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Including my Neighbor in my Circle

F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Sermons -- Audio Version

Trinity II - 06/13/10
Proverbs 14:31-15-7;     Psalm 15;     I John 3:13-24;     Luke 14:16-24

Jesus told us that the two Great Commandments are to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. Loving someone means doing things for them which are life-affirming, life-enhancing for anyone in our reach, that is, our neighbors. That is the command of God for every person in the universe.

I was once complaining to Jesus about how my long list of "things to do" never seemed to get any shorter. I thought what a huge list He must have. To which He replied, "I do only two things all day long." To which I thought, "Hmm! Really!" And He continued: "I love my Father with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength, and I love my neighbors just like I love myself. Just those two things all day long."

It would vastly simplify our lives if we would have as the foundation of our "to do" list those two items. We might wonder just what "loving this neighbor" might mean in a given situation, but we will be able to discover that much more quickly the closer we draw ourselves to being loved by God and loving Him in return. We learn how to love the most deeply in our relationship with God.

The only aspect of ourselves that God might not already have is our love. And that means our obedience -- which is why Jesus tells us that if we love Him, we will obey Him. Love of God and obedience go together. That is the good we can do for God. The closer we get to God, the more obvious and clear will we perceive how to also love one another.

"In as much as you have done this unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto Me," says Jesus in the Last Judgment. If we are loving our neighbor, God accepts that as loving Him. The image of God in me reaches out to the image of God in my neighbor. That is the Kingdom at work. That is the Kingdom which we can see only if we are born again, born of the Spirit, as Jesus told Nicodemus.

 

There has been much teaching in Christian circles which says, or implies, that having a self is not a good thing. That was the impression with which I grew up. One of my seminary professors remarked that we should love God first, our neighbor second, and ourselves a poor third. That is not what God says, that is not what the Bible says.  We are very much to love ourselves, not a poor third at all.

Loving oneself is not pampering oneself. Loving oneself is calling oneself to the highest, pointing oneself toward that Kingdom of love, assenting to being born again. The commandment to be loving is a command to get oneself into the Kingdom as fast as you can get there. God wants us in His Kingdom. That means we must come to be the fullness of our real selves, not self-eradicating.  We are to be our full selves so that we can give ourselves away, give ourselves to others in service. 

As one of the early Church fathers said, "The glory of God is man fully alive..." Not man beating up on himself, but man rejoicing in the fullness of life in God. We mistake beating up on ourselves for repentance.

Beating up on ourselves hinders and prevents repentance. We must beat up on our sinful behavior, not on ourselves. There is that big difference between who we are and what we do. God is saving who we are, He is calling us to rejoice in who we are, His creatures -- which we can do only as we repent of ignorant and rebellious behavior. Our bad behaviors, rebellion, ill will, self-centeredness, are the moral and spiritual cancers of our souls. They are beating up on us, and we must crucify them, not our selves.

God has given each of us a little kingdom, the kingdom of self -- quite different from the kingdom of selfishness. We are not to destroy that kingdom of self, but rather bring it under submission to the law and grace of God. It takes a strong and obedient self to destroy selfishness. The Kingdom of God is all about relationship between selves, not about the annihilation of ourselves. Self-annihilation does nothing at all to honor God. That would be a participation in the kingdom of Satan. We are to become princes and princesses under the Kingship of our heavenly Father. By adoption and grace, sons and daughters of the King.

The doing of that necessarily includes opening up the circle of our little kingdoms to one another, including each other in the good things of our little kingdom, sharing what we can with those around us, especially those in need.

All of that ought to begin in our family life, learning to share toys, learning to share our allowance, learning to share the attention and the praise of parents -- rather than competing for center stage. Especially if I am the oldest, bring my siblings into the love and praise from my parents, not jealously compete with them. No sibling rivalry.

That opening up of our circle of self to others is what God means by loving one's neighbor. That circle of self will not be very inviting to others if I do not enjoy, rejoice in being myself. Man fully alive.

Jesus showed something of the meaning of being fully oneself up on the Mount of Transfiguration, where the light of God shone through Him to the three disciples, Jesus fully Himself. That same light ought to be shining through each of us, as it did through Moses when he came down from Mount Sinai. Man fully alive. "Would that all Godís people were prophets!" said Moses.

That is the light of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, shining from the throne of our hearts, shining out through our attitudes and our behavior. It is the light of the indestructible power of being which holds us in existence in the face of all worldly, fleshly, and devilish opposition.

 

Imagine being invited into such a circle! Imagine yourself in need and being invited to share the life, or the lives, of persons who are stable, secure, and through whom the glory of God radiates!

That is why St. John calls it "living in the light". It is the light not only of God, but of God shining through us to each other. That is the light of which the book of Revelation speaks in the final chapters of the New Heaven and the New Earth. "And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and it lamp is the Lamb." The Body of Christ will shine with that light.

May God make us that kind of persons, that kind of community, through whom His light will shine among us and out from us.

Listen again to Psalm 15:

Lord, who shall dwell in Thy tabernacle? or who shall rest upon Thy holy hill? Even he that leadeth an uncorrupt life, and doeth the thing which is right, and speaketh the truth from his heart.

So, who shall dwell in Thy tabernacle? Who shall be allowed to enter into God's circle?

