"I had no idea that Jesus preached love."
Someone actually told me this yesterday after a brief conversation about religion and spirituality. Sadly, I have to admit that the comment did not come as a surprise. If you are Christian and you are surprised, I invite you to think deeply about the stark underlying reason for this person's ignorance: The Body of Christ is preaching a lot of things, but Love is not overwhelmingly one of them. The fact is that for far too long, the defining voice of Christianity has been left to divisive, hurtful individuals whose witness leaves a lot to be desired. Reverend Pat Robertson comes to mind currently as a perfect example of this.
The unfortunate result of the prevailing misguided evangelism is that a lot of Christians won't even mention Jesus' name outside of church, not wanting to risk the "fanatic" label. Instead, they quietly live their lives, being perfectly nice people, but never linking their compassionate actions or humanistic values to Jesus. Others opt out of church altogether, thinking it has simply become a place of hatred and discrimination, and in many cases they are right. Though the song says so, society today does not “know we are Christians by our love.”
I doubt Jesus himself would be welcomed in many churches today. He'd be pegged, rightly, as a radical religious socio-political subversive. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly" Jesus said (John 10.10). Why do so many of today's Christians find that acceptable 2,000 years ago, but not now? Would Jesus even recognize his church, where Jesus-type behavior or attitudes result in heretics, censures, and excommunications? It's as if the Pharisees have been reincarnated into the present-day Christian Church Establishment. What a mess.
The time has come to take back Christianity, get unified, and both live-out and boldly proclaim the Gospel. The health of humankind and this planet depends on it.
To do this, we need a radical new reformation of the Church itself, that can then make possible a similar reformation among those outside the church; people who simply don’t know that the Way of Jesus is one of equality, justice, love, and service. Since Christians are called to be “light to the world” (Matthew 5.14), the change must begin with those inside the faith. The sole purpose of our discipleship must be to help bring about a better world - not necessarily a biblical world. Bringing forth the Kingdom of love and abundant wholeness envisioned by Jesus, even if it goes against our comfort levels or our wallets, is surely an essential goal that can not be met unless every Christian rethinks his role as a follower of the one we call the Prince of Peace. A mighty reformation is in order; one in which the Church and by extension the world, can emerge better, stronger, and more unified.
Will you accept the invitation? If so, let's explore and try to embrace some basic principles that might serve as a bridge to Christian unity and discipleship.
I commit myself to the following concepts, and I hope you will too:
1. Understanding that the one to whom we look for guidance in living in and building the Kingdom is Jesus Christ. We are not called to worship or idolize any political party, any flag, or any book - and certainly not one that has been so greatly tampered with and modified by flawed humans throughout the centuries. Christ was the living answer to the frustrated author of Psalm 119 who struggled to make sense of Scripture. If just reading the Bible and following the laws were all that was required, then, as Paul says, “Christ died unnecessarily.” (Galatians 2.21) Certainly, conflicting sayings of Christ must be compared in light of his overall Message and interpreted in reference to the particular history and agenda of the author or community for which it was written. To neglect to recognize these things is to dishonor both the Bible and God Himself.
2. Setting aside once and for all the notion that everyone in the faith can or should agree about everything. This is not the way it was in the earliest days of Christianity or throughout the last 20 centuries, and it certainly isn’t this way now. The Bible itself is rife with contradictions and evidence of disagreements between even the Apostles themselves. Even within Judaism, from which the sect of Christianity grew, arguing about interpretations of scripture was a commonplace activity. So, instead of Christians seeing differences of interpretation as something to fear, pride in this diversity should be celebrated. Today when disagreements arise, the overwhelming love and wholeness of Christ interacting with the voice of the Holy Spirit must naturally prevail. Extraneous details should be left alone if they don’t violate the command to love; i.e., no one is hurt by someone else’s belief that the Red Sea either parted or didn’t part, and no one is hurt thinking that Jesus either did or did not turn actual water into wine. Similarly, no one’s dignity is stripped away if someone is allowed to believe or not believe in the virgin birth (after all, Apostle Paul, the earliest Christian theologian, did not appear to know anything about it anyway). On the contrary, the dignity and even safety of others is surely at risk from convictions that God sanctions and demands allegiance to any government authority or that gay people should be put to death. (Romans 13 and Leviticus 20.13) Such things do not pass the test of living up to Christ’s overall Message of Love in action.
