But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they came together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, to test Him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”
In a few weeks, thousands of baseball players will descend on my state of Florida for the annual rite of spring training. Players will go through endless hours of drills, going over the basics of a game they have spent years playing. Everyone from the rookies to the multi-millionaires will do the same drills. Why? Because we all need to go back to the basics periodically, to help us advance from where we are to where we want to be. That goes for baseball and it goes for our faith—hence the name of this unit we are doing right now.
Players go through an intense spring training every year to get back to the basics and start over again. And once the regular season begins, they still take batting practice and field ground balls because they need to continually improve on the basics. Even the most successful baseball team is built on a foundation of solid fundamentals.
The yearly journey of the baseball player actually closely mirrors what should be the yearly journey of the Orthodox Christian. Spring training for the ballplayers lasts about forty days. We have the same interval of forty days each spring. We call it Great Lent. This is a period where we, too, are supposed to get back to the basics. And once Pascha arrives, we don’t stop practicing or training, we continue to do so, even though probably not with the same intensity.
The basics of Christianity boil down to two things—we must love God and we must love our neighbor. As Jesus said, on these two things rests the Law and the prophets. On these two things rests everything we are supposed to do as Christians. Or another way of saying it, everything we do as Christians fits one of these two categories, and sometimes both. Prayer, for example, shows love both for God, as we pray to Him, and our neighbor, as we pray to God on his/her behalf. Worship shows love for God, in that we praise Him, and for our neighbor, because we share God’s praise with our neighbor in worship. Scripture reading helps us to understand God, which in turn helps us to better serve our neighbor. Generosity shows thanksgiving to God and concern for our neighbor.
These two commandments—love God and love our neighbor—are actually interdependent. We can’t love God while hating our neighbor. While some might argue that we can love our neighbor while hating God, I would argue that love of neighbor without God in the equation ultimately leads back to benefit of self.
Saint Paul writes in I Corinthians 13 that is we amass all kinds of knowledge we have no love, we have nothing. It is true that one can amass all kinds of knowledge about God and still not love Him. We can know about God without knowing Him. We can help a neighbor without really serving him/her.
Each person reading this message today is at a different place in his or her life, just like the players on the baseball team. There are some very experienced Christians, and some rookies. There are some people coming off a banner year and others for whom last year was a bust. No matter who you are and what circumstance you find yourself in, it is important to always be cognizant of the basics of Christianity. If you are coming off a bad year or are in a bad place, ask yourself, what can I do TODAY to demonstrate love for God and love for neighbor? Write down three things and then do those things today. If you are having a great year, you can do the same thing—write down three ways you can be intentional about loving God and loving your neighbor today.
One area where we can all improve is the area of “witness.” Most people think about their personal, quiet example of faith. We don’t think about the faith we “project” on others. Witness is done in one of two ways. One is a more “quiet” example but also one that is purposeful. We are mindful that we are witnessing for Christ, we carefully watch what we do, and what we say because we are aware of this. The other way is more vocal—we talk about Christ with others, we actively encourage others to pray, worship, read Scripture, etc. The way that Christianity has spread throughout the centuries is through witness. Whether that was a witness as martyr dying in front of thousands of people. Or whether that was as a witness to our children in the privacy of our homes. Christianity does not spread itself. It spreads when people work in concert with the Holy Spirit to witness for Christ, at the very least in their own household.
Lord, thank You for the gift of another day, and another chance to practice the fundamentals of loving You and loving my neighbor. Help me remember that part of loving You is obedience to Your commandments, and watchfulness about what I think, say and do. Help me see You in my neighbor and to always run to those who are in need. Help me to have the heart of a servant, as it relates to my neighbor. Help me to be a good witness for You, both in what I do and in what I say. Amen.
We need to be remembering the basics of Christianity all the time—love God and love neighbor. Because these are the fundamentals of faith. And all of our successes in faith are built on these.
Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website!
Fr. Stavros has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0
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