The Other Trinity: Love of God, Self, and Neighbor

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, October 25, 2020
Matthew 22:34-46

    You have heard a few selections from our new bell choir this fall, and I have to say even though we are definitely not perfect, and mostly don’t know what we’re doing, it has become one of the highlights of my week.  Some of you know that I grew up in a highly musical family with my mom as a band teacher and my dad as a semi-professional amateur musician, and I have tried to keep singing and playing something, whether it be trumpet, piano, or now bells!  Making music is good for your brain and good for your soul.  If you have ever dabbled in music, unless you play a solo instrument, you know that to play in a group takes practice and a lot of coordination.  And what I am learning about playing the bells especially, is that if you have one person missing, or if someone misses their note, the entire piece can go off the rails pretty easily.  Everyone needs to be working together, literally on the same page together, for the song to sound right.  It would be very difficult to have a one-person bell choir.  You need a group to perform a successful bell piece.  And I think I have a better idea now of why bell choirs seem to be specific to churches, although I’m sure there are secular bell choirs out there.  The interdependent quality of the group teaches us about what it means to be in relationship to one another, as we make music to glorify God.  When a piece goes well, it is a musical example of the beauty of being the body of Christ as we work together!
Playing in a bell choir is a helpful metaphor for what Jesus is talking about when he gives us the greatest commandment:  love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.  You cannot do one without doing the other.  If you fail to love yourself as you love your neighbor, your life will be off-key. If you fail to love your neighbor, you cannot fully love God…no piece can be missing. They are interdependent.  I think this is what Jesus means when he says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  We need God, we need each other, and yes, we need to love and value ourselves, too.
    Another way we can think about the interdependence of loving God, ourselves, and our neighbors is with this traditional Celtic symbol of the Trinity.  Just as God is interdependent, Father, Son & Holy Spirit, so is our relationship with God, others, and ourselves.  It is a second kind of Trinity.  And just like a bell choir that misses a note, we feel it when one of those pieces is out of whack.  The thing is, when the lawyer asks Jesus which commandment is the greatest, there were 613 laws that faithful Jews were expected to follow.  Jesus helpfully simplifies it when he summarizes the intent of these laws into two:  Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.  But even if we try to simply follow those two commandments, we can quickly discover how we fall short.  If we look again at this trinity symbol, none of our lives look like this perfect balance of loving God, our neighbor, and ourselves for very long.  And any musician knows, almost no musical performance goes absolutely perfectly.
    For example, as we live in a culture that is highly individualistic, it can be easy to focus on ourselves instead of loving our neighbor.  The hoarding of toilet paper and other supermarket items early on in the pandemic was just one example.  Or just drive on the LIE for a few minutes, especially during rush hour…we don’t see a lot of shining examples of people loving their neighbor in Long Island traffic!  But the reverse can also be true:  sometimes we put others before ourselves so much that we forget to take care of ourselves, or that we can’t fully love others unless we also love ourselves.  Women tend to be more susceptible to being off balance in this way, but it can definitely happen to men as well.  We don’t have to choose one over the other – in serving others, how are we also loving and taking care of ourselves?  And of course, all of us are guilty of neglecting our relationship with God from time to time…getting out of the habit of regular prayer, worship, Bible study and so on.  There are many ways in which we might be playing the wrong notes at the wrong time, or not playing any bells at all, to extend the metaphor.  Sometimes it may seem like we would end up with a musical mess, no real song at all!
    This is where remembering Martin Luther’s personal story on this Reformation Sunday comes in.  As you may know, Luther was an Augustinian monk and professor of the Old Testament.  For a long time, you could say that Luther didn’t really love God or himself.  He was afraid of God, and very hard on himself, to the point of self-loathing.  His confessor priest, Father Staupitz, used to tell Luther to go back home until he had time to commit any real sins, because Luther would come to him to confess any little thing, one time at least for six hours of straight confession!  It’s fair to say that Luther was wracked with guilt and shame for his sinful condition and incredibly fearful of God’s wrath.  He did not have a healthy relationship with God!  But for whatever reason, one day Luther was reading the book of Romans and came across these words: “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  Because of Christ’s redemption, Martin Luther realized, he was loved by God, no matter his sins.  God’s plan for the world is a plan to love and save the world, not condemn it.  Surely Luther had read that passage from Romans before, and certainly his priest, Father Staupitz, and others had tried to encourage him to love himself and God more, but this was the day that the message clicked for Luther.  And that began a new quest for him, to stop keeping track of his individual sins and instead share the amazing good news of the grace of God through Jesus Christ with everyone he met. We were created not to fear God and worry about every little thing that we do, but to love God and be loved by God and to share that love with others.  Any musician knows that to get better and to make music well, if not perfectly, you have to take the courageous step of playing and just keep playing and practicing, enjoying the gift of music-making as you go!
 The key point of Lutheranism from the time of the Reformation until now is this:  even before we attempt to achieve this new trinity of balance in loving God, our neighbor and ourselves, we start by seeing ourselves as fully and completely loved by God.  God loves us first.  We follow.  That is Lutheranism in a nutshell.  Perhaps today you can take a moment to reflect on a time when you have felt God’s unconditional love powerfully for you.  Take a moment now to feel the love that God has for you.  I firmly believe that the only reason we are able to love ourselves and others is because of the love that God has for us that flows through us.  And we engage in this second trinity of loving relationships with ourselves, others, and God not because we have to, because it is a set of rules, but because that is who God created us to be!  We are only able to make music at all because of our gracious God who gives us that gift. We love because God first loved us.  May God embolden us to love, no matter how imperfectly!  Amen.