Sermons | One Mitzvah at a Time

SERMON FOR 13.05.12


If you go to the crossroads in Stamford Hill, in my previous parish, on any Jewish festival, chances are you will find a mitzvah booth on the pavement outside the parade of shops.  This is part of the outreach of the Lubavitch community to fellow Jews who may not be observant of the Torah.  The idea is that if a secular or liberal Jew can be invited to participate in just one mitzvah or divine commandment, whether it is lighting a menorah lamp for Hanukkah, eating something in a booth during Sukkot or reciting the appropriate blessing while winding the tefillin round his arm, that person has taken a small step towards becoming responsive to God’s call on the whole of their life.


Living for ten years in the heart of a very traditional Jewish community, I learned something of the wisdom and gentleness of their approach to teaching people about the love of God.  Christians who readily dismiss Judaism as a religion of law compared to Christianity as a religion of love make a very superficial judgment on the faith community that nurtured Jesus.  But how quickly and easily we fall into that trap.


I did it myself while preparing to preach this Sunday.  When I read over the lessons from the First Letter of John and the gospel of John earlier this week, I knew exactly what I was looking for, and surprise, surprise, that is what I found: the word love jumped out at me.  In fact love, in Greek agape, in some form or other appears in these two readings no fewer than 13 times.  John’s Gospel indeed is often called the gospel of love, and the first letter of John that was written for the same early Christian community probably twenty or so years later is very much in the same theological mould.


But then I looked again and realized that wherever love appears, another word goes with it, almost as frequently.  Did you notice it?  The word command or commandment appears eight times in these two readings.  This word in Greek is entole, and it is a direct translation of the Hebrew word mitzvah, meaning a command that comes from God.  A command is not a law in the usual sense of the word, a ruling that one is obliged to obey or risk being punished – it is rather an instruction from God, a teaching that leads to human flourishing.


Jesus, as a devout Jew, uses the word commandment in that sense.  It is divine teaching.  Keeping the commandments means being formed into the kind of person who lives in accordance with God’s character.  It is wholly for our good, for our flourishing, and for the flourishing of God’s creation, that we are given the commandments and invited to use them to shape our lives.


The early followers of Jesus had many debates about this.  How should people who claimed to be Christians live?   We know about one faction, the group that believed the whole Jewish Law, including all the religious rituals, applied to every convert, and we know that Peter and Paul eventually joined forces to combat this view.  But here it seems that an argument from the opposite side is being dealt with.


The Johannine community, to whom this letter was written, was being threatened by people who thought that all that mattered was belief in Jesus.  This community had moved, probably, from Palestine to Ephesus in modern-day Turkey, in the wake of the final break with Judaism after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD70.  In their early life together as Christians they had spent a good deal of energy differentiating themselves from the people I’ve just mentioned, who taught that Christians should also be observant Jews in every respect.  That is why the Gospel of John so often refers negatively to “the Jews” in ways that we find uncomfortable nowadays.


The Johannine community had, not surprisingly, succeeded in attracting many Samaritan and Gentile converts.  These brand-new Christians had not been formed in the tradition of the Torah, the instructions of God for human living.  Perhaps they treated the subject of how to live rather lightly and thought it didn’t really matter as long as you had the right doctrine.


That is a failing Christians have exhibited for centuries, I’m afraid.  Many of you know that I am a fan of the American writer Marilynne Robinson, whose novels include Gilead and Home.  She is also a learned and articulate Christian.  Her latest book of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, contains a stout defence of John Calvin, who doesn’t find many friends nowadays.  Calvin’s reading of the Bible found no opposition between Law and Gospel, but rather a gracious gift in the Hebrew Scriptures of God’s teaching us how to live with our hands open wide to the stranger and the needy.