3. Being guided into a deeper sense of the Holy as a way to reach the internal, fear-free peace that is available within and that connects us to all others. Knowing about God by reading human biblical writings is nowhere close to the same thing as being in mystical or spiritual relationship with God. (It's really no wonder so many are looking to the East for their "New Age" spirituality; the Church has very effectively quashed its treasure trove of ancient mystics, so almost no one thinks to look right here in our own backyard.) Never did Jesus proclaim that his disciples would be known by how well they could memorize and force their literal interpretation of scriptures (especially ones that were as yet unwritten!) upon the world. The defining characteristic he gave them, modeled for them, and subsequently died for, was love. Love and fear are simply incompatible, and since the Spirit is present within every person, we can feel extra secure giving our love selflessly to friend and stranger alike. A hungry person is Jesus in disguise, and he needs a meal, not judgment and a Bible lecture.
4. Becoming bold and courageous in our walk with God. We must lose the negative association with words such as liberal or rebel. Jesus Christ was the greatest rebel the world has ever seen. Not only that, but he rebelled precisely to bring us liberty (note the root of that word). Christians should not create enemies out of liberal people. It’s all-too-common in some faith communities for people to be afraid to let others know that they voted for a Democrat, afraid to admit they believe in evolution, afraid to admit that they don’t accept the scripture-based age of the earth, afraid to admit that they really have no problem with gay people - or are gay themselves, and afraid to admit that they have serious doubts about God’s dislike of birth control or His supposed preference for women‘s subordination to men. These Believers remain silent, fearful that their liberal views will be seen as rebelling against God and result in being either shunned or kicked out of their faith community. The silence speaks volumes to thinking people outside of Christianity; it gives them the false impression that all Christians are mindless Bible thumpers who are either incapable of or unwilling to be partners in effecting real change in the world.
5. Discerning the voice of the Spirit - whether from science or any other source - and proclaiming this to all. God is still speaking! Our faith is unfolding, changing, and growing just like any living organism. It is unrealistic and not expected by God for Christians to carry around and live life with the mindset, fears, superstitions, assumptions, and knowledge-base of the 1st century. When critical knowledge that enhances biblical understanding, human dignity, and planetary stewardship enters our world, it should be embraced by Christians as being the voice of the Spirit, not feared as being ungodly or somehow sinful. Using such knowledge to bring healing to the world is the modern-day equivalent of driving out demons.
6. Realizing that to build the kind of Kingdom that Jesus envisioned, all must reach out in love and respect to peoples of other faiths (and denominations). God is not Christian, Jesus was not Christian, none of the attendees at the Last Supper were Christians. Intolerance only begets intolerance, and such behavior is contrary to the nature and will of God as revealed through Jesus Christ. He is the logos; the underlying fabric of all of life, and therefore his nature can be found everywhere we look - if we have the eyes to see.
(If you are one of those who believes that the skies will soon open and Jesus will arrive to judge humanity, you may not be able to embrace most or any of what you’ve just read. Why worry about such things, since any time now we’ll have the satisfaction of seeing, among others, Hitler sentenced to Hell….along with…..his six million Jewish victims. Unlikely. Well, if fear is keeping you among the crowd who is “so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good,” as Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, you may want to ponder for a while what your own day of judgment will look like when Jesus asks why you didn’t love, serve, or heal during your time on the earth. I doubt he’ll care about how hard anyone worked to discredit Charles Darwin, and I’m certain he’ll find it disgusting that his followers supported political structures that prey on the weakest and neediest in society.)
I am an optimist. I think that as faith communities develop the courage to embrace even mere fragments of crucial reformation concepts, the rest will start to naturally fall into place and worldwide liberty and charity will soon follow. I am personally convinced that when the Church as a whole begins to awaken from its slumber, loudly proclaiming and acting not on misunderstood or archaic Scripture or the words of fear-mongering preachers, but rather on the Love of Jesus that is the foundation of our faith, the rest of the secular and religious world will relax its defenses and take another look at our Message. While the Bible will always be respected as a source of wisdom, history, and an essential map of our understanding of God, idolatry of the Scriptures and turning a blind-eye to injustice will be abandoned and replaced by actively following Jesus’ Way. His Way is the one in which no division, destruction, or inaction is possible. It is the Way in which Love wins out every time.
"Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire."
-Pierre Teilhard de Chardin