be moving into greater and greater devotion. By devotion I mean that our desire to want what God wants leads us to do what God wants us to do. To love God with everything that we are means that we will live lives that reflect his way of doing things. And his way is seen in Jesus. It is seen in the way of radical obedience. It is seen in the way of reckless faith. It is seen in the way of overflowing compassion.
So to do Jesus things in the Jesus way means to be radically devoted to God and utterly submissive to his will. There’s no doubt that Jesus lived that way; if we are his disciples, we are called to live that way, too. When you get right down to it, though, how do we show our devotion and submission to God? I believe that Jesus’ pairing of the second commandment with the greatest commandment tells us the main way: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Total submission and devotion to God are best shown in radical love for those around us. And here’s the thing: it’s not an option for a disciple of Christ. It’s a requirement. I would go so far as to say that the most tangible way to show your love for God is by showing it for other people.
Let’s be careful not to trivialize this. Love for our neighbors means far more than being nice and friendly to them. Love for our neighbors means far more than not causing trouble for them. Love for our neighbors means far more than not hurting them. No, love for our neighbors goes far beyond what we don’t do to them. It goes all the way to what we do for them. How do we do that?
For the answer we look to Jesus. Can we possibly improve on Jesus’ formula? Matthew tells us earlier in his gospel, in his description of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, that Jesus went about “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease among the people” (Matthew 4:23). So, if we are going to do Jesus things in the Jesus way, if we are going to love God by loving others, we will do it by sharing our words with them. We will tell them of the good news of salvation that we have experienced in Jesus Christ. We will tell them of the good news of God’s word as we teach and preach the message of the Bible.
But we will do more than that. I am haunted by the words of St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.” If we are going to do Jesus things in the Jesus way, if we are going to love God by loving others, we will also work to heal them. We will work to heal them of their hurts, whether those hurts are physical, emotional, social, or spiritual. We will take action to do whatever we can to share the love of God with those who so desperately need it. We will feed the hungry, we will help the poor, we will shelter the homeless, we will take in the outcast—we will radically love our neighbor.
How can we do any other? Paul, writing to the Thessalonians about the way in which he and his missionaries had ministered in their city, said, “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us” (2:8). Isn’t that beautiful? And isn’t that the way it has to be? To share the good news of God we also have to share ourselves. To give the good news of salvation we also have to give ourselves. That’s our calling. How can we do other? How can we do less?