Monday, April 27, 2015

Laying Down the Law

Even when people like the same thing, they often like it for different reasons. I like Sherlock, the BBC's contemporary version of the Great Detective, for many reasons. I like the writing, the clever way they update these Victorian characters, the little details that are nods to the originals, the plots, the humor, and the superb acting. Some people just like it because they think lead actor Benedict Cumberbatch is sexy. You find the same thing in others fandoms, in sports, politics or most hobbies and enthusiasms: even within a group devoted to the same idea or activity, people are drawn to different aspects of it. And the same goes for religion. Some people like it for the inspiration, some for the moral order, some for the fellowship, some for the theology, some for the artistic elements, some for the acts of devotion and some for its precepts. Which is, oddly enough, why there are so many divisions within religions, such as Christianity, despite the fact that we agree on so much. We each feel our approach, our priorities, our emphases are the correct or most important ones. And just as the worst arguments happen within families, we seem to get most upset by those with whom we share the most.

There is a way to resolve this problem, at least within Christianity. Let's look at Jesus and at the Bible. What are the most important things according to our primary sources?

The Torah, the 5 books of Moses, contain 613 commandments by the rabbis' reckoning. And not being stupid, they realized that some must be more important than others. For instance, in a life and death situation, where strict adherence to every little rule might delay or prevent a good Jew from saving someone's life, which commandment takes precedence? When asked this, Jesus gave not one but two commandments: “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 depend on these two commandments.” (Mt 22:37-40) In Mark's version, Jesus says, “There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mk 12:31) Notice that Jesus is not saying, “These are somewhat important commandments” or “These are interesting commandments.” He says they are the greatest commandments--there are none greater and all the other ethical demands are derived from these two. Or as N.T. Wright puts it, “Everything else is footnotes.”

If you asked a group of people passing by on the street what they thought Christians held to be the most important commandments, what do you think they would say? No gay marriage? No abortions? No teaching evolution? If so, whose fault is it that we have let the emphasis on those things obscure the gospel, the good news of the love of God in Christ? Doesn't Jesus tell us that the commandments to love God and to love others trump every other commandment? Why don't more Christians acknowledge this?

Because it frightens them. The commandments to love are open-ended and non-specific. How do we know what actions are loving? People do lots of things in the name of love. Whereas the other commandments are more measurable. Make an image and worship it? That's a violation. Commit adultery? That's a violation. Work on the Sabbath? That's a violation. Except that even in this example, it's not always easy to determine if a commandment is being broken. Jesus' opponents felt that his healing on the Sabbath broke that commandment. Jesus didn't. To him, it wasn't work; it was an act of love.

And we do know love when we see it. You see lovers on the street walking with arms around each other; you see a mother restraining her child from crossing against the light; you see a man get out of his car, pull a wheelchair out of the back, set it up, lock the brakes and then help his aged parent into it. Those are all acts and signs of love.

There are less clear ones. In public, a mother yells “No!” loudly at her child. Is that abuse? Or is she trying to stop the child from putting the nasty thing it found on the floor in its mouth? You see a child crying in front of a stern-faced father. Is the father being cruel? Or has he just made it clear to the child for the twentieth time that he is not getting the expensive toy he wants today? The woman is putting back on the shelf the food item her aged father just put in his motorized cart. Is she being mean? Unnecessarily frugal? Or is she trying to observe the doctor's orders on what the older man cannot eat if he doesn't want to make his condition worse?

People do a lot of things for love, including inappropriate or even morally wrong things. That's why the commandment to love scares us. Why, it can be an excuse to do just about anything! But not really. You cannot harm someone and call it love. Indeed in the oath that doctors and nurses take they promise to “first, do no harm.” They do not take an oath to love their patients but if we as Christians are to follow Jesus and obey his commandments, it is understood that part of love is doing no harm to others nor allowing any harm to come to them, in so far as we can. Anything that harms or fails to reasonably protect others from harm cannot be considered love.

This is what John is getting at in our passage today. (1 Jn 3:16-24) “How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” Letting the person who needs food or clothes or shelter or healing continue to suffer is not a loving thing to do. Not allowing people to feed the homeless, which is now the law in 33 American cities, is not loving. It makes no sense to say we love God and then do terrible things to those created by him in his image. Or allow terrible things to be done to them. Especially because, as John writes, “We know love by this, that [Jesus Christ] laid down his life for us...” The reason we love Jesus, and the way we know what love truly is, comes from what he did for us. He laid down his life; he set aside all claims to it; he gave it all up. And he did so for us. It only makes sense, then, that “we ought to lay down our lives for each other.” We need to go outside our comfort zones to help those who need it.

