Love, Part 1: God and Neighbour

On August 5th, Kristen and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. Since we’re in the grip of a global pandemic, it wasn’t the celebration we had envisioned or have been saving for. (We had leftovers, exchanged gifts, and watched a movie while a friend took the girls out for a couple of hours). But no matter how unconventional or unremarkable it may have been, we did celebrate because this was a significant milestone on a momentous journey. For two decades, we’ve done life together. We’ve made life together. All along the way, we’ve had ups and downs; we’ve rejoiced and we’ve grieved; we’ve held hands and butted heads. We’ve laughed and cried and forgiven and been forgiven. And all along the way, love has been the bond that’s held us together in the warmth of the sun and the tumult of the storms. Supporting and accompanying each other through all that life can throw at you – that’s the joy, the blessing, and the challenge of a loving relationship.

One of the lessons any couple learns quickly is that the reality of love is very different from the idea of love. All of us long to be loved, to give love, to receive love, to know love. To discover and experience that depth of connection and validation, of belonging. But there’s a reason why spouses make vows to each other. Love is work.

Love means learning to walk with someone, grow with someone, and keep going with someone even when the road gets rough, even when the road leads you off the map. It means continuing the journey no matter the weather. Love is more than a feeling, an attraction, an emotion. It’s a bond: a bond that you forge together. A bond that inspires you, compels you to put the wants, needs, interests, and well-being of your beloved on par with if not ahead of your own. And you do it because that bond, that love produces life: it gives you life, it enriches your life – no matter the condition of the road or the state of the weather.

This connection between love and life lies at the heart of the gospel, in fact. The invitation that Jesus extends to us is an invitation to life – the life that truly is life; life abundant; life eternal. And so it really shouldn’t be a surprise to find that love lies at the centre of Jesus’ message and Jesus’ mission.

Jesus makes the connection between love and life clear in His framing of the Greatest Commandment, especially in Luke’s presentation of it. The question put to Jesus in Luke chapter 10 is, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds to the eager lawyer, “What do you read in the law?” The lawyer answers, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus replies, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

Love, and you will live. Not just in the hereafter, but in the here and now.

In the Kingdom of God, in this coming alternative reality that has come near in Jesus, love is the centre of gravity. Love of God and neighbour is the core that generates the magnetic field that orients us toward heaven and aligns our hearts, our minds, our souls, our strength with the ways of heaven. Love of God and neighbour leads us to relate to God, to ourselves, to each other in accordance with God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.

Love of this scope and scale is the very reason Jesus came to walk among us, and walk with us. To be Emmanuel: God with us! To be our rabbi, to be our Lord, to be our Saviour, to be our brother. “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Love is what the message of the gospel always comes back to and comes down to.

This is the point that Matthew seeks to drive home in his framing of the Greatest Commandment. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” Jesus declares (Matthew 22:34-40).

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. In other words, love is the trunk from which all the words and instructions and admonitions – all the substance, all the weight, all the meaning – of the Law and the prophets branch off. We have to be sure not to overlook the tree in our admiration of the leaves and the blossoms.

And yet we do. All of us have a lot of leaves from this tree pressed into our Bibles or in our journals or in other places where we keep special things; leaves that we frequently pull out and revisit and admire and even show to others: verses and doctrines that are important to us. And they are important. They’re beautiful. They’re of God. But they’re also so very often presented and interpreted detached from the branch, from the trunk that gave rise to them. Which means that, however unintentionally, we tend to treat them as individual specimens rather than extensions of something larger, something connected, something alive, something that helps us climb toward God in heaven but also grounds us to the earth, to the world, to love that is the core, the root, from which the whole tree springs.

Love is the root, love is the soil; love is all of it when it comes to the gospel.

The Apostle Paul recognises and grasps the primacy of love perhaps more firmly than anyone since Jesus has – and he wanted present and future generations of disciples to grasp it, too. This realisation compelled Paul to tell both the Romans and the Galatians that the whole law can be summed up in this one instruction: love your neighbour as yourself (Galatians 5:14, Romans 13:9). And it inspired him to produce one of the most eloquent and beautiful leaves to be found among the branches of the gospel: 1 Corinthians 13.

