The Dance of Love

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

May I speak in the name of God …..

Whenever the Church gets itself into heated arguments about who can get married in church, who can take communion – when, where and how, and who can be ordained, today’s Gospel is never far away:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’. And ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

We can argue about many things – and of course we do – but we cannot argue about these two commandments. They are for conservative, middle-of-the road and liberal alike, for orthodox, radical and sceptic  – they are for everywhere and for all time.

And these two commandments are not ours to own.   We learnt them first from the Jewish Scriptures, from the Book of Deuteronomy and the Book of Leviticus, although they have their origins before that.   The great Jewish Rabbi Hillel, who lived just a generation before Jesus, said : “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”

And God inspired similar sayings in Hinduism, in Buddhism and in Islam – love God and love of neighbour is the very heart of all religion – the rest is commentary.

Our own St Paul is right there with Rabbi Hillel.

For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself” he writes in Galatians, or whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself” he writes in the letter to the Romans.

And there is no doubt in my mind that this great commandment from Leviticus: you shall love your neighbour as yourself:  is non-negotiable for Christianity and for all religions – in fact I believe it is non-negotiable for all humanity.

For anyone who claims to love God fervently, with heart, soul and mind – or anyone who loves their politics or their country, or their own ideology passionately with heart and soul and mind, but without an equally fervent love of neighbour – can all too easily go from the good and virtuous living we all aspire to, to self-righteous and violent condemnation, from the good love of neighbour, to an evil despising and destroying the infidel, the alien, the other, the threat – from godly asceticism which brings us closer to God, and helps us to respect creation and the environment, to treating life itself – the life of others or the life of oneself – as worthless.

You shall love your neighbour as yourself:  No one has an exemption from that one! – and as Jesus taught us in the parable of the Good Samaritan, everyone is our neighbour.

But the teaching of Jesus is not quite as simple as that of the Rabbi Hillel or the Apostle Paul.

The great second commandment, for Jesus, does not stand alone – it stands side by side with our love of God :

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.   And ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

Jesus, – let us never forget – was more than a teacher, more than a healer or glorified social worker, more than a prophet – Jesus was a person of intense faith  and he says – our love of God – our spirituality, is as key to our humanity as our love for one another.  And that is a bit shocking in a post-religious age.

For there are good and virtuous atheists who put some religious people to shame with their charity and their social consciences – and yet they will never be able to fulfill this first command – You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  

And so – Jesus seems to say – the atheist, the non-believer is lacking in something essential – essential to life, essential even to their humanity.

But perhaps its not as shocking as all that: some atheists are discovering something pretty similar for themselves in the humanist church movement – the need for community, the need for shared-story and ritual, the need for affirmed values which are ‘out –there’ and objective as well as ‘in-here’ and subjective.  Some neuro-scientists have found evidence in the human brain of the effects of meditation and the feeling of transcendent prayer, – one writer in the New Scientist even cheekily said that science has proven that atheists don’t exist – claiming that the metaphysical is an essential part of our human make up – and we can call it by many names, but we cannot escape from it.  Certainly I’ve long made the decision that full humanity needs the story of God, that full humanity needs mystery and myth as well as cause and effect if it is to flourish and grow – that we may live and multiply as the book of Deuteronomy puts it.

But today’s gospel takes us just a little bit further.

Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?”

Of course to some extent he is just getting his own back.  The pharisees and lawyers have once again tried to trick him with an impossible question, – as they did over divorce and over taxes paid to Caesar – and in each case Jesus has answered brilliantly, and now he tricks them – as he always does – with an impossible question in return, one which they cannot answer – but I think there something else in this little dialogue for us to ponder.

I think there is a third part to the two great commandments, the third side of the triangle – which is not a commandment for us to follow – but a gift for us to receive. – or not receive, which is why it is a question.

Yes – as human beings we must have that horizontal love of one another – the love of our neighbour which means that we will treat everyone as we ourselves would wish to be treated.  And yes – as human beings we must also have that upwards vertical love and connection with the divine, our love of the mysterious, numinous, metaphysical God – but – and here is the new bit – especially for protestants who put so much emphasis on our own personal response to God – we must let the mysterious, numinous and metaphysical divine have a downward vertical love with us …  Religion – and I think therefore humanity – is never just what we do for others and for God, – never only our choice –  it is also what God does in and through and for us –

What do you think of the Messiah? – asks Jesus –  what do you think God is doing for you?  In other words: Are you able to accept and receive that there is also a commandment for God, a Golden Rule which God follows:  – that the mysterious, numinous, metaphysical Divine also comes down, reaches out to love you – each one of us – with all God’s heart and mind and soul?   – that the place of our humanity in creation is not as a long line of individuals each living in our own little centres and choosing to love God or neighbour or not – as if faith were merely a personal or private thing, or solely up to us  – but that true humanity puts us with all creation in a dance in community with neighbour and with God around a great circle of love – it is a dance we join, not a creed we recite.

This – I believe – is what Gregory of Nazianzus in the 4th Century and Maximus Confessor in the 7th Century describe as the Dance of God into which we are invited – perichoresis – from the same root word as choreography.

This is then the great Eastern Orthodox teaching of theosis  – where the goal and purpose of our humanity is not so much justification in a heavenly law-court, where the good or the righteous go to heaven and the wicked go to eternal damnation – but rather the ecstatic communion with the uncreated energies of God – a living eternal dance of love. – of loving, and of being loved.

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