Robinson points out that if the Mosaic Law had actually been applied in so-called Christian countries, no one would ever have been hanged for stealing a loaf of bread, because no property crime could incur the death penalty.  Goods that were repossessed for debt would have been returned every night to the needy, for a poor man must get his cloak back at night to wrap himself in, even though he must give it up as a pledge during the day.  The stranger in our lands would never have been found starving on our streets.  There would, in fact, be no need for the Camden Churches Cold Weather Shelter or asylum detention centres in a society that obeyed the commandments given by Moses.


All of these teachings of Moses are instructions from God on how to live so that the human community and everyone in it can flourish.  Jesus famously summed them up by quoting Deuteronomy, that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind, and Leviticus, that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves.


The writer to the Johannine church, and the author of the fourth gospel, both emphasise that we must obey this teaching and abide in God’s love or we are not truly followers of Jesus.  Right belief is not enough, and nor is a warm fuzzy feeling of love for humankind.  I am irresistibly reminded of the Hollywood kind of marriage where two people pledge their love for as long as it feels right.  Real marriages, and real discipleship, require something far more rigorous: a decision of the will to shape our lives in such a way that we can honour our commitments.


But we all find that very daunting.  And because Christianity does not have a set of ritual laws that are enforced by a cultural community, teaching us how to dress and eat and do business and bring up children in explicit ways, we may feel that it is too hard to attempt.  What exactly does abiding in love entail and how do we start?


The catechism in the 1928 Prayerbook tells me that as a baptised Christian “my bounden duty is to follow Christ, to worship God every Sunday in his Church; and to work and pray and give for the spread of his kingdom.”


That sounds fine but it is still rather general, so let’s look at “worship, work, pray and give” step by step.  In fact I think it is helpful to take the Lubavitch approach and aim for just one mitzvah at a time.


At St Mary’s we like to talk about being on a journey of faith, and we try to be the kind of Christian community that welcomes people at every stage on that journey.  So some people are visiting and observing; some have begun attending regularly for a variety of personal reasons; some have become believers and participants; and some have committed themselves wholeheartedly to be disciples of Jesus.  Wherever you are on that spectrum, why not try to add a new mitzvah or two to your life?


First comes worship – and this means worshipping with other people, coming to church to celebrate the eucharist as Jesus commanded us to do in remembrance of him.  The gold standard as the catechism says is every Sunday, but a first step would be to give corporate worship more priority in our lives, trying to avoid conflicting commitments on a Sunday, or coming to a weekday service when Sunday morning is impossible.


Second on the list is work – interesting that it comes so high up.  Now this can mean doing useful jobs at church, but the real thrust of this command is about our daily lives, as Mark has been reminding us.  How does our Monday to Friday work help us to flourish and glorify God?  If you want to think some more about this, why not come to one of the Faith at Work supper discussions?  That would be a useful and easy first step.


Third, we are taught to pray.  This means entering into the conversation that God wants to have with us, so it involves reading the Bible to hear what God is saying as well as speaking to God from our own hearts.  This is probably the area where every one of us could usefully add a little more mitzvah observance.  But it is possible to start in a very small way: perhaps by deciding to follow a simple form of daily prayer from the internet that includes a short Bible passage.  The really helpful thing is to introduce a manageable routine rather than wait until the spirit moves us.


The fourth instruction is about giving, and I feel as though I have talked about stewardship and planned giving from the pulpit at great length already.  But it does need saying, again and again, that giving back to God a percentage from the good things that we have received is a primary religious obligation, and those who give regularly and generously will know how much this helps them to grow in discipleship.


The strange mathematics of God is always that the more we give, the more we have.  The time we spend in worship and prayer, the generosity of our working and giving, will bring more and more joy to us.  If we are miserable in our Christian lives, then the central element of love is clearly missing.  We need to backtrack a little and take the very first step, which is to let God love us.  We can only give what we have received.


Think of today’s readings as a virtual mitzvah booth, stopping us in our tracks with the message that God’s love to us is shown in Jesus Christ.  The invitation is to abide in that love by letting God’s command to love one another shape our lives, one day at a time.