Sermons That Work

I Give You a New Commandment…, Easter 5 (C) – 2004

May 09, 2004

[Y]ou shall love your neighbor as yourself… Leviticus 19:18

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. John 13:34

Here we have, from two separate stories and two separate times, the instruction to love each other. The first is from the Old Testament book of Leviticus, part of the instructions God gave to Moses, part of the Law, part of the Covenant. The second is from the Gospel of John, part of Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples the night before he was put to death.

It’s interesting to look at these two injunctions. We tend to think of the Old Testament in terms of a harsh Law and a vengeful God, and of the New Testament as telling the story of a loving God. We especially think of the book of Leviticus as that book that’s chockfull of bizarre (to us) strictures on behavior—and what do they all mean, anyway?

We have been taught to think of the Old and New Testaments in this way, in large part thanks to Paul and his differentiation between the old life of “the Law” and the new “life in Christ”—and it’s even clear in how we refer to them: “Old” and “New.” Much more helpful to call them by the names scholars now prefer, as the Hebrew Bible (or Hebrew Scriptures), and the Christian Bible (or Christian Scriptures). While the nomenclature is not exactly accurate (the books in our Hebrew Scriptures, for example, are not in exactly the same order as the Jewish canon), it does allow for honoring their origins, which is important. It can also begin to do away with the sense that “new” is somehow better than “old.” After all, both sources contain the story of the people of God and their efforts to understand their relationship with the Divine, and we find connection and meaning in these stories.

Yes, the Hebrew Bible does contain many hard stories of conflict and conquest, of violence, and of harsh judgment. We struggle to recognize the God who would not only allow, but encourage, the violent takeover of peoples and nations; or the God who punished seemingly minor infractions with death. We look at the detailed descriptions of the Law and question why such precision was necessary.

But the Hebrew Bible also contains evidence of a loving God in many stories of God creating, rescuing, and providing for God’s people—and in calling them back again and again through the words of the prophets. Even the details of the Law, once we get beyond the minutiae, are less about exact behavior than they are about how to live in community and how to treat one another. This reading today from Leviticus is not just about minutia, it’s about right behavior: it’s about leaving the gleanings of the field and the fallen grapes of the vineyard for the poor and for the stranger. It’s about taking care, as is so often stated in the Hebrew Scriptures, of the stranger, the orphan, the widow—the marginalized members of the community. This reading from Leviticus is about fairness and truth telling, about justice and ethical behavior—and it is also about love.

And it is this that Jesus is reminding his disciples—how else is it that again and again in the Gospels we hear Jesus talking about these same issues? About justice and fairness and ethical behavior and helping the poor and marginalized—about how these are the behaviors of the Kingdom of God? And is it not Jesus who, when questioned on the Law, says that the greatest commandments are to love God and love your neighbor, and that “on these hang all the Law and the prophets”? Jesus is passing on the most basic and ancient tenets of his Jewish tradition, and he says it over and over again in many different ways, because it is also the basis of the Kingdom that he was encouraging his followers to make real—the Kingdom that we as Christians are to make real in this world, in the here and now.

We tend to get this all intellectually, as we argue over the fine points of Old and New Testament theology, and even as we attempt to bring into reality a social gospel, a liberation theology. But isn’t it interesting how we always focus on the “love your neighbor” part of the equation and skip over the “love yourself” bit? How is it that over the centuries we have come to believe that we can ignore that part, that we can only obey half of that command? How is it that love of self came to be equated with narcissism and selfishness, and that hatred of self came to be seen as the correct way?

The command says to “love your neighbor as yourself.” So how do we think we can love others if we never learn to love ourselves? How do we learn to cherish others and care for them if we never learn to do the same for ourselves? We live in a culture that devalues us and that worships death—a culture in which people drink and drug themselves into oblivion out of desperation, in which women and girls are taught to starve themselves or undergo dangerous procedures in order to fit some unrealistic media image of beauty and worth, in which people and relationships are sacrificed on the altar of “workaholism,” in which cyber-reality has replaced personal connections so we don’t have to deal with real people anymore, in which power at the end of a gun is the ultimate high, in which the myth of safety is used to hold us hostage, in which war is seen as the only appropriate response. We live in a world that denies our basic human worth.

How are we to love ourselves when we are told and shown over and over again that we are unloveable? How do we reclaim our basic worth? How do we become whole, healed, holy people?

Here is where old and new merge: both canons speak to us of our value, of our worth, of God’s love for us. In the beginning, God looked upon the creation—which included human beings—and said, “It is very good.” Jesus said, “Blessed are you…” Yes, there are stories of violence and betrayal in the Bible and in our lives; yes, we make mistakes and act out of fear and hatred; yes, we too often destroy ourselves and each other and the rest of creation—but ultimately, our story is one of love and redemption. Ultimately, our story is Easter.

In both testaments, God calls us back again and again. Even when we don’t know it or hear it, God knows—and calls us “Beloved.” As God’s creation, as God’s beloved, we have intrinsic worth. God does not ask us to dismiss that or to reject that, but to deeply accept it, to open ourselves to it—and to care for ourselves and honor ourselves as worthwhile; to nurture ourselves and our gifts, and to work to bring forth the Kingdom.

It’s like the advice given to new mothers to nap when the baby naps. We tell them to care for themselves so they will have the resources to care for their babies. We, too, must care for ourselves before we can care for others, we must fill the well before we can have anything to give. This is not narcissism or selfishness (which come from fear and self-loathing), but self-love and wisdom.

Jesus cared for himself often by going off alone to pray and refresh himself, away from the crowds and the demands—this is a consistent image of him from every Gospel. Only then did he have anything to give to those who came to hear him speak, or who came to him for help. And, following his example, only out of the love and nurture and care that we provide ourselves—only out of that love can true love of neighbor come. Only by learning to love ourselves can we really learn to love each other.

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Christopher Sikkema


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