everything depends on this

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Matthew 22:34-40

This part of Matthew’s gospel is quite interesting, Jesus being in and around Jerusalem for what ends up being his sentencing in what amounts to a mock trial and his death. In the exchange that takes place here with a Pharisee, Jesus answers his inquiry as to what is the greatest commandment in the Law, the Torah. In Matthew’s account, Jesus cites the command following the Shema, and a passage tucked in Leviticus. And then tells us that all the Law and the Prophets, shorthand I think for all of scripture, hangs on those two commandments.

To love is first and foremost. There is plenty else to do, but if we don’t love, it amounts to nothing (cf. 1 Corinthians 13). And to love God with all our being and doing involves knowing God’s love.

We love because he first loved us.

1 John 4:19

And this:

If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.

1 John 4:15-16

We love because of God’s love given to us in creation, and especially through Jesus in new creation. That love, as Jesus has taught us, extends to all, even to our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48).

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16

It’s all about love, really. God’s love for us and the world, and then through us to each other and to all, in and through Jesus.

 

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all for Jesus and the gospel

Then [Jesus] called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.

Mark 8

There is nothing more key or central to our lives, we who are in Jesus, than our devotion to Jesus and the gospel. That is central in loving God, and loving our neighbor as ourselves, including even loving our enemies, as Jesus taught.

It’s all too easy to lose this focus, and get all wrapped up in necessary things. And we’re trying to love God and our neighbor in the process, but often more or less muddled up, hardly free enough to do so. What we need is a single eye, as in a heart set on faithfulness to Jesus and the good news of God in him. That is when the Spirit will take hold of us, and help us to truly live. It is a life brimming over and full of love, God’s love. But of course, it’s not easy. As Jesus points out here, it’s the way of the cross. And that’s not set aside after Jesus’s death and resurrection. Paul makes that clear, and others as well, both in their writings, and from the witness of their lives. While it isn’t easy, it is a life of righteousness, peace, and joy through the Holy Spirit.

When I’m in the dark, the Spirit can lead me into this light. A decent question to ask, which yes, has its limitations, but it is good for prayerful consideration: What would Jesus do? Jesus by the Spirit lives in us now. Our whole lives at home and everywhere else are meant to point others to him. And while we live, Christ also is our life, and the one who lives through us, even us with all our mistakes and problems along the way. But as we seek to live in him, he makes himself known not only to us, but to others. And it’s the love of Christ which not only compels us, but changes us through and through, so that we can become more and more like him, hopefully over time.

It’s never about us, but about Jesus and the gospel, the good news in him. That is where we find our real, true life. And the light and love which goes with it. In and through Jesus.

nonviolent love

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5

One of the great legacies of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is his call for nonviolent love. They practiced that amidst all the hate they encountered. They practiced a soul force as it was called, and regularly engaged in prayer and acted in love in the face of violence and hate. And in so doing, they followed the way of our Lord, who prayed for his enemies when he was nailed to the cross.

Do we know what it is to love in the face of evil? Like Dr. King said, it’s not an affectionate love, but rather a principled agape love, the love of God which is committed to the good of the enemy, for their redemption as one of God’s own into the family. So that they might become friends, and brothers and sisters.

Regardless of what anyone thinks about this, it’s true: we can utterly hate the deeds of someone, yet love that person. There is always hope in God, that somehow that person will come to repentance and faith and be delivered from their own evil through Jesus. But it’s not easy. Grace helps us, but doesn’t make the difficult places a cakewalk. But the same love from God which puts up with us, we’re to extend to others, to everyone, yes to our enemies. Following Jesus, in and through him.

