A message delivered to Manhattan Monthly Meeting on First Day, 8/15/2010
Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. — Romans 13:9-11 (AV)
After all, brothers, you were called to be free; do not use your freedom as an opening for self-indulgence, but be servants to one another in love, since the whole of the Law is summarised in the one commandment: You must love your neighbour as yourself. — Galatians 5:13-14 (NJB)
…so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith, and then, planted in love and built on love, with all God’s holy people you will have the strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth; so that, knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond knowledge, you may be filled with the utter fullness of God. — Ephesians 3:16-19 (NJB)
I sometimes find myself wondering how I’d present the Gospel message in its most basic, basic terms. I think that, at its most basic, it starts and ends with love. God is love, and God created us in God’s own image, to be lovers of God and of one another and of all creatures without exception. Of course that doesn’t mean we have to feel loving all the time, or that we can’t ever hurt another creature in order to get our duties done. (Right now, for example, I’m having to kill cockroaches in order to keep my home a fit place for my family to live, though it makes me quite unhappy to be killing them.)
But love is not primarily a feeling, but a decision of the will: I will not hurt you back if you hurt me. I will not cheat you, tell you lies, or manipulate you for my own advantage. I will lay down my life for you if that will save yours. That’s what the Gospel asks me to do, and I will do it, and I pray that God will give me the strength to do it, or do anything that I discern to be God’s will for me. In addition, of course, I’d also like to be warm, understanding, comforting and tender, the way we all like the people who love us to be, but I know I can still be loving even when I’m not being warm or tender – when I’m having to be stern or severe, say, or when I’m just in a bad mood. Even then I always want to be fair, and fairness is a loving decision of the will – in spite of whatever mood I may be in.
Love doesn’t exclude sternness and severity: I know that God, who loves each one of us infinitely, sometimes seems severe, and often lets us suffer. But God is never cruel or capricious. How do I know that? Because God is my Teacher, and I know in my heart that I’m being taught never to be cruel or hurt people capriciously. How could my Teacher teach me something He or She doesn’t model? (He who planted the ear, shall He not hear? – Psalm 94:9)
Well, sometimes I’m given an actual opportunity to preach the Gospel in its most basic terms, and when I do, I always talk about love. For example, when my son Zach was about five I showed him a little pocket New Testament that a street evangelist had been giving out to passers-by. “Why does he give them away?” Zach asked. “Because it says in the Bible, right here (and here I flipped to Mark 16:15), ‘Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature,’ and this is how he does that, he gives away this book that describes the gospel, which means the Good News.” We were having this conversation in the supermarket, near the eggs. I knew that to little Zach, ‘creatures’ mostly meant animals, so I asked, “Do you know how to preach the gospel to chickens?”
“No, how do you preach the gospel to chickens?”
“By being kind to them. They’re not interested in words and ideas, just in being fed and treated right.” I even surprised myself with that one. My mom, who was kind even to flies, would have liked it.
I’ll give you another example: last weekend Elizabeth and I were up in Maine, at a family wedding, and we were having breakfast at the hotel with one of the bridesmaids, whom we’d never met before. We introduced ourselves as Quakers, and she told us she’d been raised an atheist. Hoping to put her at ease, I told her (truthfully) that I had been, too. She soon said that she never saw the point in religion. Something told me I had about one minute to tell her what point I saw in it.
“It’s about love,” I said. “If Christianity is rightly understood, it’s about how we’re meant to treat everyone lovingly. A lot of people think that Christianity means having the right notions about things like evolution or abortion or the literal truth of the Bible, but I can’t believe that God would ever condemn anyone for not having the right notions. And then a lot of people see the world as polarized between good guys and bad guys, and confuse Christianity with being a staunch conservative or a good liberal, and being ready to go out and defeat the people that believe the wrong things, or with just feeling superior to people who aren’t of the same religion – but that’s not what Jesus was about, and it hurts me to see Him being hijacked like that, because what He stands for is something so good. So it’s important to me to state the basics: God is love (1 John 4:16). Jesus said, If you want to be like your Heavenly Father, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you (Matthew 5:44). Just before He died on the cross, He told His disciples, As I have loved you… love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another (John 13:34-35). And then in the First Epistle of John there’s the very radical statement that he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him (1 John 4:16). That tells me that you can be a Muslim, a Jew, a Buddhist or an atheist and still have your heart be right with God, if you dwell in love. so that it’s not having the right theology that makes your heart right with God, but dwelling in love.”
There was much more that I could have said to her, but my one minute was up. I could have told her that if she wanted help with loving enemies and people that frightened, angered or disgusted her, there was a Helper ready at hand. I could have told her that if she wanted to have right notions or the right theology, there was a Teacher ready at hand. But I trust the Helper, Teacher and also Savior to make Himself known to her when she’s ready for Him.
I could have spoken about how we’re all alienated from God by our self-will and hardness of heart, and so all need repentance and atonement, which we may obtain, by the grace of Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit in us. I could have told her about how we become members of Christ, and more and more like Him as we grow in Him, till through Him we have eternal life in God. That’s how, in Paul’s words (Romans 1:16), the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation. But all those are the trunk of the tree, and the branches and the leaves. The root is love. Without the root, no tree. As Paul wrote (1 Corinthians 13:1), without love our words become no more than sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. I’m trusting that my words didn’t sound like either of those to our new friend the bridesmaid.
Without the root of love, no tree, I said, but if we have that root, a tree grows which we can climb all the way to its top. Paul describes that unimaginably glorious treetop in Ephesians 3:19 as “knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond knowledge, and being filled with the utter fullness of God.” Wow – the utter fullness of God. The catch is that so long as we’re unwilling to love any of the creatures God gave us to love, we’re refusing to make that climb.