Pentecost 23 B: The Cost of Love

The readings for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost are

Old Testament      Deuteronomy 6:1–9

Psalm                    Psalm 119:1–8

New Testament     Hebrews 9:11–14

Gospel                   Mark 12:28–34

October 31 is Reformation Sunday. Though many congregations of many denominations do not observe this festival day that Lutherans cherish, the Gospel lesson for the regular 23rd Sunday after Pentecost is very apt for this time of the church on earth. It is a time for a Reformation of fresh revival of what it is to be Christian. It is time to bring the church back to centering itself on love. But love costs.

Behold the attack that the church is suffering today! All around the world people are fighting against such things as mask mandates, vaccine mandates, the teaching of inclusion and racial equity and fairness, common sense gun safety laws, and even the saving of the planet through environmental protections. And the ones fighting against all these things see themselves as super patriotic, super traditional, and especially super-religious.

Of course they love. They love country, family, and God. And so they label all of the above things that are intended to care for others and planet earth as socialist, liberal, deep state, Marxist, and, anti-God, and perhaps worst of all, democrat.

Baptist pastor and college professor Ryan Burge, in his analysis of recent surveys, has pointed out that the word “Evangelical” used to mean people who believed in the divinity of Jesus, the importance of a “born again” experience. But today a very high percentage of those who have opted to call themselves Evangelical don’t even go to church; and many of them aren’t Protestant, and aren’t even Christian at all. So “Evangelical” has become just a brand or an identity that people assume because they ascribe to the kind of conservatism that Donald Trump proclaims. For these people Jesus isn’t nearly as important than political unity of thought and power.

This trend has empowered people on social media, in churches, at school board meetings and raging at Congress this past January 6 to claim to be on a crusade for Christ even while they deny the true cost of love.

The Gospel lesson for this Sunday of the Revised Common Lectionary—the one I claim as very apt also for Reformation purposes, is one about two ways of looking at cost. It is a lesson of reconciliation, because Mark notes that the scribes and priests of the Temple religious establishment were ones who opposed and eventually hated Jesus enough to kill him. But this scribe, who comes perhaps to trap Jesus in a religious faux pas, wisely shows himself  not far from the Kingdom of God.

One kind of cost is the heart of Temple worship: burnt offerings and sacrifices. But the scribe in question must face the bare fact that Jesus answers rightly when he says there are not one but two commands that are the of ultimate importance. Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. And these two are truly only one single thing. “This is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

In other words, ritualized worship has its place—but it is actualized worship that is fundamental. We show our true hearts not when we say “Lord, lord,” but when we live out love for God by loving all those people God loves.

And actualized love costs us in ways that sin tempts us to avoid at all costs.

The way people today renounce, defame, and fight against diversity, equity, inclusion, and efforts to save the planet and save lives from Covid-19, are nothing new. They are just the latest manifestations of the same old sin—the sin of hating the pay the costs of repenting, taking responsibility, and turning to the Lord who says “Love me by loving your neighbor.”

To learn more we must turn to another version of this dialog about the love command in Luke 10:25-37. Here an expert on the religious law is said to be testing Jesus by asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. When Jesus parries by saying, “What is written in the Law?” The lawyer is again forced to admit the truth of what Jesus always teaches: Love God with your all, and your neighbor as yourself.

But like every foolish student who asks not “what do I get to learn,” but “what’s on the test,” the lawyer wants a short list. So he asks, “But who is my neighbor.” Jesus wants the lawyer to know love costs. Jesus gives no list. He gives no handy criteria that will allow the lawyer to parcel out his love sparingly—perhaps by protesting “charity starts at home.” Jesus describes a circle. “God is in the center, and you are part of the infinite circumference of the circle. Your job is to act like a neighbor to everyone else, including the ones you want to exclude, like the hated Samaritans.”

The Devil today, as always, seeks to destroy the reputation of Christ. He drives people from Christ by inventing a new pseudo-religion of “Evangelicalism,” which has nothing to do with the “Evangel” or the Good News of God’s universal love in Christ. And, at heart of the Devil’s method is the truth that love costs us something.

So,  now the Devil is arming people with the big lie that everything that is for the common good, whether it is climate commitments, environmental activism, social justice of any kind, mask or vaccine mandates—all of it is to be rejected because it takes from us our freedom. And the Devil is aided by this by our human frailty—our sinful tendency not want to pay the cost of love, not to repent of our wrongs, not to take responsibility for one another and for the common good.

The true church is not in decline. It is not weak. It may look like few, but the true church has always been a mighty minority in this world. It knows Jesus’ gift of salvation to us came at great cost for him. And by the same token our faith means we let go of our liberty to put ourselves at the service of others. We let go of our own rights and privileges so that we can receive life in abundance as we become part of God’s circle of all humanity.

But the church must always be reforming—always returning to its best angels—and make a stand. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion have always been at the heart of the church’s identity. Love of God and love of neighbor are not two things but one. They describe the Circle of Life.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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