This is the first year since I’ve been a pastor that Halloween has fallen on a Sunday and I’m so excited. It’s not even the only holiday we get to celebrate today. Today is also Reformation Sunday. I hope you remembered to put up your Reformation decorations!
Reformation Day marks the day, this date, October 31st in 1517 when an Augustinian monk and Old Testament professor named Martin Luther posted something scandalous on Facebook. No, it wasn’t Facebook, but it was posted (and it did go viral). Luther’s 95 Theses for church reform were nailed to the doorpost of a church in Wittenberg sparking a massive controversy in the church later called the Protestant Reformation.
So today we mark Halloween, and Reformation day. Two holidays which are centered on doorway encounters, aren’t they? As a matter of fact, today’s Gospel lesson points to a third.
When one of the scribes asks Jesus “Which commandment is the first of all, Jesus?” he answers immediately: “The first is this, Shema Israel, Hear O Israel the Lord your God is one,” and with those words we imagine everyone nearby starting reciting the rest along with him.
Jesus’ first commandment is one that all Jewish children are taught from a very early age. It’s called the Shema, and Moses commanded that it should be taught to children, written on foreheads, and posted on doorways,
“Shema Israel, Hear O Israel, the Lord, the Lord your God, is one. You shall love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” Then Jesus pulls a little Halloween trick. He adds a second commandment, connecting it forever with the first, “You shall love the Lord your God, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no greater commandment than these.”
For once, the scribe who asked the question is totally satisfied. “You are right, Teacher.” I imagine they share a grin. Then Jesus gets to add the last word, saying “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”
The odds are good that if you trick or treat tonight at an observant Jewish neighbor’s house if you look on their door post you’ll find something posted there. It’s not Luther’s 95 theses, it’s a little thing called a mezuzah. Inside that mezuzah, on a little scroll are printed these words which Jesus quotes in Mark chapter 12, the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord, the Lord your God is one. You shall love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
The quotation inside the mezuzah continues, “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Jesus doesn’t change this commandment, but he does refine it slightly (maybe even reform it?) by adding to it that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In fact, in the Gospel of John he refines/reforms it even further saying “I give you a new commandment. Love one another as I have loved you.”
Even though he and this scribe agree on this double commandment, he doesn’t say “Congratulations, you’ve nailed it.” He says “you are not far from the kingdom of God.” Not far is great, but it’s not complete. This is because the Shema, even with Jesus addition, is not complete. It’s never completed. Sure we can say that we should love God and love our neighbor with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, but, how’s that going for us?
These days it often appears that both the love of God and the love of neighbor are on the decline. Knowing the great commandment may bring us close to the kingdom of God, but following it? Living in the Kingdom of God? That still seems far off.
In the final analysis the number of persons who do keep the greatest commandment is exactly one. Jesus is the only one. The Lord is One. He proves his love of God, and love for his neighbor, even to the point of death. The scribe wasn’t far from the kingdom, he was standing right next to him!
Ultimately it is Christ’s life, death, and resurrection that sparks the greatest reformation then and now. It is Christ and Christ alone who reveals, reforms our understanding of what the Shema means by the words God and Love. Now, when we say God we mean Jesus, and when we say Love we mean the cross.
When Luther pulled that first Halloween prank, TP’ing his church in reforms, part of his message was that a faith, and a church, built on how well any of us keep the commandments misses the point of the cross. The message of the cross is that our best attempts at commandment keeping led us to crucify the Lord himself. Mercifully, though, this ultimately proves God’s love toward us that while we were yet sinners, unable to keep the commandments great or small, Christ died for us.
The church says teach that to your children, and post that on your doorpost so that it’s not just the commandments that reform your life, but the good news of the one who kept the commandments for your sake, and welcomes you into his kingdom.
Hear, O Israel, Hear O Church, the Lord, the Lord your God is one, and his name is Jesus. He has loved you with all his heart, and soul, and mind, and strength. Because he has loved you, you shall love him, and you shall love one another. It is a commandment, but it is also a promise.
This is what makes Halloween such a thoroughly Christian holiday. Think about it. It’s one of the only nights a year where we spend time actually interacting with our neighbors. And in the dark of night, all of us sinners dress up as superheroes, princesses, and devils, run up to the porch light of a stranger’s house and knock on the door, holding out an empty vessel, asking for it to be filled. And it is filled!
No one asks if we’ve been good boys or girls, if we’ve kept the commandments or not. They just shower us with candy, more than we could have asked for or imagined. It’s all a gift, and it all happens right there at the doorpost.
Jesus says the Greatest Commandment is this: “You shall love the Lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself.” And for all who cannot keep that commandment, he also says knock and the door shall be opened unto you. Knock on a door tonight, and hold out an empty vessel. It shall be filled. May Halloween be for you a little glimpse of the kingdom of God.
Ultimately, this is the message of the cross. This is what we mean when we use words like “Love” and “God.” This is why we hang crosses on doorposts, and sign the cross over our hearts and even on the foreheads of children because the God we are commanded to love has already loved us, and shown us how to love one another. All of this has been revealed to us for free, through Jesus Christ the Lord. Happy Halloween. Hallowed be his name.