“The Greatest Commandments”
Matthew 22: 34-46, by Marshall Zieman, preached 10-29-2017 at PCOC

Today we think back to that day in 1517 in Wittenberg, Germany, when the Catholic priest, Martin Luther, published his 95 complaints in the community bulletin board of his day, by nailing them to the Castle Door.  This didn’t start the Protestant Reformation; there had been rumblings already for 100 years, and rumblings would continue for another 100 years, through the end of the 30 Years War in 1648.

The world was changing.  The Middle Ages would give way to a Renaissance Movement.  It became a time of Re-birth and Re-formation, amidst disruption, and struggle, and even war.  Like with many periods of upheaval, change didn’t come easily.

In times of confusion and turmoil, both 500 years ago, or today, it’s important to remember the verses from today’s Scripture reading.  Continuing in our sermons from the end of Matthew’s gospel, we have one more lesson from Matthew 22.  Today we will read beginning, now in verse 34, and I invite you to turn there and read along with me.  Various groups are challenging Jesus.  Today, the Pharisees are back at it again.

22:34When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment.  39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

41Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42“What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?”  They said to him, “The son of David.”  43He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 44‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? 45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?”  46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

The Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God!

The Protestant Reformation changed Christianity forever.  There was corruption and abuse in the Roman Catholic Church of the time, so visionary leaders like Martin Luther and John Calvin spearheaded a movement that transformed Christianity and eventually led to the emergence of our Protestant denominations that exist today.  The Reformers were guided by the conviction that the church had drifted away from the essential, original teachings of Christianity, especially in regard to what it was teaching about salvation – how people can be forgiven and receive eternal life with God.

The Reformation sought to re-orient Christianity on the original message of Jesus and the early church.  It’s been said by many that the Protestant Reformation was really a ‘back to the Bible’ movement.  Besides the famous motto about “Reformed, and always being reformed according to the Word of God,” other phrases (or slogans) also arose to summarize the Reformers’ convictions about what were the essentials of Christianity. 

Taken together, these five slogans were called “The Five Solas.”  Sola is the Latin word for only, or alone, and theses phrases formed, sort of, the five pillars of the Reformation.  See if these five phrases ring a bell with you.  They probably will:

  1. Sola Scriptura – or The Bible alone. The Reformers believed that the Bible alone, is our highest authority and not the traditions of the Church. Luther advocated for every person to have access to the Bible, instead of just the priests and teachers.  He said, print the Bible in people’s own languages, and make it available to everybody.  The newly developed Gutenberg Printing Press would greatly help in this endeavor.
  2. Sola Fide – or Faith Alone. We are saved through our faith alone in Christ.  Through our belief and trust in Christ, God’s love is available to us all.
  3. Sola Gratia – or Grace Alone. We are saved by the grace of God alone.  Our good works are how we say thank you to God, not to merit God’s favor.
  4. Solus Christus – or Christ Alone. Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Savior, and King.  He is the only Mediator between God and humanity.
  5. Soli Deo Gloria – To the Glory of God Alone. We live for the glory of God alone – we exist to serve and honor God.

To the Protestant Reformers, these were rallying cries meant as correctives to the Roman Church of the day.  To many, the Church had become de-formed, and so it needed to be re-formed.

There is an insert in your bulletin today with some thoughts about the Reformation. (You can take it home and read through it at your leisure.)  At the bottom of the front page there is a little article from Presbyterian pastor, John Buchanan, which ends with these words: “After 500 years, Catholics can now acknowledge the necessity of the Reformation, and Protestants can acknowledge its tragedy.”  That’s true.

The Reformation was necessary because the Church had drifted from its moorings, major correction was needed.  That was Luther’s goal – to reform the Church, not start a new one. 

The tragedy of it all was that the Reformation split the Church.  For the next 500 years the Church has continued to splinter and split, more and more - into Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox branches, into Eastern and Western,   into numerous Protestant churches – Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist… into charismatic and non-charismatic, liberal and conservative, into a slew of independent churches, into high church-low church, into praise band or chancel choir churches – so many different ways to segregate ourselves.  Thus, we end up defining ourselves by our differences, rather than by what we hold in common (which is much more). 

