LOVE IS CRUCIAL

“The teacher of the Law said, ‘… to love God with all your heart …and to love your neighbour as yourself, is more important than to offer animals and other sacrifices to God’”.

Mk 12:33 GNB

It is possible to get deeply involved in the activities of a church and to miss the vitally important element of loving God. Some people “fall in love with the church” – or with the minister! Many of the activities are interesting and even engrossing. Some people even develop secondary ambitions to become important within the structures, committees, and minor power-struggles within the body. Denominational bodies can claim big amounts of peoples’ time. And Jesus, or people, can get relegated to minor importance. It is easy to forget that it’s all about loving God and other people.

Offering animal sacrifices played a large part in the religion of the Israelites. An elaborate system of sacrifices grew up with regulations for all the different kinds of sacrifice. These regulations had to be observed to the last detail. The teachers of the Law and the priests had these sacrifices as their special preserve. The man who came to see what Jesus thought about the all-embracing law knew that under it all there was something deeply spiritual. There was more to it than “playing religious games”. Supreme in it all was the one really big thing – loving God and loving other people. The scribes and other teachers often engaged in debates with each other asking each other what they thought was the one big law en- compassing all the other rules and regulations.

Be careful you don’t lose sight of this great teaching. Study Christianity as much as you can. Serve in your church with dedication. But never lose sight of the greatest thing of all.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to keep in view your great commandment.

SPIRITUAL MOVEMENTS AND LOVE

“Love the Lord your God (and) Love your neighbour as you love yourself”.

Mk 12:30, 31 GNB

From time to time various spiritual movements sweep through the Christian community. In the last quarter of the twentieth century the charismatic renewal took place. This caused many believers to be filled with the Spirit and gifts such as speaking in tongues, healings, and being “slain in the Spirit” were witnessed.

Discussing this renewal Tom Smail questioned to what extent it had brought the kind of love Jesus called for – and himself manifested. He said, “What heals is not esoteric techniques, or even special supernatural endowments as such; what heals is Calvary love. The charismatic renewal strays furthest from its own best insights and becomes most nearly gnostic in its seemingly endless search for the effective technique, the method, the panacea that will release the power of God to deal with all the ills of his people. The sesame key to wholeness is not speaking in tongues, or the healing of the memories, thanking God for everything or asking him for anything; it is not having your demons cast out, still less being “slain” in the Spirit or reliving your traumatic birth experience, or any other of the fashions that have followed one another in quite fast succession over the past twenty-five years. All these can at best offer subsidiary assistance to some people in some situations, but the ultimate key to the wholeness that God purposes for his people and his world is far more central to the gospel than any of these: it is Calvary love” (T. Smail, The Love of Power or the Power of Love, p28).

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to stick to Christ’s example of love.

TO LOVE LIKE JESUS LOVED

“Love your neighbour as yourself”.

Mk 12:33 GNB

Love in the Christian sense is more than sentimentality. It is not the same as “liking” – although it could include that. It is giving yourself to another person in seeking that person’s higher good and spiritual maturity.

The German preacher-theologian, Helmut Thielicke, spells out what Christ’s kind of love can mean. He says, “One of my friends was a military chaplain with the beleaguered troops at Stalingrad in Russia in World War II. Since he had a large family, was frostbitten, and was also in great pain, he was among those who were to have been flown out of the doomed area along with the wounded. But he refused to be rescued because he wanted to remain with his comrades, with that congregation of the condemned. We heard nothing more of him, and we don’t know if he died in that battle of Stalingrad or somewhere in Siberia. But we do know one thing. Even if he could only whisper, and even if his weak words had lost all their rhetorical skill and flair, they nevertheless penetrated hearts as messengers of life and were able to comfort the despairing and gently accompany the dying on their last journey. Here was a man who was in earnest, a man whom one could believe. For he had let himself be closed in with the besieged troops in Stalingrad. In doing that, he had lived up to the word of his Lord: no man has greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (H. Thielicke, I Believe, p100).

Christian love is also giving oneself in little things – the way Jesus did .

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to show the kind of love Jesus did.

THE ROYAL LAW OF LOVE

“The most important (commandment) is, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’”.

