Nothing Says Love Like…

 “Nothing says love like a sizzling steak!”

Over the years I have heard many words and phrases associated with love, particularly in the context of our nation’s fascination with the annual celebration of love known as Valentine’s Day.  So when I recently opened an email from a restaurant my wife and I frequent with the above quote as the tease, it got me thinking; what does truly communicate love?  While I do enjoy a good steak, and on occasion have probably remarked with affectionate language my appreciation for it, I believe that something more than a piece of beef expresses love.

Jesus spoke of love in terms of sacrifice and service.  “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”   (John 15:13 NRSV)  What does that really mean for the routines of daily living?  We often hear these words in the context of some heroic act when someone has given his or her life to save others.  Most of us will not find ourselves in that setting too often, if ever.  So hearing those words, we more often than not think in terms of our willingness to offer ourselves as a possibility and not a certainty.  It is much easier to love in that manner when it is simple hypothesis.   Perhaps we need to hear Jesus’ words in tandem with other words he offered in the fifteenth chapter of John’s gospel.  “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (John 15:9-10 NRSV)

Right about now I’m thinking that embracing a sizzling steak as evidence of love sounds pretty good.  Nourishment, the engaging of all the senses in the act of consumption, the socialization that often is found around the dinner table…I love it!  As the consumer of the steak, little is required of me and love is a momentary reaction to a visceral craving.  Jesus speaks, however, of something more…obedience born not of slavish duty, but rather because of relationship that is established with the One he called “Father.”  Embracing God by embracing Jesus is a way of living that turns from the simple satisfaction of getting what I want, to the eternal truth of seeking what God desires.  “We love,” John wrote in I John 4:19, “because he (God) first loved us.”  The focus shifts from my ability to love, to God’s ability to love.  As in all great love stories, it is not then about me, but about the One who loves me.

Jesus lived this love before his disciples again and again in the gospels.  He spoke of the significance of intentionally placing one’s self last instead of first.  He took a towel and knelt to wash the dirty feet of his disciples and then told them they were to do the same.  And yes, he told them that the greatest manifestation of love was to give one’s life for another.  When God’s love is at work in our lives, we value others and ourselves differently.  We begin to see that love marks us in terms of obedience, sacrifice, and selfless giving.  No wonder we would rather consider a sizzling steak, or a dozen roses, or a box of chocolates as evidence of love; much less commitment…much less investment.

In the immediate aftermath of Valentine’s Day, 2014, whether you expressed your love through a box of chocolates, a beautiful bouquet of flowers, a piece of jewelry or even a nice dinner with a sizzling steak, don’t be too hard on yourself.  These are perfectly acceptable expressions.  However, recognizing that love isn’t an annual expression, perhaps you and I might consider anew the words and actions of Jesus who calls us to follow his example of love through sacrifice, service, and obedience.   I am giving you these commands,” Jesus said, “so that you may love one another.”  That is the greatest gift of all!

Jim Abernathy

Who Gets to Decide Who Is a Christian?

What is your working definition of a Christian? And who gets to decide whether or not a person is a Christian? In certain quarters those are topics of great importance in our culture. During the last presidential election cycle there were frequent articles about whether or not Mitt Romney, a Mormon, was a Christian. Again, what is the definition of a Christian and who gets to decide whether or not one does or does not meet that definition? The same issue is at the heart of the argument over whether or not the United States was at its founding and/or should be now a “Christian nation.” What is the definition of “Christian” and who gets to decide whether or not our nation meets that definition? Of course, Christians are not the only religious tribe who face this issue. In every religious tribe there will be several expressions of what it means to be a member of that particular tribe. Some are the true believers. They are committed to the tribe’s religious tradition, but even more are committed to the faith and spiritual understandings that underlie that tradition. Of course, this group could be further divided — into liberals and conservatives, orthodox and progressive, as well as several other permutations. There are also the secularists within the tribe. Their connection to the tribe is primarily a cultural one. They may or may not celebrate the rituals of the tribe, or share the stated theological beliefs of the tribe, or even identify with the world view of the tribe. But their identity is firmly connected to the tribe. The tribe is their culture. It is them. While this is true of every religious tribe, I’m concerned primarily about how that plays out in my own tribe.