 

“we shall overcome”: Martin Luther King Jr. Day

We Shall Overcome” was a beautiful anthem of the American Civil Rights Movement. It was sung by the African-Americans of that time, and those who stood with them in their cause for justice in equal rights in the United States. It was more than a push back against the Jim Crow laws of the south (not to mention the segregation in the north), but a stand in saying, “We will accept, and take no more of this.” Rosa Parks was a key person in getting the movement started, and there was no more prominent leader in it, in fact he is considered the leader of that movement, today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The song expresses a stand rooted in God’s image within all humanity. That we are made for relationship and love, and an understanding that we are in this life together. And that we all have our part in it, both in relationships, and in vocation. And it’s a song of commitment to overcome injustice together, but not in a violent way, but with a commitment to nonviolence. Martin Luther King Jr. was impacted both by the life and example of Mahatma Gandhi, and preeminently by Jesus himself who taught his followers to love their enemies and turn the other cheek. King over and over again preached and spoke in these terms, and with the words of Jesus. And he and many others put those words into practice again and again.

We do need to stand up for what is right, particularly when it affects others. And we who in the United States live to this day in a privileged condition, especially compared with our African-American sisters and brothers need to be sensitive to how we might play in that ourselves without realizing it, as well as develop sensitivity to how society itself is bent in this direction. How we are all, each and everyone impacted by prejudice in prejudging others through some stereotypes, instead of really getting to know them, and becoming aware of their difficulties and plight.

And we need to remember what was done to them: They were stolen from their nations in Africa, and forced to be slaves with no possibility of freedom, at least not under the normal circumstances. And to this day are discriminated against in the criminal justice system, and before that, all of this lending itself to the fallout which would occur with any of us. And a deep wounding which can only be healed through much time, leaving its scars behind.

As in all things, and as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew and preached, the one hope for all humankind and against all evil is found in the gospel of Christ. Through that good news we are reconciled to God and to each other. Sin is dealt with, and all the injustice with it through the atoning sacrificial death of Christ on the cross, the resurrection bringing the new life of love into the here and now, to break all the chains of injustice, and bring in nothing less than the freedom of God’s children.

We are all in this together. Today I celebrate and remember the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and of all those who stood with him in love against the hate of that time. And remember that though some most significant changes came through that movement, we have not yet arrived to the place where we fully love and accept each other, and have the best interest of the others in our hearts. We’re not there yet.

Laws of the land can help and actually are crucial against corrupt systems, but what is especially needed is the change of hearts through the gospel, and an acclimation toward justice which we find in scripture fulfilled in the gospel, as well as in other places where this ethic is taught on earth through God’s image within all humankind. But there is no place where it is so thoroughly taught with the hope of being fully realized as in the gospel of Christ, to begin in the church.

This is an essential part of the heart of our calling as witnesses of Christ and the good news in him. Something we wish to carry on in the love and compassion of Christ, in and through him.

Christians do those kinds of things

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

1 Peter 2:11-12

The idea that Christians do those kinds of things can actually be a two-edged sword. Professing-I say- Christians did evil in the Crusades and against Jews as well. Those who have named the name of Christ have not always lived up to that name. Not that we can match Christ, but we are to be a community as well as individuals who are Christ-like, strikingly different than society around us.

The difference was stark as well as more subtle, definitely pronounced when Christianity first came on the scene: a fulfillment of Judaism, and yet in a way that no Jews anticipated, so that what Christians did, Jews would never do. And in sharp contrast, indeed opposition to the rest of humanity, the other group of people than Jews being called Gentiles, in this case the Romans. Christians actively protected babies from abortion, were to be faithful to only one spouse, considered humility a virtue, and I’m sure on and on it goes. Old hat now, since the knowledge of the story, and of Christianity played out in churches for centuries throughout the world has given at least many a kind of image of what that means, oftentimes by this familiarity breeding contempt, at least losing sight of the revolutionary character of what it means to follow Christ, to be a Christian.

Sometimes we might pinch ourselves and ask why in the world we’re doing what we’re doing, and not doing other things. Christians have been criticized for doing what they do out of a religious motive in comparison to nonreligious people who do the same thing, it is said not out of a religious motive, but out of a heart of love. There is no question that church and Christianity can be an empty ritual and religion which might even cause more harm than good. Of that I sadly have no doubt.

