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Friday, March 29, 2013

The Circles Of Love

There is a troubling tendency among some preachers whether they be liberals and conservatives. The problem is there is a growing tendency to using single passages from the Bible as the basis for a topical sermon. The clear implication made by those who do this is that the single passage being cited contains everything that the Bible has to say on a given topic. This is a great technique for those who favor bully pulpit to push favorite causes, but it also traps trusting parishioners unawares.

The not ready for topical sermon passage I am thinking of today is John 13:35 where Jesus tells his disciples that they will know them by how they love one another. When used as the basis for a topical sermon, the implication is that we are to proclaim God's love to the world primarily by how we love fellow believers. This would give us permission, if not encourage us, to live as much like the Amish as possible while trying to fulfill the Great Commission. We would then be reaching out to the world by asking them to be voyeurs as we perform in a soundproof glass room where we fellowship with and serve people who most resemble us. However, if we read through the rest of the Bible, we see that there additional ways to show that we belong to Jesus

This passage in John brings us to the subject of whom should we love. As life would have it, there is  more than one group to love; there are four, as illustrated in the above "circles." We are commanded to love 3 of them while love for self is assumed (see Matthew 22:39).

After loving ourselves, we are to love those in our various tribes. For our purposes here, we can think of a tribe as any group to which we belong such as family, church, business, school, political party, nation, and any group that revolves around an activity or an ideology. Outside of self-love, this is the second easiest love to summon from ourselves in part because we are loving those who either resemble us or give us something of value. A very common example that is treasured by some idealists is the love for one's nation. In fact, giving one's life for one's nation is, in America, all too often seen as next to godliness. Of course, some of the even more ardent patriots may not love every citizen of his or her country. Tom Lehrer's satirical song National Brotherhood Week poked fun at both the divisions of people that can exist in a country and superficial efforts to bridge these gaps.

We should note the dangers of tribal love and most of these dangers are because people are content not to extend love to those outside their tribes. One danger is being reluctant to use necessary moral absolutes to judge the behaviors of those from one's own group. This is especially true when hostilities are taking place. Another danger is the belief that as long as one takes care of their own, they can excuse themselves from fulfilling moral obligations to all others. This danger is an ethic of many who embrace a mob or gang mentality but it is also embraced, in varying degrees, by those who revel in patriotism. The thinking here is that as long as I take care of my people, I have fulfilled my obligations and can either neglect others or even abuse others.

However, Jesus calls us to love and serve those from two additional groups who, as the above picture illustrates, are a farther distance from ourselves than those from one from our tribes. In Matthew 22:36-40, Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment. Jesus, in the spirit of generosity, gave the questioner two and, according to Him, the commandments were close. We are to love God with our whole being (vs 37) and we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (vs 39). The word neighbor may at first sound like a return to tribalism but that is until we read Jesus's explanation in Luke 10:25-37. There, a pharisee asked Jesus who was one's neighbor. In response, Jesus taught the parable of the Good Samaritan. And according to that parable, those who cross our path and are in need are our neighbors. Thus, this parable challenges us to reach farther from ourselves to love. We are to love those who are different from us.

The last group whom Jesus tells us to love are our enemies (Matthew 25:46-47). Now just because we will have different feelings for those who anger and attack us than those who care about us does not mean we cannot love them. Martin Luther King talked about this difference in caring when he was alive. He was a realist and realized that we might not any affection for our enemies. But that does not mean that we are not to return love for hate. Jesus tells us to care and pray for them and this is regardless of how they have treated us. According to King, we are to avoid responding to them with either external or internal violence, which means that that we are avoid hurting or hating them. We are directed to hope and work for their welfare.

At the beginning of this post, we talked about how people will know we are Christ's disciples by how we love our brothers and sisters in Christ. And yet, this is not the only indication that we belong to Christ. When Jesus talked about loving one's enemies, He described it as a way by which we will distinguish ourselves from the world. This is because, as Jesus said, even the godless love their own.

Is there a conflict between John 13:35 and Matthew 5:46-47 here in how we let the world know who we are? There is only when we think in exclusive-or terms. We need to realize that both passages tell us to imitate Him by our love for others. In John 13, Jesus describes how we should love fellow believers and in Matthew 5, we are told whom to love. For Christ came to earth to die for those who, at the time, were His enemies (Romans 5:10).

Love can help bring peace to the earth. But it can only do that when we expand love's borders way beyond our comfort zones. For our love to help foster peace, we must extend it way past the people we hang with. We must love those whose need calls us to be uncomfortable. We must force ourselves, when necessary, to help meet the needs of those strangers who cross our paths. In addition, we must show our enemies that a new relationship is possible. If we meet their hate with the kind of love God shows us in Christ, we have a chance to reduce the hate and violence in the world. If we respond in kind, we show that we belong to the world rather than to Christ.

It is to the Conservative Church's shame that it is restrained from showing Biblical love to strangers and its enemies by the tractor beam of tribal loyalties. The stronger the beam, the less we travel to the outer circles of people to love.  In particular, family, patriotism, loyalty to ideology, and preference for those who share our religion cause us to treat people with preference rather than love Not only is this sin in and of itself (James 2:9), it dishonors Christ especially when non-Christians show this kind of love. This discrepancy causes dissonance and hurts the credibility of the Gospel. And yet, it is a dissonance that is in our faces as some from the Left are not just calling us, but are also laying their own freedoms and even lives on the line for others by challenging those with wealth and power. Unfortunately, this is a spectator's sport to most Conservative Christians who have nested themselves in their cocoons of doctrines and confessions fervently hoping for the rapture to come before time forces them out into the world.

This article was written partially because of my interactions with a fellow blogger and activist, Tom Over. Visit his blog at lovecause.org/

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