For many Christians, the Bible feels like the federal tax code: complicated, contradictory, and awkwardly cobbled together over many years. Small wonder that our libraries are filled with commentaries promising to decode the puzzles we stumble over as we read.
But if we press on, we will discover that the trail sometimes rises up to a high point, to a lookout with a panoramic view of everything below. Standing above it all, we can now see that the maze of twisting trails actually makes sense. A meaningful, unified landscape emerges.
A well-educated man once asked Jesus to identify the most important of all God’s instructions. Quite a challenge, given that 613 specific commands had been tagged and categorized by the scholars of the day! How would Jesus answer? You could say that Jesus “took the man on a hike” to the highest overlook of them all, to a view that simplifies everything: “You shall love the Lord your God”, and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus not only declared that no commandments were greater than these, but that the whole of Scripture (the law and the prophets) depends on just these two commandments (Matt. 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-28).
The apostle Paul presses exactly the same point: “…he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments…are summed up in this one sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Romans 12:8-10; Gal. 5:14; see Deuteronomy 6:4; Leviticus 19:18)
John Wesley, the fountainhead of the Methodist revival, had obviously hiked to this very overlook and gazed out across the same landscape. He never tired of reducing everything (the gospel, his ministry, Christianity) to this exquisite simplicity: Love. To wander from this not only leads us away from Wesley, but surrenders away the heart of Scriptural Christianity.
Love has suffered much at the hands of it admirers. For many, it has slipped into a sentimental “niceness” that is toothless, timid and bland. Such love offers a warm (and often naïve) pat on the back to anybody passing by. Others who fear such a fate for love would convert it entirely into actions of mercy, stripped of any emotions of empathy or attraction, driven only by our naked choice to do the right thing. “Don’t confuse love with feelings; show me practical results.”
But the best portrait of love is painted by the most famous verse in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Despite being so familiar and simple, this verse (along with other biblical portraits of the Father’s character) actually lays out key characteristics of real, full-blooded love: Though sin is clearly seen, 1) the lover deeply values “the other”; 2) the lover energetically pursues the “the other”; 3) the lover gladly pours out him/herself for “the other”; 4) the lover’s self-giving enables “the other” to break into fullness of life; and 5) the lover defies all boundaries to love: everyone becomes “the cherished other.” Simply put, the lover is genuinely and joyfully other-centered.
Not surprisingly, sin stands in the opposite camp. If love is other-centered, sin is self-centered. The “works of the flesh” described in Galatians 5 have often been dubbed the “hyphenated” sins because, at bottom, they entangle us in self-promotion, self-worship and self-defensiveness. Now we can see a double simplicity stretching across the whole landscape. Here’s the sum of the matter: God wants to shift us out of self-centered living and into other-centered living. In other words, God wants us to make us resemble himself!
We must not mislabel this project. It is not “Goal 5, Subpoint 2a.” We must not mistake it for a merely inward, personal, or private experience reserved for folks with a pietistic bent. Love towers above all other projects, trumps all other goals and infuses everything that would bear real fruit (I Cor. 13). It refuses to be added like a few grains of salt to the programs we devise, because love itself is the main program, the primary agenda. It is God’s own passionate reaching outward through us, seeking to value all others and embrace all others right out of death and into the full life of God. At their best, our programs merely guide and protect this outward flow of real life.
Of course the Christian life involves daily, incremental growth across a wide range of issues. How many different virtues are there to strengthen? How many different sins must we learn to avoid? How many different calls are we urged to answer? But what if, beneath all this complexity, we were to address the great simplicity head-on? What if we were to ask, along with John Wesley, whether God could…and would somehow work systemically in us, to move us from being self-centered persons to being other-centered persons? Can that kind of transformation take place? Is such grace available? Can we, in this lifetime, by an infusion of God’s own love, actually become persons of active, self-giving, other-centered love? (Col. 3:7-10; Eph. 3:14-21; Rom. 5:5)
A thousand objections will be raised against these daring questions. Sadly, our own track record (whether personally or collectively) would seem to answer them with a resounding “No!” Those of us who have grown up within the movement have often witnessed the painful wreckage caused by enthusiasm running beyond the bounds of Scriptural wisdom. But then again, is it really safer to taxi around on the tarmac to avoid the dangers of take-off? It would seem that spiritual deadness and defeat have taken a far greater toll over the years than excessive hunger for godliness.
The founders of our seminary, along with thousands back reaching to John Wesley, would answer these same questions with a resounding “Yes!” Add to these the countless witnesses from other Christian traditions who (though they would explain it with different metaphors and images) have been so bathed in God’s love for them that they have become outward-flowing fountains of God’s own love to the world.
In many ways our seminary is emerging into a new day. Could another gift of God for us at this point of renewal be that we be re-captured by a vision of the possibilities of grace…in the form of love? Is this not, truly, the Gospel?
A well-known reviewer of Christian books once declared that any truly Christian book must contain three elements: color, fire and music. He reasoned that any book which lacked those qualities, however erudite, somehow failed to convey the real essence of Christianity. This is precisely the point which this article so ably sets forth for us. Without love, there is no genuine Christian life and experience. Without love, there is no authentic Christian witness. Without love, we cannot even claim to be doctrinally sound. Love is the color, fire and music of the Christian life. Without it, we are “only a resounding gong or a clanging symbol” (I Cor. 13:1).
The kind of love which this article calls for is, of course, impossible to produce in our own power. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ alone is the embodiment of this kind of love. It can only be manifest in the Christian life as we are “in Christ.” The love which marks the Christian experience is actually the sign and seal of the in-breaking of the New Creation which is embodied in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and which awaits us in all of its fullness at the climax of the ages. In Jesus Christ, this love becomes manifest in our present life and experience as Christians. Now that we are “in Christ” we are able to live out this love in the present age through the power of the Holy Spirit indwelling in us.
By God’s grace, I heartily resound with the prayer of the article; namely, that Asbury Seminary is on its way up the trail to that dazzling vantage point where we, as a community, can see that the many complex challenges of living Christianly in the 21st century can only be met in and through love – that love which has been embodied in Jesus Christ and which we have been called to embody in the world.