In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Last week we heard a little bit about what today’s Gospel would be. Last Sunday we heard about Jesus’ return to Nazareth following the start of His ministry in Capernaum. So in today’s continuation of that story, the initial love fest that the locals had with the returning preacher ends and conflict begins. Jesus’ teaching that day turned out to be pretty hard for His listeners to hear.
Jesus brought healing and love to the world, and yet in this instance nothing but discord and animosity followed his homecoming. The reason for that is what is known as prophetic preaching. Jesus preached a nine-word sermon that day: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That was a prophetic word about what His ministry would mean. And if He had left it right there, there would not have been any problem that day. But there also would not have been a very important lesson taught.
After Jesus’ sermon, He sat down and began to speak again. In ancient Judaism, that meant that He was taking on the role of rabbi – or teacher. Rabbis sat to teach their students and that is what Jesus was starting to do. He told His listeners a couple of stories that were very familiar to them, but which made them angry in this particular context.
The stories of the Widow of Zarapheth and the healing of Naaman were stories about God’s miraculous love. At the end of a 3 ½ year drought, God sent the prophet Elijah to a widow and her son, who were about to die after running out of food and water. Because of the widow’s faithfulness in following Elijah’s words, she and her son were saved. It is a great story. The problem is: at the time that that story took place, there were lots of Israelite widows who were starving; and God – through Elijah – saved only a gentile woman and her son. The Jewish faithful understood this story as one about God’s gracious power and the power of the the prophet Elijah. But they had never heard it where the emphasis was on God’s favor going to non-Jews. And the same was true of the story of Naaman. Through the prophet Elisha, God cured – and thereby saved – Naaman, who was a general in the Syrian army, suffering from leprosy. Again, faithful Jews were not used to talking about this story with the emphasis on God’s favor toward a general of an army that was occupying Israel at the time.
When Jesus finished telling the stories with His particular spin, suddenly his words did not seem so admirable. The people gathered in the Nazareth synagogue that day could not stand the idea that God might be the God of all people, even if those people were, in no way, Jewish. You see, these were faithful people who had their own ideas about how God was supposed to act. They had been taught, and believed that the Nation of Israel was God’s chosen people. Therefore, they believed that they were the only people to whom God showed favor. And any challenge to those beliefs was intolerable.
But Jesus used these two stories to make a bigger point that day. He taught the people that God loved the Jews as God’s chosen people. However, God did not only love the Jews. He wanted them to know that God loves all of the children of the world and when Jesus preached about the Jubilee from Isaiah, it would be Jubilee to all of the poor and captive people. The people in the synagogue were not ready to hear that. So they attacked the one who brought God’s prophetic message. And yet, all Jesus was trying to do was to show them the wide and generous love that is the true heart of God.
The Epistle for today is one of the most famous of Paul’s letters. The portion that we heard from the 1st Letter to the Corinthians, is the Apostle’s explication of what love is. In all of the weddings that I’ve done, someone has always read this passage, because it tells about what love is supposed to look like. St. Paul explains how Godly love looks – the sort of love that Jesus exhibited throughout His time on earth. He explains about the patience, kindness and generosity that Jesus exhibited as He lived out a life of Godly love.
Here is a story that I hope encapsulates this concept of love.
John Phillip Newell tells this story of a three-day retreat at a new monastic community led by a wise elderly monk who was to guide the participants into the essentials of community life. On the first day, the old monk shuffled into the room, sat down, and said to them, “Today I have just one thing to say to you. God loves you. Now go away and think about that.” So off they went in their discipline of silence for the day, walking the monastic gardens and reflecting in their individual cells on the great mystery of God’s love.
On the second morning, the old monk again shuffled into the room, sat down, and said, “Today I have just one thing to say to you. You can love God. Now go away and think about that.” So off they wandered for their second day of silence, pondering the great truth that God not only loves us but longs for our love. Not only are we the recipients of love. We are the beloved partners in an eternal love affair. On the third morning, the participants wondered: What could possibly be next after the essential teachings of the first two days? God loves, and we can love God. Was there anything left to add to this completeness?
The old monk again shuffled into the room, sat down, and said to them, “Today I have just one thing to say to you. You are to love one another. Now go away and live this truth as a community. This is the pearl of great price, living together in love.” (From A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2011.)
What the old monk tried to impart; what Jesus implicitly told the congregation in the Nazareth synagogue; and what all of the Gospels make explicit for us; is that there is nothing on earth nor in the heavens that is more important than love.
A year after St. Paul wrote his famous ode to love in 1st Corinthians, he wrote this to the Church in Rome.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. … 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; …. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. … “[I]f your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; ….” 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
People endlessly debate what the Bible says about myriad different things. Those debates often turn ugly and create enmity between people. Brothers and sisters in Christ split apart from one another, or refuse to speak to each other over some element of doctrine, theology of ecclesiology … or worse yet, how the church operates. And yet, if they would simply look at the importance of love in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, they would see that all of those disagreements vanish into a puff of smoke when viewed through the lens of Godly love.
“[Y]ou 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] ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” It just does not get any simpler than that.
 Synthesis Volume 29 No. 1, January 2016
 Romans 12 (NRSV)
 Romans 13:8b-10 (NRSV)
 Mark 12:30-31 (NRSV)