The evidence seems to me clear that certain groups of Christians think they have the right — or even the duty — to decide who is and who is not a legitimate member of the Christian tribe. The most common way that I experience people making that decision is by comparing others to their own understanding and expression of Christianity. That is, one is a Christian if he or she believes, talks, acts, like me. That makes “me” the standard for what a Christian is. Each of these people, of course, will also claim that they use the Bible as the standard for deciding. What they really mean, but seldom say, is that they use the Bible as they themselves understand and interpret it. As do we all. They tend to be quite selective which parts of the Scripture they use. Others make their decisions by “formula.” By that I mean they have a kind of checklist to decide whether or not someone is a Christian. Have you been “born again”? Or do you believe in the Apostles’ Creed? Or the Baptist Faith and Message? Which version – 1963, 2000? As Jesus said, however, “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ (or ‘I’ve been born again’ or ‘I believe’) will enter the Kingdom. In some places, you are a Christian if you have been baptized or even if you have been born a citizen of a “Christian” nation. So we’ve come back to the original question. Who gets to decide who is and who is not a member of the Christian tribe? Or is it up to each of us to make that declaration for oneself regardless of what others might say about it. Can you be a member of the tribe if the tribe, or large segments of it, don’t want to include you?

I think all of that misses the point. The entirety of Jesus’ statement above is, Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord” will enter the Kingdom, but he or she who does the will of the Father.” I believe that being a member of the Christian family is not defined by one’s own declaration of belonging, or by affirming a human created formula. Inclusion is defined rather by relationship. Relationship with God (loving God with all one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength). Relationship with other people (loving one’s neighbor as one’s self). In that sense, we each do get to define whether or not we are Christians, but not simply by making such a claim. We define ourselves as Christian by how closely our lives (our actions) resemble the life and actions of Jesus. Saying you are a Christian no more makes you one than saying you are bird enables you to fly. A person is Christian to the extent his or her life looks like Jesus’ life, reflects Jesus’ values, and echoes Jesus’ actions. Part of that, by the way, means you don’t get to judge whether others are Christian or not. You get to love them anyway, just like you find them. Just like Jesus did, which then quite clearly identifies you as a member of the Jesus tribe. As Jeff Foxworthy might say, “You just might be a Christian if” …. you look like Jesus. Some will be bothered by that because it doesn’t require adherence to certain believes and/or assertions that they hold sacred and essential. That’s one of many things about Jesus that bothered the Temple Priests and Elders. In response to their challenge of his authority, Jesus told a parable about about a father who had two sons. No, not that one in Luke 15. The one in Matthew 21:28-32. This father asked both of his sons to go work in the family vineyard that day. One said said he would not, but later changed his mind and did indeed work in the vineyard. The other son told the father with respoect that he was on his way, but he never showed up. Which of the two, Jesus asked, did the will of the father? Doing the will of the father, Jesus’ standard for entering the Kingdom. For being a member of the family of God. For being in the tribe of Jesus. For being a Christian.

The Good News of Bethlehem

The story of birth in a Bethlehem stable holds for many of us the transformational news that God has become one of us.  John spoke of this moment as the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.  The great wonder of this incarnational act is that the Creator entered this world not because the Creation clamored for deliverance, but because that creation was basically at war with its Creator.  If one considers sin an act of war against God, one cannot help but wonder why God acted as God did through the incarnation of Christ.  Certainly it would have made sense to find the Creator acting in retribution, punishing a sinful, rebellious creation, and yet, the Bethlehem story paints with broad strokes a very different picture.

John tells us that love motivated this story of incarnation; “for God so loved the world that He gave…”

Paul echoes this theme of God’s uncommon love and humankind`s persistence in sin as he writes in Romans 5:6-8, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (TNIV)   This is what sets the Bethlehem story apart from any other birth…well, that and birth announcements delivered by an angelic choir, a caravan of itinerant Magi, and a virginal birth mother just to name a few.  The baby Jesus was born into a world of anger, frustration, abuse, and despair.  While many descendants of Israel were awaiting the coming of the Messiah, few, if any would have looked to the humble birthplace of this baby nor expected him to later walk among them, calling them to repentance and a new way of living.    The Christ did not come in human form, you see, to fulfill human expectation, but to fulfill a heavenly plan the likes of which no human mind could comprehend… “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

Our world still struggles to understand this incarnation of God.  Sin continues to wage war against the Creator, seen in places where integrity seems overcome by expediency, generosity by greed, peace by the violence of war, and innocence by the senseless devaluation of every life.  From Wall Street to D.C., Afghanistan to North Korea, Columbine to Newtown, Connecticut, evidence of this struggle is played out again and again.  And yet, Paul writes, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  This is the good news of Bethlehem…love overcomes sin, light overcomes darkness, and life overcomes death.

The war still may seem to be waged all around us, and yet, according to scripture, the victory has already been won.  Bethlehem has ensured that.  And so, with Paul, we can say with hope and great expectation, “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Dr. Jim Abernathy

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