“Love God, Love Your Neighbor” (The Ten Commandments)
“Love God, Love Your Neighbor”: Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? And it is. It is simple. And it is good and right and holy. This is how life is meant to work. This is how God created us to live. Love God and love your neighbor. If everybody operated like this, life would go along pretty swimmingly. If I operated like this–in every decision, in every situation, in every thought, word, and deed–being guided by these two principles, loving God and loving my neighbor–well, I suppose I’d have to get a whole new heart, wouldn’t I? Because I don’t do that all the time, as I should. And I suspect you would have to say the same thing about yourself, about your heart and soul and mind. Because that’s where it starts, doesn’t it? In our heart, in our soul, in our mind. And then those thoughts and desires migrate out into our words and our deeds. In the things we say and don’t say. In the actions we take and fail to take.
Love God, love your neighbor. It is pretty simple. But the truth is, we are not that “simple-minded,” in the good sense. We should have a pure heart and be single-minded about loving God and loving our neighbor. But sin, our own sin, enters in and messes everything up. Instead of loving God, we turn in on ourselves. We don’t trust God. We think he’s holding out on us, wanting to spoil our fun. We would rather make our own decisions about right and wrong and not listen to what God our Creator has to say. We don’t love God with all our heart.
Nor do we love our neighbor. Again, we turn in on ourselves. Loving our neighbor could be costly, and often is. It takes time, it takes effort, it takes giving of ourselves. It means being directed outward instead of inward. It means getting down and serving others. And we don’t like to do that. We’d rather have people serve us. We don’t love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.
Love God, love your neighbor. That’s what the Ten Commandments are all about. This is the right way to live. And who would know better than the God who created us? You see, God knows the best way for his creatures to live. That’s how he designed us. God wrote these commandments on our heart. And so when we go against these commandments, when we fail to keep them, our conscience reminds us. Our conscience bothers us. Our conscience afflicts us and convicts us. That is, if we haven’t so dulled our conscience to the point where we don’t even listen to that voice anymore. And that would be really scary. It’s a good thing when our conscience bothers us. It’s like the smoke alarm in a building that’s caught on fire. If you don’t hear it, you’re in a lot of trouble.
And so you see, this convicting work of the Ten Commandments is actually a good thing. It’s for our benefit. The guilt it brings out is God’s alert system, telling us we need help. Otherwise, we might be so stupid and so callous as to think we’re alright on our own. And that is being really lost, scribe-and-Pharisee lost.
No, God’s got to shake us up with the law, so that we will be ready to hear the gospel. We need to know we are sinners, with no righteousness of our own to be able to stand before God on the day of judgment. God does us a favor by holding this mirror of his law before our eyes.
And then he comes to us with another word, a different word. It is the word of the gospel. God holds before our eyes the cross of Christ our Savior. We fix our gaze on him, and here we see the solution to our problem. Here we see the righteousness we lack, the righteousness we so desperately need. In Jesus we see the man who did keep the law, who did get it right. Jesus was always about loving God and loving his neighbor. Christ Jesus was always listening to his Father’s voice, wanting to do his will. Jesus was always going about helping people in need: healing their diseases, forgiving their sins, feeding the multitudes, saving sinking disciples, teaching his followers the wisdom of God, receiving sinners and eating with them. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus loved God and loved his neighbor so much that he was willing to go to the cross and suffer death, a humiliating death, because he knew that that was God’s will and man’s need. Jesus did this to save you, my friend. When the Son of God dies for you and sheds his blood for you, this is powerful stuff. Your sins are forgiven, because of Jesus. He took your sins, and you receive his righteousness, credited to your account. It’s all by grace, a free gift.
Trusting in him, you have new life. Everlasting life, life that conquers the grave, as evidenced by Christ’s own resurrection. You have nothing to fear anymore, and everything to look forward to.
This changes things. It gives you a new outlook on life. This gospel good news frees you up. You know a loving God now who cares about you in all your trouble. This is the God you can trust. You’re willing to risk a little now, not afraid to give of yourself, in order to help others.
And God even changes you. In Holy Baptism, God gives you the Holy Spirit, so that now you do indeed have that new heart. You have the Spirit of Christ. Being united with Jesus in baptism, being transformed by God’s word in the renewing of your mind, you now possess new desires, a new will, and a new ability to love God and to love your neighbor. These commandments actually make sense to you, and you want to do them, according to the new person you are in Christ.
And God will help you to do them. God’s word works powerfully and actively to make you more and more into the image of Christ. The Sacrament of the Altar strengthens you in faith toward God and in fervent love toward one another. This is what the Christian life is all about: Faith in God, through Christ, in the power of the Spirit, so that in our daily life we die to sin and rise to live in righteousness. This is the baptized life. And it will work itself out in the shape of the Ten Commandments.
This is all true. Now of course, when I look at my heart, when I look at my life, my actions, my words, and yes, at my inner thoughts that I don’t want anyone else to know, I see something else at work too. It is my old damnable sinful nature, always creeping back, always wanting to take over again, and sometimes I yield to it. That’s on me. I need to own it. And then I need to give it over to Jesus, for him to forgive it and to cleanse me and to get me up and going again. And it will be this way the rest of my time here. Always dying, always rising, living in and from my baptism day after day.
The Ten Commandments are always there, to show me when I get off track. The gospel, Word and Sacrament, are always there to restore me and renew me. The Lord’s Prayer is always there, so I can call on my heavenly Father for the forgiveness I need when I break his commandments, and for the help I need to do those good works and keep his commandments.
There’s always this dynamic interplay going on in the Christian life, the interplay of Law and Gospel. We look in the mirror of God’s law, and we see that we don’t measure up. This leads us to repentance. We realize what sinners we are and that we will never measure up. We cry to God for forgiveness. Then the gospel comes, the good news of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Christ, and this gospel lifts us up and gives us new life. We even delight in God’s law and agree that this is the way to go. Help us, dear Lord, to do it! Lather, rinse, repeat. This is baptism applied on a daily basis. Dying and rising with Christ. This is your life, your whole life, wrapped up in a nutshell. Or perhaps I should say, in a baptismal shell.
The Ten Commandments are always a part of this life. We never get away from them. They show us who we are and the way we should go. They show us our Creator’s good design for his human creatures to live, and he knows best. They show us God’s will for our lives, now that we are new creatures in Christ and have been given a new heart by the Holy Spirit. And the Ten Commandments can be summed up is these two words: Love God, love your neighbor. It’s pretty simple. And may the Lord make us simple-minded enough to know and do his will.