The love of God - Advent 2011
The following commentary by Bishop Timothy Whitaker was first posted on September 21, 2005, and relates to the Advent theme of Love.
In response to a question from a scribe about which commandment is most important, Jesus cited Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, which direct us to love the Lord our God with all our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
By choosing and combining these two commandments in the Law of Moses as constituting "the great commandment," Jesus teaches us that there is no love of God without love of other human beings, and there is no love of other human being without love of God. (Protests by agnostics or atheists of the latter point would require a lengthy probing of human psychology and deep analysis of the grace of God in all its dimensions.)
In contemporary Protestant teaching there is a tendency toward misunderstanding the integration of the love of God and the love of neighbor as a conflation of the two loves. In other words, the commandment to love God becomes reduced to the love of neighbor. The practical result is that the distinctive love of God does not receive the attention it deserves in our practice of the Christian life.
One of the characteristics of the teaching of John Wesley is that he places a distinctive emphasis upon our love of God. Of course, he also stresses that our love of God must be expressed in our love of our neighbor, but he never makes the mistake of assuming that our love of God is exhausted in our love of neighbor. No, there is an awareness in Wesley's teaching that our love of God should be primary in our lives.
In his sermon on "The Circumcision of the Heart" John Wesley wrote:
One thing shall ye desire for its own sake,
the fruition of Him that is All in all. One
happiness shall ye propose to your souls, even
an union with Him that made them; the having
'fellowship with the Father and the Son;' the
being joined to the Lord in one Spirit. One
design you are to pursue to the end of time,
the enjoyment of God in time and in eternity.
Desire other things, so far as they tend to this.
Love the creature, as it leads to the Creator. But
in every step you take, be this the glorious
point that terminates your view. Let
every affection, and thought, and word,
and work, be subordinate to this. Whatever
ye desire or fear, whatever ye seek or shun,
whatever ye think, speak or do, be it in
order to your happiness in God, the sole
End, as well as Source, of your being.
To assist early Methodists to nurture their spiritual lives Wesley prepared "A Collection of Forms of Prayer For Every Day of the Week." Following the written prayer for Monday, Wesley asked the reader to answer the question, "Did I think of God first and last?"
In both his teaching and spiritual direction Wesley magnified the commandment to love God with all of our being as a particular commandment to be obeyed above all other commandments and as a love both prior to, and a part of, all other loves.
The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth said that the commandment to love God means that we should be "interested" in God and that God should be "important" to us. This is rather a clinical and prosaic way of saying what was said better by John Wesley. Wesley was not being original; he was only saying what had been said with eloquence and emotion by the saints down through the ages. The whole Christian contemplative tradition is an exposition of the first commandment to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
I am convinced that the reason that many of us mainline Protestants lack what Wesley described as "happiness in God" is because we have passed too quickly over the first commandment to love God and conflated it with the second commandment to love our neighbor. We have collapsed contemplation into action, prayer into duty and theology into ethics. Such an agenda will produce sober, concerned and active Christians, but not necessarily joyful, liberated and peaceful Christians.
The third section of the General Rules for Methodists — after "doing no harm" and "doing good" — is instruction for "attending upon all the ordinances of God," including worship, hearing the Word, receiving the Lord's Supper, family and private prayer, searching the Scriptures and fasting. These practices are means by which we may obey the first commandment to love the Lord our God with all of our being.