Perhaps you remember this joke about church splits, told by an Englishman a few years back:

“Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, "Don't do it!"  He said, "Nobody loves me."   I said, "God loves you. Do you believe in God?"  He said, "Yes."  I said, "Are you a Christian or a Jew?"  He said, "A Christian." I said, "Me, too!  Protestant or Catholic?"  He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me, too!  What franchise?" He said, "Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?"  He said, "Northern Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?"  He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region." I said, "Me, too!  Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912?"  He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912."  

Then I said, "Die, you heretic! And I pushed him off the bridge.”  (Emo Phillips, 2005)

We’re laughing, but I think God is weeping.  I don’t think this was what Martin Luther envisioned when he nailed his 95 debate-points to the door.  I don’t think this was what Jesus had in mind when he called the twelve disciples to build his church.

Or perhaps he did envision things like this happening that day he told the Pharisees that the Greatest Commandments were to love God as much as you possibly could (with all your heart, mind, and soul), and to love your neighbor, too, and to not forget to love yourself, too.

When we discuss all the finer theological points of the Protestant Reformation, all the articles of debate, all the different points of doctrine, all the differences between what evolved into Lutheran-ism, or Episcopalian-ism, or Presbyterian-ism, or Baptist-ism, etc., it’s easy to forget Jesus’ teachings, like in our passage for today:  The Greatest Commandment?  No, it’s not about predestination, or transubstantiation, or the infallibility of the Pope, or even the priesthood of all believers. 

The Greatest Commandment?  Jesus said, “Oh, it’s love God as much as you possibly can, and love others as much as you possibly can, and don’t forget to love yourself, while you’re at it.”  Of all the things he could have said, why do you think Jesus said this?  Probably because we all struggle with all three!  If you want a blueprint for how to live your life, start right here.  Do you want to become someone truly remarkable, someone who stands out from the crowd, and people remember?  Then build your life around what Jesus called The Greatest Commandments: Love God as much as you can, love others as much as you can, and don’t forget to love yourself along the way.

It doesn’t mean we can’t have differences of opinion; that’s fine, but above all, it does means that if you call yourself a follower of Jesus, you are to LOVE, and not to hate.  In our culture today, it seems that we see hate everywhere.  The news is 24/7, and hate makes the headlines.  But we are not called to respond to hate with more hate back.  Righteous indignation?  OK.  But not with more hate.

If you hold a strong opinion on something, and you see someone on TV strongly expounding the opposite view, you might be tempted to hate them for it.  Regardless of where you may happen to stand on any issue, you are NOT to hate your enemies.  In another passage, what did Jesus say?  “You have heard that it was said, “Love your friend and hate your enemy, but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Love in the Bible is never described as something easy or effort-less or mamby-pamby.  Love is agape, or sacrificial, with what’s best for the other in mind - wanting for your neighbor, what you would want for yourself.  That’s not always easy, nor is it supposed to be.

The Reformation was not easy.  Or quick.  Or always pretty, or clear-cut.  Countries went to war about what God is actually doing in the sacraments.  Reformation is change, and change is usually hard.  Reformation involves changing your thinking, which is especially hard, and yet, Jesus taught his disciples to change. 

In this same gospel of Matthew, just four chapters earlier, he told the twelve:  18:3“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  4Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.  6“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.  Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! 

Friends, don’t become a stumbling block, to a child, or to anyone who needs to see Crist in you. 

The best way to ensure that you’re not becoming a stumbling block to anybody, is by attempting to love God as much as you can - heart, soul, and mind (more than you are now), and to love your neighbor as much as you can (more than you are now), and not to forget to love yourself, as well (more than you are now).

Ask God to help you do just this, starting right now, and then watch for a Reformation to begin in yourself.  This is where every Reformation begins.  Amen.  Let’s pray. 

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