What is the first word that comes to mind when I say Christian?
This question, and the answers given by non-Christians shape the second chapter of Philip Yancey’s new book Vanishing Grace. Yancey is convinced that all people long for meaning, a sense of purpose, that our life actually matters. We also long for genuine community and a sense of being loved and of belonging. Christian faith should draw people in, provide meaning, purpose, and belonging. Yet far too often this is not reality.
When I ask, “Tell me the first word that comes to your mind when I say “Christian,” not one time has someone suggested the word love. Yet without question that is the proper biblical answer.” As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” Jesus commanded his disciples at the Last Supper. He said the world will know we are Christians – and, moreover, will know who he is – when his followers are united in love. (p. 35)
This isn’t an optional command, it is the central feature of Christian community. I collected a number of the New Testament passages that emphasize the centrality of the commandment to love in a post a year ago It is a Conundrum Pt. 1. But what does this mean? To explore this Yancey looks at forms of love.
When have you felt loved?
Yancey provides a list from a friend
When someone listens to me attentively, makes me feel important, encourages me (and sometimes even challenges me), cares for me when I’m hurting, gives me an unexpected gift. (p. 35)
This is a great list. Are these practices we value as Christians and as a church? The answer has to be grounded in reality. Listening, feeling important, encouraging …. these are not easy answers, accomplished in a few sentences before moving on. I reflected on the answers to this question in the context of Christian fellowship. I have felt loved when the listening is genuine – with a real intent to understand (and we can all tell when there is no real intent). I have felt important, and loved, when people value the unique contributions I can make and have provided space for them. Paul teaches that we are all part of one body with different gifts. We need to develop these gifts in one another. I have felt loved when there was genuine concern and genuine rejoicing in the ups and downs and dangers of life – when it was clear that I mattered as an individual. Love for one another needs to be genuine.
Love should be the central feature of our interactions with one another and with others outside the church.
Most conversions come about as an outgrowth of friendship. All the expensive and well-designed programs of evangelism and church growth combined produce only a fraction of the results of simple friendship. In the words of Tim Keller “Don’t think in terms of what used to be called friendship evangelism. Think in terms of friendship. Your evangelism should be organic and natural, not a bunch of bullet points and agenda items that you enter into a conversation hoping to get to so you’re almost like a marketer.” (p. 36)
Yancey has found that many non-Christians fear entering into conversations because they are targets for conversion, not friends discussing significant questions. How many really feel valued when they find they filled a quota for invitation to an evangelistic event?
How do you view the stranger?
Jason Micheli’s sermon, posted by Scot on Sunday, is an excellent illustration of Yancey’s observation. When we ostracize the “other” whether Muslim, poor, illegal immigrant, tax collector, … the person who speaks, acts, or dresses differently, … we have missed the point. Christian faith, grounded in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, is shaped by love of the stranger in our midst. (Yes there are problem passages in the OT – but the love passages run through the text as well.)
According to Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain, “The Hebrew Bible [Old Testament] in one verse commands ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ but in no fewer than 36 places commands us to ‘love the stranger.'” He adds, “The supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.” (p. 36)
In the Gospel according to Luke, when Jesus was asked “Who is my neighbor?” he launched into the parable of the good Samaritan. Love the stranger and love your neighbor are part and parcel of the same command to love.
What about our enemies?
We are also called to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, and even those who seek to kill us (Mt. 5:44; Lk 6:27-28) . Love doesn’t mean rolling over and playing dead, but it is an ethos that should pervade everything we say and do.
Why would Jesus give such an outrageous command? Perhaps anticipating objections, he provides the answer … “You will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” The more we love, and the more unlikely people we love, the more we resemble God – who after all, loves ornery creatures like us. (p. 39)
We should be praying for the young men fighting as part of ISIS. This doesn’t mean condoning their actions or failing to respond to their actions … “no mushy illusions about terrorists” … but we must not underestimate the power of love or the significance of the command to love out enemies. We should love as Jesus loved, pray as Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
What does love look like in the face of hostile criticism?
Love of others can take the form of reaching out and befriending those who despise or ridicule us. The Apostle Paul writes “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12 – a powerful chapter, right up there with 1 Corinthians 13.)
A gentle answer turns away wrath, the writer of Proverbs tells us. Are we kind to those who are unkind to us, or do we match their criticism and name-calling? (p. 41)
Yancey holds up the example provided by Francis Collins who has has made it a practice to befriend his strident critics. “I have seen how the quiet service of love may disarm despisers, in the compelling example of Dr. Francis Collins. …. As I have watched his career, one thing impresses me more than his many achievements: how he treats his opponents.” (p. 41) There are well known examples including Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (who Collins went out of his way to help when Hitchens was suffering from terminal esophageal cancer), but opponents include Christians and non-Christians, scientists and non-scientists. This approach to life surprises some. The unfortunate reality is that it surprises Christians and non-Christians alike.
An honest humility makes a difference as well.
We Christians do not have all the answers. We stumble along believing that an invisible God really does exist, that there is more to life that mere sound and fury, that despite all appearances the universe is a product of personal love. And along the way we muddle ethical issues and miss the priorities of God’s kingdom. We have little reason for pride. (p. 44)
Love one another, Love your neighbor, Love the stranger and foreigner, Love your enemy … this doesn’t leave anyone out. The first word that comes to mind in connection with Christian should be love.
But it isn’t.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)
What role has “love” played in your experience of Christians?
Is it a trait we should cultivate? How?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.