In my first weeks of teaching second grade, I posted our class rules on the wall – as any teacher would do. I, however, in all my wisdom thought it would be best if I had only two rules – two easy to understand, easy to remember, easy to follow rules: work hard and be nice. Those first weeks, I continued to point to that colorful, gorgeous poster with the words "work hard" and "be nice" scrolled across it. Turns out, most of my kids could barely read and all of my kids needed more guidance than my two-rule solution could provide. Two rules too few.
It took me the rest of the year to draw out rules for our classroom community that worked, that helped, that created a safe space for us. At their core, each rule was a reflection of work hard or be nice but my sweet students needed to know what working hard looked like and how to be nice. Turn in your homework every morning . Care for your school supplies. Raise your hand if you have a question. Listen carefully to others. Keep your hands to yourself. Offer help to other students. It seemed like each day presented a need for a new rule until we were swimming in boundaries. But each day, we also became a bit more synchronized, a bit more collaborative. By the end of the year, our classroom worked so well together that each student grew academically and socially. We needed rules to order our life and needed daily explanations of how to live them out.
In this morning’s Gospel lesson, Christ is asked by a Pharisean lawyer "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" Jesus is a good Jew and therefore knows the trick the lawyer is trying to play. In Mosaic law, there are 613 commands. To boil it down to one would be to diminish 612, all of which hold some degree of import. Jesus answers with a verse familiar to Jews then and Jews now: the Shema, verse 4, Deuteronomy 6: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." Jesus says: "This is the greatest and first commandment." The question has been answered but Jesus is not done yet. He goes on saying, "And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’"
Love God with everything you have – this is the most important. The second is like it, he says – love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commands hang everything else. These two rules are it – are the summation of everything God commands, of everything God expects, of all the boundaries God desires for us. Simple, right? This is one of those brilliantly clever moves by Jesus. He answers with full knowledge of the entirety of Mosaic law and is able to distill it down into two different parts, hinged together by one verb: love. And because love is a universal feeling and action, everyone will get what he’s saying. Love the one who created you and the ones your Creator made. This is where Jesus’ brilliant instructive turn happens – at first glance, the two commands are easy to grasp. But, we know too well that loving God and loving one another are complicated, abstract yet concrete, all-consuming laws. Jesus knows that such laws are easy enough to understand but to live them, to embody them and to hang everything else we have on this love of God and love of others, we will need to spend centuries parsing it out.
This time every year, we celebrate a particular time in our heritage as reformed Christians with Reformation Sunday. You might remember – or might not – that on the 31st of October in 1517, Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses to a church in Germany which called into question the laws and practices of the Catholic church at that time. Copies of the theses spread rapidly throughout Europe and the Reformation was born. The pace at which the early Reformation took place reflects a hunger for something different – for a new set of laws, a new rule to live by, a new embodiment of what the true church should be and look like.
One of the most beautiful parts of the Reformation to me is that it involved people at all levels of life, especially those often ignored – there were women and men, the young and old, the rich and poor, the village folk and the rural folk. All these people were included in the conversation and their conversations were inevitably about how to the the church. Printing presses reeled off pamphlets, bibles, and psalters for followers to use in their homes. Songs were sung throughout communities that bound believers and charged them forward. Everyone was involved in living out this new way to do church.
And you know what happens when everyone is involved, right? Since the 16th century Catholic church did not offer the kind of healthy, loving boundaries needed to be the church, the reformers began forming their own kind of boundaries, their own kind of laws. An early iteration of our modern session and diaconate, churches had consistories "which functioned as a morals tribunal…The elders, in particular, had a responsibility to watch over the faithful and make certain that people participated in the liturgy and conducted their lives according to fitting religious and ethical standards."1 Consistories were diligent in their tracking of church member behavior, making sure members "attended weekly sermon services, the quarterly celebrations of the Lord’s Supper….catechism lessons," observed the Sabbath, erased all scandalous language from their vocabulary, and eliminated cultural indulgences like dancing, "ostentatious dress, and participation in masquerades."2
We might giggle now at the ways the early reformed church involved itself in every aspect of its community’s shared and private lives but our own modern church polity is a clear reflection of such involvement, such commitment. The Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Book of Order is a collection of rules, guidelines, structures meant to order our lives as reformed Christians. Every officer of the church must learn the book so that she or he can then go out and serve in many ways like the early consistories – except for the part perhaps about regulating your swear words and making sure you don’t wiggle your hips to any music. In our modern polity, there are three main categories of responsibilities for the ordained to ensure for the church: to provide that the Word of God may be truly preached and heard, provide that the Sacraments may be rightly administered and received, and nurture a covenant community of disciples of Christ (G-3.0101). Certainly, The Book of Order is thicker than these three responsibilities and every officer will tell you that but what is at the heart of these commands is what we’ve always done – structured our life around worship of God and around living together. Love God; love God’s people.
When the reformers created consistories for their churches, it wasn’t so that power could be transferred from the Catholic church to them, or from the pope to a council, but so that the church could bear witness to the grace that had been set out for them: that God created us to be in community. But, we are sinful people, and need guidelines to constantly remind us of such grace. The early church officers sought harmony among their congregations, insisting that the bickering reconcile, sometimes even kissing one another’s hands in forgiveness. Pastors, deacons, and elders would mediate conversations for those in discord all so that the community could get back to what was really at hand, to these simple yet complicated, abstract yet concrete, all-consuming commands to love the Lord and to love one another.3
Reformation Sunday would be incomplete without a reference to our own denomination’s forefather, John Calvin. Calvin is known for his direct, sometimes harsh writing but underneath all that, it is clear for Calvin – and therefore for us as heirs of his theology – that Christ’s commands are gifts. "For Calvin, the law itself is an act of Divine Love, a benefit poured out pro nobis (for us) that we might know and embody the path of true flourishing." "The purpose of doctrine is not just to convey abstracted propositions about the divine but, more importantly, to build up the community of faith and to inspire and strengthen its life of worship and praise."4 Love God – worship, praise. Love others – build up community. Love and then…and then we can be the community. Then, we can flourish.
A few years ago, "a simple study was conducted to discover the effects of a fence around a playground and the consequent impact it would have on preschool children." So teachers took their students to two similar playground sites – one with a fence, one without. When the children were in the playground with no boundaries, no fence, the study found that "the children remained huddled around their teacher, fearful of leaving out of her sight." But when the children were in the fenced in playground, protected by a clear boundary, they ran and played without hesitation.5
The boundaries, the law is clear – Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself. What will it look like for you to be set free by such commands? What will it look like for you to run within its borders, protected and set forth to be? What will it look like for us if we acknowledge that the boundary lines are drawn? The work is done. The only task left is to love. Simple, right? May it be so. Amen.
1. Mentzer, Raymond. "The Piety of Townspeople and City Folk."Reformation Christianity. Vol. 5. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2007. 41.
2. Mentzer, 42.
3. Mentzer, 43.
4. Jones, Serene. "Glorious Creation, Beautiful Law." Feminist and Womanist Essays in Reformed Dogmatics. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006. 36. (parentheses mine)
5. ASLA 2006 Student Awards, accessed 22 October 2014.