The three greatest commandments

‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

I suppose that those of us who come to church regularly hear many sermons in a lifetime. And maybe many of them give us some blessing at the time (or not) but most of them, even if we enjoyed them, lie forgotten. But perhaps sometimes into each of our lives is preached a sermon that means a lot to us, that shifts something inside us, a sermon we go back to again and again. Some of you might remember a sermon by the theologian Paul Tillich that was published and much read; a sermon that bore the title, ‘You are accepted’. I often go back and read that one. Perhaps you have a sermon you remember from all the times you might have heard sermons. For many people it might be a sermon they heard in their youth. And you might not remember the words, but perhaps you remember how it made you feel, or that you sensed God speaking right to you, directly into your heart.

I want to tell you about a sermon I remember from my own youth. It was preached by someone who was both a minister and a psychotherapist. And it had a profound effect on me. It was in the college chapel, one Wednesday evening, and he was preaching on this very famous text that we have heard today about the two greatest commandments; ‘Love the Lord your God… and love your neighbour as yourself…’ And he said, right at the start, that he wanted to preach on the words ‘as yourself’. He said that the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself assumes that you should love yourself. The commandment tells us that God wants us to love ourselves. That had never struck me before.

I had come to chapel ready to hear the usual kind of sermon about the commandment to love God and neighbour, the kind of sermon that would stir me to do more for others or to spend more time in prayer, the kind of sermon that might leave me feeling a bit inadequate for not loving God or my neighbour enough. And just then it was actually rather hard to love the neighbour in the student room next to mine who was rather loud. But I heard a message I hadn’t expected – and it was one I needed to hear.

Somehow, somewhere, I had learned that loving yourself wasn’t what God wanted. I imagine I had heard the story of Narcissus, who loved his own image, and I knew that Christian love was different, that it was love for others, not for yourself. I had absorbed all those messages about losing yourself, about self-sacrifice, and even that bit from Paul’s letter to the Romans where he talks about doing the things he hates. And I guess I didn’t love myself very much then (and part of me feels I ought to confess to not loving myself now lest you think me proud or something else). As an undergraduate I was a little bit overweight, very uncertain what I was doing in this strange environment, envious of other students who seemed to me to be much brighter, more beautiful, more confident than I was. I didn’t love myself and hadn’t thought it was important.

But as the preacher talked more I could see that there is a kind of love and acceptance of yourself, and your own value and worth, that is not at all about being vain or self-regarding, but is a gift from God and is part of what it means to be saved. And I saw that these three commandments; to love God, neighbour and self are all connected. I can love myself, knowing that God loves me. And I discover that God loves me as I build something that is a loving relationship with God. God does not ask me to adore God, but invites me into a mutual experience of divine love. And that means I learn that I am loved and lovely. And from such a place I have love to pour out to neighbour, friend and even enemy. Love begets love. Knowing I am loved by God sets me free to love my neighbour, from the strong place of being one beloved by God. And so this was the time when I saw that in these two great commandments are actually three; and that one of them asks me to love myself.

You’ve probably noticed, because you are wise people, that the kind of people who talk a lot about how marvellous they are, what great things they’ve done, what a good person they are, actually don’t love themselves. They are not at ease with themselves, content and accepting of themselves, but profoundly ill at ease with who they are. They are somehow begging you to love them, because they can’t yet accept that they are loved, and they can’t love themselves. I’m sure you’ve all met people like that, we can all think of people like that, and indeed for parts of all our lives we are probably people like that too.

In so many people’s lives you can see the child in them, longing to earn the approval and affirmation of parents – maybe even of parents now long dead. How many biographies have we read, how many life stories have we heard, how many people have we known, who just wanted to hear their mother or father say something approving and affirming? However much we are different from our parents or those who brought us up, however different our values may be from theirs, there is still something deep within us that longs for their approval. And this is because we all want to know that we are loved – and therefore lovable.

How much we all need strong and real affirmation, the assurance that we are loved, that we are worthwhile. And by affirmation I do not mean a trivial kind of ‘you’re wonderful darling’, but a real, deep rooted recognition that the universe is better for having us, that we are filled with what is truly holy and beautiful, that we are – in that great phrase – beloved of God. If we are fortunate to find such real unconditional love then we can much more readily live with ourselves, accept and value ourselves, and so be able to love others.

There is a familiar litany about children which some of you will have heard.

‘If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn.
If a child lives with ridicule, she learns to be shy.
If a child lives with shame, he learns to be guilty.
If a child lives with encouragement, she learns confidence.
If a child lives with praise, he learns to appreciate.
If a child lives with approval, she learns to like herself.
If a child lives with acceptance and friendship, he learns to find love in the world.’

It’s the kind of thing you find printed on tea towels. It could be accused of being too sweeping and oversimplified – and it doesn’t always quite work out as we might hope. But there is a truth here – that we learn to like ourselves or at least to live with ourselves through the affirmation we receive. If we know ourselves accepted, by other people, and profoundly and eternally by God, if we really know this – then we will have discovered a truth that will set us free, free in turn to love others.

Maya Angelou tells the story of the time her voice coach got her to read a book called Lessons in Truth. He asked her to read aloud a section which ended with the words, ‘God loves me’. She read it and then he said, ‘Read it again’. She opened the book and sarcastically read, ‘God loves me’. He said, ‘Again’. And after about the seventh repetition she began to sense that there might be some truth in the statement, that there was a possibility that God really did love her. She began to cry at the grandness of it all. She says,

‘I knew that if God loved me, then I could do wonderful things.’

And if God loves me, then how can I not love a person that God has made and that God loves?

There is wisdom to be found in the contemporary world about importance of love of self, of learning how to live a life of value as we become aware of our self-worth. Self-love includes things like

  • Loving yourself self despite your flaws
  • Not feeling guilty when saying no
  • Self-awareness
  • Self-knowledge
  • Being comfortable with your shortcomings
  • Valuing your health and well being
  • Valuing your personal relationships
  • Taking good care of your self

All these things are part of what it means to ‘love yourself’. And these are not selfish – in fact, we will find it hard to love others fully and gently and kindly unless we are caring for ourselves too. God asks us to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. We know, in the world we live in, that there are many people who find it hard to love themselves, that self-harming is rising amongst young people, that many of us are restless about who we are, self-critical, self-denying. We are those who need to know that we are loved. A full human life needs the love of God, experienced and known, needs a healthy love of self, and to find a response to that love in the love of neighbour. This is another holy Trinity of love.

My hope for this church is that we are a community where people can learn that they are loved, by us yes, but also by the mystery at the heart of the universe; where we can all learn to love ourselves, and where we can live as those who love our neighbour.

The great writer Iris Murdoch said that ‘We can only learn to love by loving’. There is no formula for love, but doing it. We are called to love the ones we are given to serve in the church and in the world. We are called to love neighbours near us and at the far reaches of the earth. We are called to love ourselves, to celebrate the glory and honour with which our God has crowned each one, and also called to love humankind with whom we share the beautiful earth which shapes and welcomes our lives.

Jesus one said, ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’ John 13:34. And, he might have added – ‘Love God too… ‘ and ‘ Love yourselves…’