What makes 1 Corinthians 13 particularly beautiful is that it is a leaf that points us back to the branch, to the trunk, to the root even if we pluck it and press it and keep it separate.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

The trouble is we tend to keep this pressed leaf tucked away until a wedding comes around. Certainly it is a fitting text for a couple about to be married to hear and embrace, especially as it continues:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

However, Paul wasn’t writing these words to brides and grooms. He was writing to the church – to the whole church – at Corinth. This is the heart of what the apostle was trying to drive home to this church riven by factions and indifference toward one another. He wasn’t intending it for weddings, or even for special occasions. This is advice for every day. Yet, of all the Scripture verses and passages we’ve been encouraged to commit to memory, 1 Corinthians 13 is seldom among them.

Why might that be? If speaking in tongues and understanding the ins and outs of theology and having faith to say to a mountain, “Be cast into the sea” – if all of that amounts to nothing without love, why wouldn’t we put love ahead of all of those things in our faith practice, in our faith desire?

Well, for one thing, it’s a bit daunting this Greatest Commandment. What Jesus presents to us in Matthew 22 as the core, the heart, of what heaven is about; the distilled essence of what God asks, expects, and desires for us and from us is much more than a warm, fuzzy emotion to feel or a sunny disposition to display toward God and neighbour. Loving the Lord with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength – with our whole selves – and loving our neighbours as ourselves: That takes focus and effort. That takes commitment. That’s a love that makes demands on us. And if we have a spouse, if we have children, if we have dear friends whom we love with that kind of love, we know how much time and effort that depth of love requires. How can we possibly love God and all our neighbours on that level? We only have so much bandwidth, so much time.

I honestly believe God recognises that. I don’t think Jesus is asking us to love everyone the same way we love our spouse or our children; but I do think Jesus is asking us not to shirk or shy away from the work. Yes, love makes demands of us. But those demands are where the joy and the growth – and the life – are to be found. I can honestly say that I love Kristen more at this stage of the journey than I did when first set out – and the challenge, the work, the dedication the journey has required is a big part of the reason why.

If love is love, it is always more than an emotion or a disposition. It always makes demands of us. Love is a posture we assume – a stance we adopt in relationship to God and neighbour. To see God as worthy of our all. To see our neighbours as worth getting to know. To see our neighbours as valuable, as worthy of respect, as people just like us with hopes and dreams and promise; people just like us created in the image of God, who have the breath of God and the light of heaven coursing, pulsing within them.

It is from this stance, then, that we move, act, and live in the world and live with God as an act of worship. Our stance, our actions are what really show and prove our love – and our faith. We do not and will not always get it right. But we learn as we go and as we grow. And Jesus gets that, too, because Jesus operates from this same stance.

That, by the way, is why I take the Bible at its word in what it has to say about God and Jesus. The Bible’s declaration that God is love validates and affirms the incarnation. It makes the story of Jesus make sense. And vice versa. The story of Jesus validates and affirms the Bible’s declaration that God is Love. A God who is love would not and could not remain transcendent. Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but love longs to be present with the beloved: To give oneself fully to the beloved; to give oneself for the beloved if need be. Which is precisely what Jesus does. In Jesus, God does the things love does. In Jesus, God models for us the ways of Love so that we can learn the ways of heaven. The ways of love and the ways of heaven are one and the same!

To begin walking in the ways of heaven, we have to start by changing our approach to Bible passages like Matthew 22:34-40, like 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. We have to view these seminal passages as more than leaves plucked from the gospel tree to be treasured as spiritual keepsakes. Rather, we must understand these passages as frames carved from the wood of the trunk of the gospel tree and offered for our use. Not picture frames, mind you, but as sifting frames. So what’s a sifting frame?