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and in action.” If there is one verse that should be up there with John 3:16, or the passages on the great commandments, as one of the verses we should all memorize, it is this one. We Christians talk a good game but we often sound like fans who enthusiastically discuss sports but don't actually play them. It is acceptable today to think of sports as merely entertainment, watching and paying athletes handsomely to do what we cannot. So we are used to seeing sports fans who are grossly out of shape. But Christianity is not here to entertain us. It is an activity in which participation is mandatory.

John says, “All who obey his commandments abide in him and he abides in them.” How does this work? How does obeying Jesus' commandments lead to him living in us? Because of a fact that John lets drop in the next chapter: “God is love.” Not “God is loving” but “God is love.” God is the ongoing act of love between the persons of the Trinity. And if God is love, then our participating in that divine love makes it part of us. God created us out of the overflowing of that love and having that love in us means that acting in love should naturally flow out of that. As it says in 1st John 4:8, “Whoever does not love does not know God for God is love.” And if we do not know God how can we call ourselves Christians, followers of the God of Love Incarnate? As Sister Claire Joy of the Community of the Holy Spirit said, “ God above all and then prove loving your neighbor as yourself.”

Remember how we said that all the other commandments are footnotes to the two greatest? Those commandments are all ways one can show love. In one chapter of Leviticus alone (19) we are told: 
“Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the immigrant. I am the Lord your God.
Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another....
Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him. Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight.
Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind but fear your God. I am the Lord.
Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great but judge your neighbor fairly.
Do not go about spreading slander among your people.
Do not do anything that that endangers your neighbor's life. I am the Lord.
Do not hate your neighbor in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share his guilt.
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” And, yes, that where Jesus got that commandment.

The chapter goes on to command respect for the elderly and to treat resident aliens as countrymen. There are others which do not apply to us because we do not live in ancient Bronze Age theocratic Israel. But these are all concrete ways of loving our neighbor. There are others.

We can encourage and support and comfort and listen to and empathize with others, especially when they are in distress.
We can teach and guide and share with others helpful knowledge and our experience dealing with challenges.
We can learn from and understand and accept and strengthen and celebrate others' triumphs and joys.
We can hug and laugh with and reconcile with and forgive and ask forgiveness from others.
We can feed the hungry, provide potable water to the thirsty, house the homeless, visit the sick and those in prison, and welcome the immigrant, as Jesus told us to do in Matthew 25.
We can protect the vulnerable and give voice to the voiceless and work for the end of violence.
We can work for justice for all and peace for all.

There are many more ways to show love. They are limited only by our imagination and creativity.

In a way it is not surprising that the hardest commandments are the ones most people forget or ignore. Not many people bring up the command to love our enemies either. It's much easier to concentrate on simpler commandments that have to do with refraining from eating or drinking certain things, dressing a certain way, using or not using certain words, etc. These things are superficial but manageable. But commit yourself to love whomever you encounter--which is Jesus' definition of “neighbor”--and you open yourself up to all kinds of unpredictability. Your neighbor could not only be anyone but their needs could be things that even a Winn Dixie gift card and a boatload of platitudes could not fulfill. Love demands more of us.

Love always costs. Like everything else that's worthwhile, it will take time, it will take energy, it will take attention to detail and it will take money. That's the price of commitment. And love takes commitment. It takes commitment to the person you are trying to love, of course. But it also takes commitment to the whole idea of loving others. You can't just switch it off when you want to. Love means you can't just dismiss people. You can't deem some people unworthy of love. God loves us and if we are honest, we will admit that we can be pretty unlovable at times. God loves us in spite of that. If we are to reflect him, we need to do the same for others. We need to commit to it and make it our top priority in all that we think, in all that we say, in all that we do.

There are lots of laws in the Bible. Jesus says love is at the heart of them. The essential thing is to love God and to love those created in his image, which is everyone you meet. In 1st Corinthians 13, Paul said that you can be smart and do noble and heroic things but if you don't have love, you are nothing. If we try to impose parts of scripture on others without love, we are negating the gospel. The good news is not “You're going to hell.” It is that in Jesus we see what God is like and what we see is that God is love. If you want to know what love is, you need to get to know and follow Jesus. Knowing and being with and in Jesus is heaven. It's not a cloud; it's not Disney World writ large; it's not getting every little thing your heart desires. It's being included in the eternal circle of love that is our God. And it is including everyone we can, inviting them all and removing all the obstacles that are preventing them from entering in. Love is the mark of the Christian; it is how Jesus said the world would recognize us as his disciples. Love is the whole law.

Everything else is footnotes.

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