Today's gospel reading presents us with Jesus' 'summary of the Law':
“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.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.There is a danger of taking this too much in our stride. After all, we might think, we know what love is. And we sometimes achieve it - in our romantic relationships, friendships, and families. Love for our neighbours is basically just a matter of us being nice to those round about us. God is calling us to love; in other words God is nice, and wants us to be nice. Beyond that, God doesn't care too much what we do. As for love for God - well that's easy, because God is lovable. End of story.
The previous paragraph parodies only slightly a view of the commandment to love that has been all too common in the Church of England. The truth of the matter is much more difficult, and far more amazing.
The catch with the second commandment lies in the question asked elsewhere in the gospels, "who is my neighbour?"
The answer of course is 'everyone', and in particular those we would least expect, or perhaps like, to be our neighbours. The call of this commandment is to a love that is universal in its scope. Love is not the same thing as being nice; I can sometimes only show love for someone by being very un-nice to them, by preventing them from oppressing someone else, for instance. Happily, however, often love does involve being open, generous, even nice to others. But either way there's a problem. We do not live in a world that is set up to encourage, value, or otherwise support a love that is boundless. On the contrary, the daily basis of our lives is competition against one another, for jobs, for housing, for relationships, for happiness itself. And when this doesn't work out well for us, as it often doesn't, there is always a newspaper or a politician ready to blame a convenient scapegoat - immigrants being the current most popular target. The world is not wired for love; yet love we must.
Given that things are the way they are, there will inevitably be a tension, a discomfort, about our attempts to live in a way that show love for our neighbours (all of them). This is what happens when people attempt good living in a bad world. If our efforts are not characterised by tension, and are not met with opposition, this ought to be a sign to us that we are doing things wrong, that it's all just a little bit too cosy. Beware, in particular, the idea that the Church should 'fit in', should have a fixed place in society into which it slots comfortably. Conformity is the greatest temptation the Church of England, in particular, faces.
We have to love our neighbour because we love God. Why is this? Why does love of God lead to love of neighbour? The point here is that we are simply incapable by nature of loving God. We might fear, or respect him, or be impressed with him, or have vague spiritual feelings towards him - but none of this is love. We cannot love God unless God first loves us and draws us into that love that God is - the life together of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This love, symbolised and made effective for us in baptism, is freely offered to every single one of us, without exception. And there's the point : there is no such thing as the love of God for me to the exclusion of others. If I accept God's love for me, and (which is just a different way of saying the same thing) return love to God, then I also accept a relationship that is shared with others, and a future that is shared with all humanity in all its diversity - a future scripture calls 'the Kingdom'. There is no other love on offer, there is no other future on offer. There is no a la carte version of the gospel according to which I get to spend eternity exclusively with people of the same skin colour, or sexuality, or interests, or whatever.
Or, to put the point as the New Testament does, "Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen."