Who Am I?

The Jesus Creed 1

Posted: August 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 1

Since I just finished posting my reflections on one of Scot McKnight’s books, Praying with the Church, I decided to go ahead and post my series of reflections on the first of his books that I read, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. I’ve read the book a number of times over the years and the Jesus Creed itself remains a part of my personal prayer rule. If you haven’t read the book, I definitely recommend it. I hope you find my rambling thoughts and reactions to the book interesting.

I want to begin with the Creed itself.

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

Scot McKnight then opens with a central principle.

The first principle of spiritual formation is this: A spiritually formed person loves God and others.

The principle is simply stated, yet profound. One would think it is obvious, and perhaps it is … intellectually. But this central reality is often lost — or never discovered at all. Now consider again the particular spiritual disciplines Dallas Willard chose to explore (some of the most common through the ages). Recall that spiritual disciplines are intended as tools to aid in our spiritual formation. Do they not all help teach or train us either to break the grip of things that prevent us from loving God and loving others or actively help us build that love? Certainly food for thought.

I was struck by the fact that Scot McKnight immediately hits that very point. He discusses the aims and goals of those he describes as “spiritual masters” and uses those to define the following questions.

So, the big questions are these: What does Jesus know (and say) about spiritual formation? What, according to Jesus, does a spiritually formed person look like? These questions are different than to ask which spiritual disciplines Jesus practices and teaches. These questions stand quietly behind the disciplines and ask: What are they for?

Did Jesus ever express his view of spiritual formation? Yes. And he does so by transforming a creed. I call it the Jesus Creed and the Jesus Creed becomes clear (on nearly every page of the four Gospels) when we recall the Jewish context of Jesus. So we begin there.

In other posts, I have mentioned the Shema (literally “hear”) of Judaism. I pronounce it as well as I can, though the actual pronunciation is given as Sh’ma. I’ve never been able to produce a decent glottal stop (which is what I believe the ‘ represents in middle eastern languages). The Shema is constructed from Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and two other texts, Deuteronomy 11:13-21 and Numbers 15:37-41.

The observant Jew recites it daily at least twice, when awaking and when retiring. It’s the first ‘prayer’ that Jewish children are taught to say and is described by a specialist of modern Jewish devotion as ‘the quintessential expression of the most fundamental belief and commitment of Judaism.’ Anyone who wants to understand what Jesus means by spiritual formation needs to meditate on the Shema of Judaism. It is the Jewish creed of spiritual formation… The Shema outlines a Torah lifestyle for spiritual formation: memorize, recite, instruct, and write out the Torah, and wear tzitzit (fringes) to remind ourselves of Torah.” Live by the Shema and be blessed.

One can say, then, that the creed of Judaism is this: Love God by living the Torah.

In this light, look again at the man who asks Jesus about the most important commandment. “For a Jew this man’s question is the ultimate question about spiritual formation. He is asking for the spiritual center of Judaism.

Jesus responds, as any Jew would expect, with the Shema. But then he adds to it. Now that you grasp the importance of the Shema, the audacity of that action stands out. It would be like someone reciting the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed or John 3:16, but at the end, adding to it something new and different. This is not a commandment that is unknown to Judaism, nor is Jesus criticizing Judaism. But ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ from Leviticus is not a central creed of Judaism, though the idea is central to Judaism itself. Jesus takes the ‘Love God’ Shema and makes it a ‘Love God and others’ Shema. “Making the love of others part of his own version of the Shema shows that he sees love of others as central to spiritual formation.

This opening of the book altered in a fairly profound way the manner in which I have approached the gospel. Sure, we talk a lot about the two greatest commandments …. yada, yada, yada. But understanding the context adds such depth to it. Jesus transforms the central creed of Judaism itself. As Scot McKnight writes, “We cannot overemphasize the importance of the Shema for Jewish spiritual formation. So when Jesus amended the Shema, we need to take note.” And do we ever!

But Jesus’ addition does more than tack something else onto the Shema. His amendment makes it personal. First, he redefines loving God from a Torah lifestyle to a life spent following Jesus. We see that in Luke in the man who desired to follow Jesus and love God with all his heart, but first he needs to bury his father. Scot McKnight points out that the man was probably in the interval between placing the body in the tomb and going back to move the bones to an ossuary, but the request was God-honoring, nonetheless, by the Torah. There is even an exception in Judaism: “One whose dead is lying before him [awaiting burial] is exempt from the recitation of the Shema.” The proper burial was “how good Jews showed respect for a father, how they applied the commandment to honor one’s parents, how they loved God by following the Torah.

Jesus abruptly answers the man, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” The man, with as much as a year to wait before completing the burial is sitting on the horns of a dilemma. Should he follow Jesus or should he follow (how he understands) the Torah?

Jesus calls the man to follow him and, in so doing, equates loving God to having a personal relationship with Jesus. To use other terms, the Shema of Judaism becomes the Jesus Creed: One loves God by following Jesus.

That was something of a profound thought for me. For as I have reflected on the manner in which Jesus changed the fundamental understanding of what it meant to love God and how you went about it, I have begun to see it again and again. Over and over, loving God is associated with following Jesus. Tangibly. In real ways. At whatever cost. This is a “personal relationship” that actually feels like a real relationship unlike the more ethereal or “spiritual” way it is often presented.

Let’s put this all together now: As a normal Jew, spiritual formation for Jesus begins with the Shema of Judaism. But Jesus revises the Shema in two ways: loving others is added to loving God, and loving God is understood as following Jesus. This is the Jesus Creed, and it is the foundation of everything Jesus teaches about spiritual formation.

A creed, of course, is designed to be recited. As we recite it, we internalize its message. It sets a rhythm to our days and our lives. There is no reason to believe the followers of Jesus stopped their twice daily recitations of the Shema, but there is every reason to believe they altered their Shema to the one Jesus gave them.

A scribe asks Jesus about the essence of spiritual formation, and Jesus gives him an old answer with a revolutionary twist: Love God and love others, and love God by following me. The scribe realizes that he will need to recenter everything.

Does it not still have that impact today?

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