The summer after Kristen and I met, I took a field archaeology class at Old Salem in my home town of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Moravian pietists founded Old Salem in the mid-18th century and the historic area of the town is preserved as a living museum. It’s a beautiful and tranquil place to visit. Researchers working for Old Salem had discovered that one of the historical houses had been moved back from the street at some point in the late 19th century. As part of their ongoing preservation and restoration work, Old Salem planned to move the house back to its original location. Before doing so, however, they wanted to undertake an archaeological exploration of the property.

It was fascinating though painstaking work. Archaeology is slow and meticulous, proceeding by the centimetre as long as time allows. Toward the end of the term, when we were running out of time to complete the work, we started excavating with more urgency and less precision. We began moving dirt in the cellar with shovels rather than trowels. But the soil still needed examining. So at the back of the property the lead archaeologists set up a large sifter: a rectangular wooden frame made from two by fours with a fine mesh screen stapled to the bottom. Every shovel full of dirt was dumped into this sifter and, working in pairs, my fellow students and I took turns pushing the sifter back and forth so that the loose soil would fall through but any nails, potsherds, or other artifacts of potential interest would reveal themselves and remain on the screen.

This is what the Apostle Paul is trying to impress upon the 1st century church in Corinth, and upon us as the 21st century church in Toronto: Love is what the people of Jesus use to sift our thoughts, our experiences, our attitudes, our politics, our philosophies, our theologies, our faith practice, our life practice – everything – in pursuit of the gospel. Love reveals what’s truly important and what is ultimately extraneous, that which we can allow to fall away. Love doesn’t always show us what to do with the important discoveries we make – but it does show us where we need to direct our focus. And that’s what the journey of discipleship is all about: a journey of discovery – of God, of self, of the world – of the life that truly is life.  Life rooted in love of God and neighbour.

Yes, it is work. Yes, it is commitment. Yes, it is sacrifice. But, most of all, it is life. Abundant life. And that abundance of life isn’t just something Jesus wants to give us; it’s something He wants to share with us.  Because that’s the kind of thing love does.

Thanks be to God for this divine, excelling love. Amen.

Follow Me

On the liturgical calendar, today is the beginning of what is termed “Ordinary Time” – the stretch of the year in which there are no holy seasons or high holidays. We’ve observed Lent, celebrated Easter, welcomed the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and pondered the mystery of God as three-in-one on Trinity Sunday. There won’t be any other such special occasions until we approach Advent at the end of November.

That’s why this long stretch of the year is dubbed “ordinary.” Nothing special happens. It’s a time set aside for us in the church to (re)focus on our calling as the church. Which, of course, makes “ordinary” quite an unfortunate misnomer.
Because there is nothing the least bit ordinary about our calling as a church.

We’re fuelled by the fires of Pentecost; those flames don’t flicker out. We’re filled with the currents of the Holy Spirit; that rushing wind doesn’t die down. Though many, we are called to be one – as a reflection of the triune God whom we worship, who is three in one. Ordinary is for oatmeal and convenience stores. But not for the church. Especially this year, as we continue to try to find our way forward through this COVID-19 shaped reality.

Perhaps a better way to think about this season within the church is to borrow language from our province’s response to the pandemic. Rather than entering into something “ordinary,” what if we thought about this season as entering into the next stage or phase of our response to the gospel we have heard, to everything we have remembered and celebrated: how God has revealed God’s Self in Christ.

If we have heard, if we have seen; if we believe; if we receive Jesus as the One whom the Gospels declare Him to be, then we cannot help but respond. We, like that first band of fishermen and tax collectors so long ago, cannot help but embrace Him and pursue Him. And the word we use for that response, that pursuit, is discipleship.

But what is a disciple? It’s a churchy word we use a lot without, perhaps, really understanding what it is. The simplest and most straightforward definition of “disciple” is what the word literally means. A disciple is a student. So to become a disciple of Jesus means to become a student of Jesus. Someone who takes on Jesus as their rabbi, as their teacher.

