Wednesday, June 22, 2022

All You Need Is Love

Recently, I was thinking about love.

When we hear messages about love, sometimes they may feel… incomplete. They’re warm and fuzzy, they’re unobjectionable and, sure, biblical—but don’t they leave out the demands of confession, repentance, and transformation?

And I had two thoughts about that.

First, if you think that love isn’t connected to confession and repentance or that love doesn’t demand transformation, then I’m not sure you’re working with the New Testament’s definition of love. It’s the humbling, self-sacrificing work of a servant—and, in a sense, all of your neighbors are the master.

Second, it’s really no exaggeration to say that love is the summary of all the teachings of scripture. It’s not a vague, feel-good message. It’s the backbone of the gospel.

“‘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 hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5:6)

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. (John 13:34)

He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. (Romans 13:8b)

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:8)

The Bible couldn’t make love sound more essential and more central if it stuck that old Beatles song somewhere in the middle of the psalms.

There’s only one thing more important than ‘clothing yourselves with love’ (Col 3:14), in my mind. As Christians, love must flow out of our lives. Ultimately, though, Christians are defined by the love that we allow into our lives.

In Jesus’s famous tale of the prodigal son, the boy’s predicament resolves after he decides he’ll return home to his father, confess his transgressions, and ask to become a hired hand on the family farm (Luke 15:17-20). But that’s not actually how things played out. He did return home. He did confess. But he didn’t become a farmhand. He didn’t even bring it up. Instead, as the disgraced son made his speech, his father interjected:

“Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (15:22-24)

For the rest of his days, this son’s life would be defined, not by any efforts he made to show his contrition or be worthy of such a welcome, but by the love of his father, who embraced him, forgave him, and joyously welcomed him home.

Love is the backbone of the gospel. Loving others is the business of the Christian life. And, more than that, our Father’s love for us is the source of the Christian life, the foundation on which everything else stands.

It really is all you need.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

What Are You Seeking?

A few years back, Emily and I went to see Little Women in theater. She liked the 90s version and grew up reading the book. Me, I’d never seen or read the story before. The title didn’t exactly grab me, but I was ready to give it a shot. It could okay.

I was spellbound.

I laughed.

I cried.

I read the book.

The book’s charming. It’s also a shameless attempt to instruct you in 19th century morality. Little lessons abound. Marmie’s always ready to sit one of the girls (and the reader) on her knee and deliver a tiny sermon.

Many of these sermons have to do wealth. The oldest of the four daughters, Meg, is the family beauty and has a fondness for fine clothes. She ends up (do you have to include spoiler alerts for novels from 1868?) marrying for love rather than money and embarks on a humble life with her poor tutor husband, while many of her friends live in high society.

It’s a struggle:

Poor Meg seldom complained, but a sense of injustice made her feel bitter toward everyone sometimes, for she had not yet learned to know how rich she was in the blessings which alone can make life happy.

Alcott’s lesson for Meg and us is, You don’t need money to be rich in those blessings that can actually make life happy.

I think that idea is something that most of us would immediately and enthusiastically pay lip service to. But it’s also something that many of us absolutely do not put into practice. We can’t get beyond lip service, because we like the things that money can buy too much.

Sometimes, I recognize that in myself and lay down new ground rules to curb my own buying and amassing more stuff. But eventually rules are bent and forgotten, and old habits always start creeping back in.

I was thinking about that recently when I read Colossians 3:

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on the things that are above, not on the things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (3:1-3)

When you’re daydreaming about that Add to Cart button, it’s pretty jarring to hear “seek the things that are above… set your minds on the things that are above, not on the things that are on earth.”

Those of us who wrestle with that never-ending hunger for more stuff have two good reasons to make a change (or recommit to change) today.

  1. Little Women’s right: a happy life doesn’t require enough in the bank to indulge your every whim. Happiness flows from other blessings, which money can’t buy.
  2. One of the ways that Jesus wants to make us new is by recalibrating our desires, so that, more and more, our focus is on the things of God instead of earthly achievements, experiences, and possessions.

So, where have you been looking for happiness? 

What have you been setting your mind on? 

How might God be challenging you when it comes to money and belongings?

Wednesday, June 08, 2022

God Comes Closer

This past Sunday was one of my favorite days of the year: Pentecost. Pentecost is the day when Christians celebrate the events of Acts chapter 2, when, after Jesus ascends back to heaven, the Holy Spirit is first poured out on the Church. In John’s gospel, Jesus tells the disciples about this impending arrival of the Spirit, and he says a couple of things there that may sound pretty unbelievable.

Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. (14:12)

What is that supposed to mean? “Even greater things” than turning water into wine, restoring a man’s ability to walk, raising Lazarus from the dead? How are believers supposed to do that?

But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. (16:7)

It’s for our good? Why on earth would it be a good thing that Jesus leaves?

To me, these two verses go hand in hand. The reason Jesus’s going away to the Father results in his disciples surpassing the works he did (14:12) is that Jesus’s going away results in the arrival of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit (16:7).

But how can the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives rival having Jesus here, walking with us, working his miracles, changing lives?

Because Jesus walked with us, but the Holy Spirit dwells within us, closer than even Jesus could come.

That’s a theme in the story of scripture. After the first couple ate the fruit in Eden, they were expelled from the garden, creating a physical separation between themselves and their Maker. When the Lord took up residence among the Israelites in the tabernacle and then the Temple, suddenly God was near again. Not many people could come very close to God’s presence in the inner sanctuary, but it was a first step in bridging that physical separation. With Jesus, God came even nearer: now he was close enough to touch, to eat with, to cry on. And then came the Spirit: as near to us as God has ever been before.

Jason Byassee, who was teaching at Duke when I was in seminary, writes about this in his book Trinity: The God We Don’t Know.

There are two sendings of God into human history to give life and save—the Son and the Spirit (John 6:63). And each is better than the previous. Religious communities do have a tendency to look back to a golden era and romanticize a lost time. The church should not. We know greater things are yet to come. God not only grants us knowledge about himself, God progressively comes closer to us, fills us and our world with more of himself. First Son, then Spirit. With God, the best is always yet to come. (pp. 38-39)