One does not do these things, arrive at the doors of heaven and say, "Look at what I have done. I have earned a ticket to get in." No, rather, we enter in by grace. We are invited in and thereby become able to do those things, as we are cleaned up, healed, and made whole in the Lord. We do not come with our light shining, and offer to help light up heaven. We have to enter before we are all cleaned up, healed, and shining. The tabernacle of God, the Kingdom, is first a place of confession and a hospital for broken souls. Our little broken circles begin to radiate with the light and glory of God, so that we can then invite others into our circles without being threatened and fearful. We begin to know who we are and where we are going.

The world cannot teach us those things.

The Psalm ends: "who so doeth these things shall never fall." We do not fall because we are secure in God, not by merit, but by cooperation with the law and grace of God. We are upheld by the eternal Hand of God. We either build heaven with God, or we build hell all by ourselves. It is all about relationships of trust and obedience.

 

St. John tells us in the Epistle, "We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren." We know that we could not love the brethren in God's way without the help of God to stabilize and direct us. We are not capable of that kind of love in our own. So our actually being able to love the brethren is evidence that we have indeed passed from death to life by that undergirding power of the Holy Spirit.

This is not just religious fluff, but a life and death issue. "Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer..." He is a soul-killer. He is failing to minister life to others, but rather ministers death. Because God has laid down His life for us in Jesus, so we ought also to do that for one another. Again, something that we could not do apart from the law and grace of God. It means in a very practical sense, sharing this world's good, such as we have, with those in need.

But if we do labor under guilt, "if our heart condemn us", we have a way of dealing with that. Confession and forgiveness. Living in the light, as John relates in chapter 1. If we run from the light into the dark to hid our sinful behavior, we only condemn ourselves to continued guilt and continued running from the light. God will follow us with the light all the way to hell, offering us confession, repentance, and forgiveness. If we continue to run, we end up making hell our home. Our spirit dies, and we lose all capacity for freewill choice to repent.

 

A certain man made a great supper.... we read in the Gospel. In the Near East cultures, hospitality is a fundamental act of society, it is not merely entertainment, as so often in Western culture, a nice thing to do occasionally, which you can take or leave. In the Near East, it is a sacred responsibility.

It began back in the days of wandering desert tribes, eking a living out of barren ground, a few oases here and there, with wandering predator neighbors often to fight off. Life was dangerous, and a very vulnerable traveler would be helped by the principle that you had a sacred duty toward a guest in your house (or more likely, a tent) to treat him well and to supply him the best you could. These people would have understood a command to love your neighbor, to do well for a guest. Once he left your house and care, he might be considered fair game for whatever you had in mind. But while he was there, you were obligated to treat even your worst enemy with the best. You were obligated to draw him into your circle of wealth and comfort.

There were no movies, no theaters, no places of entertainment, no restaurants, no hotels or hospitals. So the only relief from hard and often dangerous work and living was the occasional dinner or celebration someone might have. Hospitality was sacred.

So when a man made a great supper and invited guests, it was no small thing to refuse the invitation, especially, no doubt, if he were a significant man in town. You dropped everything and went. This would have been so all the more because the invitations had gone out some time before the event, and they could have declined at that time. But to wait until the dinner bell was rung and then not show up, would have been considered inexcusable and insulting, unless there were something like a life-threatening reason for not coming.

The events of the parable in that culture would have been understood as a slap in the face toward the man holding the supper.

Jesus, of course, was telling the parable against those who should have been delighted to come to the invitation from God, but who consistently rejected every offer God made through His Son -- whom they were plotting to kill.

God was inviting the leaders of Judaism to dinner, the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and rabbis, but they had a multitude of excuses for not coming. They had their own important plans which overrode those of God. Jesus had been telling them over and again that they were enforcing on the people their own man-made laws, and ignoring the law of God. He had been telling them that their man-made laws were meant to control people, not to set them free, as the law of God was meant to do.

Such persons could not possibly have understood a command to love oneís neighbor, to let oneís neighbor into their circle of self and share their wealth and abundance. Nor did they understand the invitation from Jesus to be from God. But that did not matter. What mattered was how they treated people, whether small or great. Jesus took how they treated people as how they treated God -- and thus Himself.
Jesus will come to us from that small, lowly place -- to find out whether we will obey God then. Maybe in the guise of your next door neighbor.

That is the message of St. John. If a man does not love his neighbor whom he can see, how can he love God whom he cannot see? If a man does not love the Son, visible and touchable, how can he love the Father whom he cannot see or touch? Or even understand who the Father is, or the power of the Holy Spirit?

 

All this is tied to living in the light. We can allow people into our circle of self only to the degree that we can share ourselves. Those parts of ourselves which are locked up out of sight, unresolved guilt, parts of ourselves of which we are ashamed, will all tend to stay hidden -- if we can help it. For that very reason, St. John in chapter 1 ties living in the light to confessing our sins, being forgiven, getting rid of our guilt -- to become more fully alive.

 

 

Father in heaven, You have called us into the Light of your own presence, to live openly with You so that we can live openly with one another, no more hiddenness, no more pretense. The world cannot produce that openness and unity, only You can do that. Show each of us the way, show each of us the resources which you have provided, and to have the courage and determination to pursue them as appropriate for ourselves. Let us make no bargains with darkness or deceit or pretense. Show us how us how to cancel those bargains we have already made, and so to be the real people you have created us to be, fully alive and so open to one another in the power of Your Holy Spirit. In Jesus name. Amen.

Audio Version

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Date Posted - 06/13/2010   -   Date Last Edited - 07/07/2012