“Teacher” is actually one of the most common titles used of Jesus in the four Gospels. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” “Look, Teacher, what magnificent buildings!” Teacher is how Mary Magdalene addresses the Risen Christ on Easter morning in John’s Gospel. She says, “Rabouni,” which means my Rabbi, my teacher, my master.

So if we are disciples, we are students. But once we understand that, we have to consider what being a student of Jesus’ means. What does it look like? What does it involve? In our 21st century North American world, the word “student” most likely conjures up in our minds images of textbooks and whiteboards; classrooms and libraries: a rather sedentary and intellectual endeavour undertaken for grades and degrees. Which for some of us (like me) is stimulating and enjoyable. For others – perhaps many others of us – it doesn’t sound the least bit exciting, and certainly doesn’t sound anything like “Good News.”

But our modern systems of education bear little resemblance to how Jesus taught or what He taught. Jesus wasn’t on a faculty and never once assigned a paper. He told stories more than He gave lectures. Jesus approached His students-to-be with nothing more and nothing less than two simple but radical words: “Follow Me.”

No syllabus handed out. Not even so much as a course description offered. No promises. No expectations – at least not at the outset. Simply, “Follow Me.”

All of which makes the Gospel call narratives really quite remarkable when we stop to think about them. A man shows up on the shores of the Seas of Galilee, whom (as far as we know) Andrew and Simon Peter have never met or even seen before, utters two words, and the first disciples leave their nets, their families – everything they’ve known – and go with Him. That’s a powerful invitation! A beginning to a course of instruction like none any of them, or any of us, have ever undertaken – ever even heard of.

And of course, that’s because it’s a course of instruction unlike any ever offered. It’s not even a course, really; it’s a journey. A journey of discovery. A journey toward a new Kingdom that has come near, a new possibility, that lies both within Him and within them, within us.

That’s why Jesus gives them nothing when He calls them, and seemingly they take nothing with them when they follow. There’s no need. All they need is the One they’re following…and themselves. Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, is both the instructor and the subject. He is the guide as well as the destination of the journey they are undertaking together, and the disciples’ hearts, minds, souls, and strength are the only materials they will need.

It is a journey of discovery: an awakening to a new Kingdom, a new merger between heaven and earth, that has come near in Him, with Him, and through Him.

It’s a journey of awakening to who Christ is and who we are, who we can become, in Him. A journey into the awareness of a deeper existence, a deeper magic as CS Lewis phrased it; an awareness of the presence of both a brighter light and a more expansive darkness; of powers and principalities at work AND greater, more glorious possibilities on the horizon.

It’s an awakening similar to what some of us are experiencing now in the wake of George Floyd’s murder – an awakening to realities and histories to which we’ve been oblivious, or privileged enough to ignore if not deny. Realities and histories that don’t just exist south of the border but right here in Canada, right here in Toronto.

Receiving Christ, then following Christ, opens our eyes in that very same way – to things we didn’t see before, things we never dreamed we’d see. And not just negative realities.

I remember when I first became a disciple, when I first set off on this journey, when I understood for the first time within my being who Jesus is, when I gave my life over to Him, the world around me practically glowed with a new radiance, a new significance. I saw other people in a different way: as children of God, valued and beloved by God. Not labels or stereotypes or demographic segments, but salt and light, dust and ash infused with God’s breath. People who are flawed but also forgiven.

To see that, though, to have our eyes open to these deeper, heavenly realities, we have to move; we have to be uprooted from where we currently are and allow Jesus to take us on this journey of discovery. To help us learn new values and priorities, new heavenly weights and measures; and to unlearn the former, worldly standards we have grown accustomed to, that have been instilled within us. This is not and cannot just be a kind of spiritual movement; it’s a bodily physical movement. We have to have new experiences and new exposures.

Jesus could not have taught the original disciples all that He taught them if He had left them in Galilee. They had to see the Kingdom breaking into the land of the Gerasenes and the villages of the Samaritans. They not only had to hear Him say that all the magnificent buildings of Jerusalem would one day come tumbling down, they had to see the grandeur of those buildings for themselves.