But at the heart of what Christianity really means as to its goal is the actual fulfillment of what it means to be human. And at the heart of that is love played out in good works. Faith in Jesus is restorative to the humanity that God created in the first place through the new creation in Jesus. A Christian should epitomize what it means to be human. What that involves might be debated, but scripture gives a clear picture of what it is. There’s some overlap with society at large, because humans are made in the image of God. Therefore people everywhere believe that loving others is important. But that love, just like all else in creation can be distorted so that it’s twisted, often to a self-love which “loves” for its own use and pleasure at the expense of another. And often in marked contrast to Jesus’s teaching about loving one’s enemies.

So why do I do the things I do? And part of that frankly is putting up with myself, being patient with myself, and my own unhelpful foibles, repentant yes, but still patient. At the heart of that is the cross, and in Jesus’s death seeing God’s love for us, and forgiveness and new life extended to us in Jesus. So that we want to follow on that basis. And live and do as Jesus did. With ongoing forgiveness needed for both omissions and commissions which deviate from that. But nonetheless that trajectory being our goal and passion in life from day to day.

All of this by the grace (gift) of God in and through Jesus.

 

love is not piecemeal

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.

Romans 12:9-15

Genuine love does not pick winners and losers. We in Jesus love all, period. That is part of who we are in Jesus. But it doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Sometimes people can say or do things we find quite offensive, maybe even on a personal level, so that they might, so to speak “get under our skin” a little. And then there’s the case of simple blatant out and out hatred toward Christians, which while rare where we live, does happen, and certainly is known all too well in certain parts of the world.

Our mindset, the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2) involves aligning ourselves with the new heart and spirit God gives us in the new covenant in and through Jesus. Put more simply, we need to put into practice who we are in Jesus, and leave the old person we used to be behind. Which means we’ll have to go against the grain of what we’re used to at times. We may be new in Jesus, but we have to act on that, which involves getting rid of old habits and ways of thinking, and putting on the new ways in Jesus. Ephesians and Colossians both have some important things to say about that.

And so our professed love of the Lord is real insofar as we love others with that same love. We may say we love the Lord, and think we do, but if we withhold love from others, that puts our love for God in doubt, and certainly contradicts that, as we’re reminded in 1 John 5.

And so we want to love, period. A love which isn’t mushy, and may challenge others along the way, but which is genuine and true, marked by gentleness along with the rest of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5). In and through Jesus.

the power of poetry and song (the Christ-kenosis/self-emptying hymn)

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:1-11

In Jeff Manion’s message to us this past weekend in the series “Choosing Joy Under Pressure,” through the book of Philippians, entitled “The Servant Mindset,” he touched on the power of song. Yes, most Bible scholars believe this was a hymn which Paul included in this letter. And that we do well to play that song again and again in our heads until it becomes the theme to which we live.

Notice that although it’s about Jesus, it is to be applied by us who are in Jesus in our individual lives, and in the context of the letter, especially in our relationships with each other. We are to take on ourselves the same humility and servant mindset that Jesus took on himself.

This doesn’t mean trying to perform great heroics. Of course what Jesus did in the eyes of the world was exactly the reverse of that. There was nothing more humbling than a cross, probably not much higher from ground level than one would stand, likely hung naked, and just outside the city where the populace could walk by, say anything they wanted to say, and spit in one’s face.

Jesus’s attitude was one of humility, service, and obedience. It ended up being great since he stooped to the greatest depths possible: God becoming human, and then subjecting himself as a man to the death of the cross, all out of love, as a servant. And for our salvation, but in this context specifically as the example we’re to follow. And therefore God raised Jesus to the highest heights, giving him the name above every name, so that all might bow the knee to him.

We do well to read both what precedes this poem, and what follows, the context, because this poem is followed by a “therefore” as well as the call to value others above ourselves.

But again, this needs to be the kind of song playing in our heads. Which acclimates us over time to grow in the depths of the life we’re to live in Jesus. Toward each other, and toward the world. In and through Jesus.