Thirty years ago, almost to the day, I attended an interview that changed my life. I had been Deputy Head at Battle Abbey School in East Sussex for a year and the interview was for the Headship. I was successful, but I did not take up the post for a further twelve months giving me a whole academic year working alongside my predecessor to plan for the future. It did not turn out to be the easiest year of my teaching career but it was extremely valuable as it gave me the time to reflect carefully upon what was good in the school and needed keeping, and what needed to be changed.
One of the greatest bones of contention amongst the pupils was this little green Rule Book. It contained Rules on every aspect of school life, a few of which could rightly be called oppressive, a few more that were pointless but most of which were actually quite sensible. Attempts by the School Council to negotiate changes had been rejected and, as a result, the book was reviled. It had become the focus for discontent and, as a result, the very many sensible rules for successful community living that it contained were not given the respect they deserved.
I thought and prayed about the problem for many hours and finally came up with a plan. At my very first assembly as Head I took a copy of the Rule Book and tore it up in front of the whole school to tumultuous applause. I explained that in the future there would be only two School Rules: Love the Lord your God and Love your neighbour as yourself. There would still be a code of conduct, but every part of that code would be an example of one of the two School Rules put into practice. I then went on to promise that if School Council could successfully argue that any part of the code of conduct was not an example of one of the two School Rules put into practice then I would remove it which, indeed, I did. The result was a code of conduct that was understood and respected with a much greater appreciation of why it was necessary.
The two new School Rules were, of course, not new at all being no less than the two Great Commandments. We hear them in our Order of Service for Holy Communion in the following form:
Our Lord Jesus Christ said: The first commandment is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
The words used in the service are taken from Mark 12: 28-34 in which Jesus is answering a question from a scribe. They were not new even then, for Jesus was quoting from the Hebrew Bible. The first commandment is taken from Deuteronomy 6: 4-5 and the second from Leviticus 19: 18. Taken together they neatly summarise the Ten Commandments each one of which is an example of one of the two Great Commandments put into practice.
The importance of the first of the Great Commandments is in its exclusivity. We are to worship the one God to the exclusion of all others and we are to worship Him with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength. When this was first written in Deuteronomy there were regular problems caused by the worship of other Gods, often known as Baal, but we should not think that this is just a problem of the past. To worship something as a God means to allow that thing to rule our lives. In our modern 21st century lives there are all too many candidates for this type of worship: money, personal possessions, fashion, drugs and alcohol to name but a few. Not all of these are necessarily evil in themselves for few of us here, for example, could exist without money or personal possessions at all. It is only when our love for these things starts to direct our decisions and so rule our lives that we have broken the first of the Great Commandments.
One of the great benefits that comes from recognising and worshipping God as our Father is that it helps us to know and to understand our place in his universe as one of his children. Without this knowledge there is a danger that we might start to believe that we are masters of the universe and so become arrogant and self-centred. Or, by contrast, we might look at the vastness of time and space and feel utterly insignificant and unimportant. By recognising ourselves as one of God’s children, known by name and loved by him, we can avoid both of these pitfalls. We are all children of the same God, equal in his sight and all with a rightful place here on earth to do his will: no more and no less.
Whereas the importance of the first of the Great Commandments is in its exclusivity, the importance of the second is in its inclusivity. When we are commanded to love our neighbour as ourselves that command includes every one of our fellow human beings regardless of race, colour, creed, nationality or place of residence. We cannot pick or choose those whom we love for everyone is our neighbour.
The word ‘love’ in both of the Great Commandments as written in Mark’s Gospel is translated from the Greek word agape. Just as the Icelandic language has many different words for snow, in Greek there are several different words for love. These include philia for friendship or brotherly love, eros for romantic or passionate love and agape for the love that God has for us. It is with this unconditional, self-sacrificing love that we are commanded to love our neighbours. What that means in practice is described with great poetic beauty in the reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13 that is so popular at both weddings and funerals and which we heard again today. A reminder of four of the most important verses:
Love – agape love - is patient; love is kind and envies no one. Love is never boastful, nor conceited, nor rude; never selfish, not quick to take offence. Love keeps no score of wrongs; does not gloat over other’s sins, but delights in the truth. There is nothing love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope, and its endurance.
You might be feeling that the command to love our neighbours with this type of love is demanding enough, but the second of the Great Commandments goes much further for it includes the phrase: ‘as ourselves.’ This means that whatever we might wish for ourselves we must wish for our neighbours. Whatever we value for our own use we must be willing to share. Whatever we might fight to protect ourselves from we must protect our neighbours from too.
So is any of this possible or is it just a theoretical exercise? Are human beings ever able to show the agape form of love towards God and towards each other? The answer to that is an emphatic Yes and is most clearly demonstrated by the Saints whom we rightly revere. We also see demonstrations of agape love at times of disaster when people who would describe themselves as very ordinary often do quite extraordinary things so we know that it is possible. But what can we do to help ourselves show this sort of love in our everyday lives? The answer is to have faith, the effect of which was clearly shown in the second of the miracles in today’s Gospel reading. The first, and most often quoted miracle, which is also included in the Gospels of Mark and John, is Jesus walking on water. The second, and to me the most important miracle, appears only in Matthew: it is Peter walking on water. He only managed it for a while before the going got tough and his faith wavered, but whilst that faith was strong he performed exactly the same miracle as Jesus himself. With the same faith in Jesus, we too can perform miracles. If we will walk with him, he will walk with us and together we can show his love to all we meet. Amen.