Likewise, we have to allow Jesus to call us, prod us, sometimes pry us, out of our bubbles, our routines, our comfort zones, our echo chambers. Because the Kingdom is breaking in, in all manner of ways and all manner of places through all manner of people. God has things – amazing things, and groundbreaking, ground-shaking things – to show us through them. And we won’t see any of it if we don’t follow Jesus out there to see it.

It’s a lifelong journey, this journey of discipleship, one that never ends once it begins. That’s why we’ve been gifted the presence of the Holy Spirit. The third person of the Trinity has come to guide us in our continuing education in the way of Jesus, every day, every hour.

That’s also why we need the church, why we need to be the church: walking, studying, learning, experiencing together. None of us have all the insight, all the perspective, all the gifts we need to see all that God is revealing, all that God has to show us. And we need companions, brothers and sisters to walk with us because living in the world while holding to the standards and priorities of heaven can make for some rough road.

Jesus may not have issued promises or expectations at the beginning of the journey; but as we progress / venture further along the way; when we like Peter in Mark 8 grasp who Christ is and really start to understand what the implications of His coming are, there is another stage, another phase we have to face and enter into. We have to take up our crosses as we follow.

Because the cross is the world’s response to the breaking in of God’s Kingdom, to the radical standards and values and priorities of heaven. The powers-that-be will always push back, always resist, because they rightly understand the gospel is a threat to their status. And that includes the powers within us.

Our worldly selves also resist the gospel, even when we – again like Peter – can say all the right things about Jesus. Even when we willingly undertake the journey. Even when we firmly and deeply believe. We can still miss the point. There are aspects, dimensions to Christ’s Kingdom we can still struggle, even refuse, to accept. There are stretches of this road we don’t care to explore.

Peter couldn’t accept that the Messiah would be crucified. Jesus’ response to him (and all the disciples) is: not only do I have to be crucified to the world, so do you. Ultimately, you have to die to your former, worldly self in order to rise and share fully in the new life, in the new Kingdom I bring. That’s why, like Peter, we have to keep walking, keep learning, keep following: keep allowing Jesus through the Holy Spirit to keep teaching us, keep shaping us, keep pushing us. Renewing us. Transforming us.

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to be exploring various aspects and practices of discipleship that help all of us – individually and corporately – continue on this journey with Jesus, to progress;, to learn what He has to teach us, to see what He has to show us; to have our hearts, minds, souls, and strength shaped to love God fully and love our neighbours fully – for that is what Jesus has taught us to do above all else. Prayer. Practicing the Kingdom as well as proclaiming it. Doing justice. Becoming teachers ourselves. And those are just a few.

This series coincides with a prayerful conversation the elders, the staff, and our ministry team leaders are undertaking to discern how we can become a more discipleship oriented and disciple-making church. How we like Jesus can gather small groups, small bands of willing followers together – like that first dozen disciples – to learn and grow together. That was Jesus’ model. It ought to be ours, too, if we seek to follow Him, to know Him, and make Him known.

Especially in a world where, at least for the short-term, COVID-19 will continue to limit large group gatherings, we need to adapt our modes and methods of ministry to our current context.

For many of us, it will be something new. It will take us out of comfort zones. But as we’ve seen, the willingness to step out of and away from the familiar is a prerequisite for taking on Jesus as our teacher, as our rabbi, and discovering the new Kingdom He brings. A Kingdom He brings not just to show us, but to share with us.

So let us take courage and let us take heart. Let us not be afraid to take up our crosses and follow Jesus into a new day, a new possibility. Because the One who bids us to follow loves us and wants the best for us. And – He isn’t asking us to do anything He Himself hasn’t done.

In fact, Jesus calls us on this journey precisely so that we might see as He sees, do as He does, share in the abundant life of love He enjoys with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and rouse others to the good news of God’s amazing and transformative grace.

That is the anything-but-ordinary calling we have as the church in our time.

May all with ears to hear, hear. Amen.

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