Mk 12:29, 30, 31 NIV

It has often been pointed out that the English word love has far too many meanings. It is used to describe brotherly affection and the bond between husband and wife; for sexual aberrations and for the concern of God for humankind. Of the four Greek words which may be translated by the word love, the first Christian writers in the New Testament took one, agape, which meant little more than ‘respect’, gave it a deeper, richer meaning and used it to describe the love of God for men and women and of people for God. It thus became a special word, denoting a firm quality of the will; strong, deep, high and good; not natural to men but given by God. This quality is at the very core of Christian experience.

In the opinion of a recent writer, Norman Pittenger, sin is best defined as a ‘disorder in loving’ – a thought-provoking idea. He writes, ‘Sin consists in man’s failures … to become really what in possibility he is made for’ and continues, ‘nobody can earn his way out of this disorder. … It is of grace. I am accepted in the great words of Paul Tillich; and because I know that I am accepted I can accept both myself and others … I can begin by sheer gratitude to re-order my love; or better to let the divine Lover teach me how to love aright’ (The Soldier’s Armoury, 1971, p81) The love Jesus calls us to exercise emanates from the love he shows to us.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to love others as you love me.

THE GREAT COMMANDMENT

“Jesus replied, ‘The most important (commandment) is this: ‘Listen, Israel! The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength’”.

Mk 12:29, 30 GNB

The great Christian saint of the late fourth century, St Augustine, said, “Love God and do what you like”. Of course, if you do love God intently, it will manifest itself in love for others. But love for God does come first.

Jesus had been brought up a strict Jew and he knew the commandments. He also knew that underlying them all was the principle of love. He knew that if you get the first principle right, then all the rest fall into place. Love for God was supreme. But if you make some other god or idol the object of your love and adoration nothing will come right. If you love money and make that your idol, loving it with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, then you have turned a false god into the object of your love. If you love sport – as many do – that too can take you over and become your idol. A hobby – even a good one – is another contestant for your love and idolization.

The Christian knows only one God – and that is the triune God, Jesus Christ the Son, God the Father and the Holy Spirit the comforter. Christian disciples search their hearts continuously, examining themselves to see if any false god is beginning to displace the living God in their affections. They need to be ruthless in their discipline about this, and constantly affirm their love for God – every day, in every way, never failing.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord God, help me to love you with all my heart, soul, mind and strength.

THE GREAT COMMANDMENT

“A teacher of the Law came to him with a question: ‘Which commandment is the most important of all?’”

Mk 12:28 GNB

The whole of Jewish life and society was based on the Ten Commandments which were referred to as “the Law”. In fact, in one sense “the Law” was more than the Ten Commandments. Over time the teachers of the Law had expanded and spelt out in tiny details what most of the laws meant in various situations. This body of teaching was studied by the “Teachers of the Law” and passed on. They became the experts in telling people what this or that law meant in different situations. It had become a massive body of teaching, a subject all of its own. The teacher who asked Jesus which was the greatest commandment was probably trying to trip Jesus up, expecting that Jesus, like most people, didn’t know more than a fraction of what this expanded law said.

Jesus did not come to give people commandments. They had too many already. But there was one supreme dominating law. The people could have dispensed with the labyrinth of regulations that had grown up. But they needed something simple, something all-embracing, something strong, positive and true.

We all find a few simple laws helpful. They guide us in the big and little situations of life. They need to be simple and they need to be easy to remember. They must not be watered down or oversimplified. We need something different from a philosophical formulation that requires a complicated academic explanation. It must be something a child can understand – and something that is related to life in the real world. And it must “fit”. Nevertheless, the life of discipleship is about something more than laws

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to know and live the great Commandment.

PAYING TAXES TO CEASAR

“Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Mk 12:14 NIV

It was a tricky question. One very strong political group refused to pay to Caesar. Another political group supported the status quo. Probably many bystanders were against paying to, and therefore supporting, the Roman authorities. Potentially Jesus’ answer could stir up arguments among the crowd. Since they were benefitting from the services and advantages the Roman occupation brought, they should contribute to the national exchequer? That is how we would see it. But it had implications.

Jesus asked them to bring a coin. “Whose portrait is this?” he asked. “Caesar’s” they replied. “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” Jesus answered. Despite the fact that the state is always a strange mixture of good and evil, Christian disciples should honour their commitment to it. They receive security, education, street lighting and many other facilities and therefore have an obligation and a civic responsibility. They also have a responsibility to God. He gives everybody the nature in which their existence is rooted, as well as his redeeming love.

