It's not often that my heart leaps with joy when I read the book of Leviticus.
It is essentially a rule book written for the people of Israel and is often used today as proof texts when arguing about sexuality and gender. It also has plenty to say about the wickedness of wearing clothing made from mixed fibres. So I trust that no one is wearing polyester and cotton this morning.
Our first reading gives us an insight into what it means to be holy. Holy rather than pious. 'You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy ...' That holiness is to be seen in a way of living in which the people of God do not act unjustly; do not slander or hate and take no vengeance or bear a grudge . In essence it is a call to love your neighbour as yourself.
Jesus' hearers would have been very familiar with these words from Leviticus and so would have made the connection when Jesus talks about the two greatest commandments: love the Lord your God, and your neighbour as yourself. The two commands cannot be separated, though as humans we often try to. They are two halves of a whole.
In the early centuries of Christianity thousands of people left towns and cities to become monastics, living in the desert far from all worldly distractions. They sought to devote their lives to loving and serving God, and thereby ensuring a place for themselves in heaven. In the desert they lived very strict lives according to great lists of rules.
There was once a monk called Abbot Moses who had a great reputation for holiness and whose wisdom was sought by many. During Lent the monks asked what they should do to prepare for the feast of the resurrection at Easter. They were anxious to do something special to show their overwhelming love for Christ. In the end they decided to fast for the whole of Holy Week. Once they had made the decision each monk went off to his bare, lonely cell to fast and pray.
In the middle of the week a couple of wandering monks came to visit the monastery and to seek the wisdom of Abbot Moses. They were starving and so he took pity on them and cooked them a stew. To put them at their ease he ate a little of it himself. Meanwhile, the other monks saw smoke rising from his chimney and knew immediately that he must be cooking! He had broken the solemn fast. They were shocked and saddened at seeing the weakness of their holy abbot. They went in a group to confront him. The abbot came out to meet them. "What crime have I committed?" he said to them, seeing the judgement in their eyes. "Yes I have broken a human commandment, but in sharing food with these brothers of ours I have kept the commandment of God, that we should love one another. What do you think Christ would have done? Did he not eat and drink with sinners, even though the religious leaders called him a glutton and a drunkard? You cannot tear the gospel of Christ in two. We did not come into the desert to get away from people, and to be alone with God. Rather, we came here to find other people; to find them and love them in God." The monks went away humbled, but wiser.
It is easy for us to fall into a similar trap as those monks, and the pharisees in the gospel, imagining that there is just one commandment: to love God. The religious people of Jesus' time strictly observed the minutest rules of the Law. But by doing so they divorced the law from everyday life and ignored the words of Leviticus in striving to be holy. They had just two compartments in their lives - God, and the rest of life.
We too can imagine that by coming here to worship, by saying our prayers and putting our offering on the plate each week, we have done enough. And of course, all of this is important in part, but the heart of the Christian faith is not about rules and regulations, but rather about relationship with God and neighbour; a relationship of love. It's a relationship which involves every part of us, and reaches into every aspect of our lives.
When we hear the words of the gospel reading we often listen selectively. It is possible to get so caught up in the love of God and neighbour that we forget and neglect ourselves. We can all be hard and unforgiving to ourselves. Jesus said, "Love the Lord your God, and your neighbour as yourself." We can love our neighbour only if we love ourselves. This isn't an excuse for self-indulgence or arrogant behaviour, but rather a reminder that we need to be merciful and gentle with ourselves, and forgiving and compassionate. Just as God is with us and wants us to be with other people. We too need to remember that we are loved by God and we are loveable. And that is so easy to overlook.
This week I invite you to ponder again these words of the gospel, to hear afresh the truth of Christ's words and reflect on what they might mean for us in our own life situation. We are called to love God as our maker and redeemer and our love of God will be expressed chiefly by our loving concern and action for our neighbour. We are all members of one family, the human family, and so we need to look out for each other as brothers and sisters. We also need to learn to accept God's love for us, learning to be gentle with ourselves, forgiving and compassionate.
Jesus says, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart ... and your neighbour as yourself."