Inland Empire Pastors Conference
Christ Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Sandpoint, Idaho
October 9, 2018
Text: Mark 12:28-34
Love, when demanded of us, is always a Law word. It trips people up, of course, because it’s a nice sounding word, and we think nice sounding words are always Gospel, but you know this if you’ve ever tried to teach Law and Gospel to your Catechism students. You give the students a verse and you make them identify it as Law or Gospel. I’m not so sure it’s such a helpful practice, but it’s right there in the CPH workbook, so it must be right. You throw out a few softballs. “You shall not kill.” Law or Gospel? “Law!” the students exclaim, with a knowing smile on their faces. “Go ahead, give us another one, Pastor! Hit us with your best shot!” “God so loved the world”… there it is, that nice word, “love”… “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16; ESV), you say, and you smile, and they smile, because they all know it, and you know they know it. “Gospel!” they yell triumphantly. And the angels in heaven sing. But… you have an ace up your sleeve, and they don’t even see it coming. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Mark 12:30). Two nice sounding words that should be Gospel: “Love,” and “heart.” At best, you’re gonna get a couple of confused looks. Those are the smarter kids, but I wouldn’t tell them that. More likely, you’ll get the self-assured smiles as the kids exclaim, “Gospel!” And THEN the look of self-doubt as they see that smug look of schadenfreude satisfaction spread across your face. Because you got ‘em! You rascal! You did it! You outsmarted a pre-teen!
But it fools every one of us. Not in the simplistic, “What is the verse, Law or Gospel?” sort of way, but on a much deeper level. You and I, dear brothers in Christ, actually think the salvation of the Church and of the world depends on us and on our love. Oh, you know it’s wrong in your head, but I’m telling you, Pastor, your temptation is to place the salvation of your flock and your community and your whole world squarely on your own shoulders and your ability to love those people. You’ve got a Jesus complex. You know that you have to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself, and you think that if you love God hard enough and love your neighbor just the right way the Church will grow like gangbusters and everyone will want to love Jesus like you love Jesus. But it doesn’t work out that way. It never does work out that way in the Kingdom of God, and the theologian of glory is always either utterly delusional or bitterly disappointed. This is why we pastors are forever running around in desperation trying the latest and greatest thing, or suffering silently in the throes of depression. You bind up your whole worth as a pastor in your ability to love, God and neighbor. The symptoms are unique to each individual, but finally every one of us is like the scribe in our text, who understands that the higher things of the Law, love for God, love for the neighbor, accomplish much more and are more God pleasing than the minutiae of legalism. And the Scribe is not far from the Kingdom of God. He’s not far. But he’s still not there.
Because Jesus must get us there. It is interesting that when the scribe asks Jesus which Commandment is the most important, Jesus doesn’t answer with a Commandment, He answers with the Creed. He recites the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (v. 29; Deut. 6:4). And that, dear brothers, isn’t Law, it’s Gospel (though your Catechism kids might not be able to identify it as such). It is Gospel, because it is the self-revelation of God as Israel’s God, our God, the God who is for us! “Hear” is the imperative. I’m not so sure imperatives are only Law. In this Word, He is giving us ears to hear the profound truth: The LORD, YHWH, is one. And that is a little glimpse, though a very significant one, into the unfolding revelation of God as Trinity, His threeness in oneness, as it will be unpacked by Jesus in His Naming of the Name (singular) of God into which we are baptized: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). That’s Gospel. The Creed is the Gospel. The Creed is God for you, God for me, God for us. And that is where we start in any discussion of love. We start with who God is, revealed in Jesus, for us. For we can only love if God first loves us.
It doesn’t dawn on the scribe or on us right away that when Jesus says the Lord our God, the Lord is one, He is referencing Himself. The whole content of the Creed has arrived, in the flesh. God is born of the Virgin Mary. And now, in that context, He begins to talk about Commandments. The greatest, of course, is the First Table of the Law. “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” (Mark 12:30). Your whole being, your very essence goes it to fearing, loving, and trusting God above all things, keeping His Name holy by your words and actions, and learning, loving, and cherishing His Word. The second greatest is the Second Table: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 31). Honor your parents and other authorities. Don’t murder your neighbor, but save him by dying for him. Don’t take his spouse, but be faithful to yours. Even if she’s unfaithful to you. Die for her, in fact. Don’t steal. Give your all, your very self for the neighbor. Don’t give false testimony. Suffer it against yourself, though, even when they crucify you on account of it. Do not covet, which is idolatry, but keep commending yourself to the Father, who will rescue you and vindicate you. And see, Jesus is the only One who fits this description of the great Fulfiller of the Commandments. These two great Commandments, given us to keep, but not kept by us, Jesus takes upon Himself, and He does them to the very end of Himself on the cross. He loves God, loves you, to His death on the cross. To bring you, not almost into the Kingdom of God, but all the way in. All the way in to the throne room of the Almighty, with a seat at His Table.
And what He does for you, He does for all His people. Pastor, your salvation and the salvation of your flock, the salvation of the lost, the salvation of the world does not depend on you or your love. It depends only and entirely on Jesus Christ, crucified for sinners, and risen from the dead. It depends only and entirely on His faithful love for God His heavenly Father, and for you, His neighbor, His blood-bought brother. And this is incredibly freeing news. You don’t have to be delusional or disappointed. You don’t have to run around desperately trying to save everyone, and when the demons come around with their lies to cause you to despair, you can tell them where to go. Hear, O Pastor: The Lord your God, the Lord is one. And He is for you, not against you. He forgives your sins. Even your lovelessness. He makes you God’s own child. He loves you with an everlasting love. He will never leave you nor forsake you. Love, when attributed to God, is always a Gospel Word. And the perfect love demanded for God and for neighbor in the two great Commandments is the love of God incarnate, Jesus Christ, for you and credited to your account.
And now, of course, you should love. You should love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. You should love your neighbor as yourself. And now, in Christ, you’re finally free to do just that. Imperfectly, of course. Haltingly. Stumbling all over yourself. But you do. You love because God first loved you. You receive God’s love in Christ, and His love flows through you to the dear people in your flock. Pastor, God is graciously using you as a conduit. He’s pouring out His love on His people through your ministry, in your preaching and teaching, even pre-teen Catechism kids; in your baptizing and visiting the sick and the dying and placing the body and blood of Jesus on the tongues of sinners for whom Christ died. It’s not all that creative. But it is the mask of God by which He loves His people. By which He gives them ears to hear. Hear, O Israel, hear, O Church: The Lord your God, Jesus, loves you. He saves you. You belong to Him. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.