“Never did anyone lay down a more influential principle than this. It was a principle which conserved at one and the same time the civil and religious power. Lord Acton, the great historian, said of this saying of Jesus, ‘Those words … gave to the civil power, under the protection of conscience, a sacredness it had never enjoyed and bounds it had never acknowledged, and they were the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of freedom’. At one and the same time these words asserted the rights of the state and the liberty of conscience” (W. Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, p299).

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to be both a responsible citizen and a dedicated Christian disciple.

WHERE IS OUR SOURCE OF AUTHORITY?

“By what authority are you doing these things?”

Mk 11:28 NIV

The question posed by the priests, teachers and elders to Jesus raises an important issue that is relevant amongst the disciples of Jesus today. Various matters cause confusion and church bodies often contradict one another in giving guidance to their members.

For many believers you look no further than the Bible. For them the Bible is simple, clear, definite and authoritative. For other people the problem with this is that different people give different interpretations of the Bible and they are not always sure what a particular passage means because of this. Then some say, “Ordinary people can’t be expected to fathom out the nuances in different parts of the Bible and so we need to listen to the church fathers. They have studied long and deeply and they should be able to guide us in difficult and complicated matters. We will go by whatever the church says the Bible means”.

Then others are more sceptical about the church (since it is composed of sinful and fallible human beings). They say, “The only way to get to the bottom of any of these things is to ask the Holy Spirit for his guidance. After all, Jesus said the Spirit would guide us into all truth”.

Often controversies develop between advocates of these different sources of authority (Bible, church and Spirit). Then sometimes people find that their reason doesn’t allow them to agree with their church or the Bible and they can’t trust themselves to be guided honestly by the Holy Spirit. And the culture in which we live pulls us in this direction or that. Within the guidance of your church seek an understanding of what source of authority you should recognize.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to find your guidance in all things.

THE QUESTION OF AUTHORITY

“The chief priests, teachers of the law and the elders came to him. ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ they asked. ‘And who gave you authority to do this?’”

Mk 11:27 NIV

It might occur to someone to ask the question, “What is there to stop any old Tom, Dick or Harry getting up, pretending to know and teach the Bible and yet talk a load of utter poppycock?” Well, any old Tom, Dick or Harry might do just that – but in a church which is properly run and controlled, steps are taken to prevent exactly that sort of thing from happening. The ceremony of ordination in fact authorises a person who has been trained, educated, qualified and approved by the church’s regulated bodies to teach in the name of the church.

The three groups who came questioning the authority of Jesus were all members of the Sanhedrin, the governing body of the Jewish faith. They were “heavies”. For them, as for church bodies today, it was essential to ensure that the people were not led astray by “fly-by-night” teachers who had no authority at all. People can go off on their own, gather a few followers and teach utter nonsense. And, since Jesus was not teaching the law as they taught it, they saw him as a dangerous heretic. Of course it was the call and appointment by God that authorised Jesus to teach “and do these things”.

Since the people questioning him were missing the thing they should have been doing – giving the people abundant life and enabling them to have a closer walk with God – then the way was open for Jesus to give the people “the goods”. And his teaching has become the standard for all Christian bodies.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to discern true gospel teaching in my church.

PRAYER AND FORGIVENESS

“When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins”.

Mk 11:25 NIV

Prayer is an important part of the life of a Christian believer. “Nothing will be achieved without prayer, as Mark signals elsewhere in his gospel. Prayer is the highest sign of faith commitment, since the time is most completely wasted if there is nothing in it. The other side of the coin is that for this very reason it is crucial to true discipleship.

Yet although ‘prayer changes things’ it is not an exercise in magic. It, like everything else in the disciple’s experience, has its proper environment. The ‘culture’ for prayer is the forgiving spirit. Since God’s forgiveness of us is the essential ground over which we approach him in prayer, a lack of a forgiving spirit on our part destroys the atmosphere in which prayer is offered and answered. So the line through faith and prayer to forgiveness is clearly recognizable” (D. English, The Message of Mark, p190).

We stand, that is to say, we live, under the grace of God. Stumbling, fumbling, and bumbling along we go, often unaware where we hurt people, or oblivious to the trouble we cause. But once we have committed our lives to Jesus and accepted his forgiveness, then we are “covered” by his grace. That means that when we unconsciously do or say something untoward or that is sinful, God wipes it out of any record against us. Being human we do sin, despite our best efforts to steer clear of wrong. He still accepts us, forgives us within his grace – and commissions us to witness, to care and to love in his name.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to accept your grace, to care and to pray.