“The Great Debate…A Question of Love”

Over the years I have been asked numerous times about where our church stood on a particular issue. Sometimes the issues were theological, sometimes social, ethical, or ideological in nature. My answers have not always been satisfactory for those who question. Baptists have traditionally refrained from being painted into that kind of corner for no one person can speak for a body of believers, and no one issue, save faith in Jesus Christ, is salvific in nature. The issues that divide often seem more interesting to us than that which truly unites.

Looking for a way to draw Jesus into contentious debate, a Pharisee asked him in Matthew 22:37, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?”  His answer was simple and straightforward…”Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Then he said that the second is like the first…“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Among the many theological “hot potatoes” he could have chosen, he called, instead, those who would listen, to remember the words of old that came from the Levitical code…Love God and love your neighbor.

Some might argue that these words are too simple.  Surely Jesus must have recognized the significance of the Law and its broad interpretation that infused the great debates among the faithful. Surely Jesus understood the need for order in the context of his unruly followers who sat down to eat with unclean hands and picked and ate grain from the fields on the Sabbath.  Surely Jesus must have understood that healing on the Sabbath was unacceptable. There were rules to be kept, meetings to attend, righteous leaders and their causes to endorse.  Surely there was more to being a righteous person than love!

“Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the law?”  Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and the greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.  All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Can it be that simple?  Now, I would never imply that love is a simple thing. Love is demanding, sometimes elusive, often calling one to sacrifice and humility.  In reality, love and its demands both draw and repel. Those touched by Jesus’ healing, forgiving words were drawn to the One who transformed their lives.  Those who thought his teachings were too radical, his words and actions too inclusive, walked away or sought his destruction.  Jesus reminded his followers that there was no greater expression of love than the sacrifice of themselves for others.  He didn’t speak of righteousness as a code to be interpreted within the neatly drawn lines of social and religious expectation.  He certainly didn’t speak of love as self-seeking prosperity or heaven-sent favor.  Love, he said, is emptying one’s self for God and others.  No wonder so many “religious” people despised him.  No wonder such love begat a cross.  Love motivated incarnation and crucifixion…loving God and loving others.

There is great debate about many things today in the context of how faith informs our thoughts and actions. Too many of us who call ourselves Christians refuse to follow the simple, yet demanding words and example of Jesus.  He calls his followers to do two things…love God and love others.  It’s hard to improve on that.

By: Dr. Jim Abernathy

Pray for Ears to Hear

A couple nights ago the first presidential debate aired on television, and as responsible theologians, leaders, pastors, and followers of Jesus living in one of the strongest powers in the world, we watch, listen and prayerfully consider the words of these two men who have reached the pinnacle of the electoral process. Tomorrow morning blogs, news websites, Facebook, Twitter, etc. will all be filled with commentary from authoritative voices, friends, enemies, and people across the spectrum from our own personal and communal political postures.

As we consider the words of these two leaders, as Christians we must wonder where our responsibility lies in the political process. To what degree are we to find hope in the correlation of the government and the kingdom of God, or is there any correlation at all? Baptists throughout our history have struggled with how we should relate to the government and political powers at large, and today is no different.

It seems like we might be able to learn from the models of leadership in the Old Testament royal tradition to give some insight into contemporary leadership today. I’d like to specifically explore the relationship of the prophet and kings, all in a conversation with Jacques Ellul, the French theologian and philosopher, his book The Politics of God & The Politics of Man (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972) and in the context of the stories of the monarchy discussed in 2 Kings.

If we can learn anything from the failure of nerve and incompatibility of the kings highlighted by Ellul that is particularly relevant for contemporary leadership it seems to be: pray for the ears to hear and eyes to see. Time and time again the “anointed” and called out kings who were meant to be messiahs and living signposts of the covenant between God and his people simply confused the politics of man so as to miss the power and politics of God. The prophetic word came to them through Elisha, and they could not or chose not to hear, which led eventually to inaction or sinful action.

In this high pressured election season, it seems appropriate to ask where the (dis)continuity of the kingdom of God and government begin and end; or perhaps, does the (dis)continuity actually point out the tremendous complexity and difficulty in whether there is the potential for confusion in the eyes of the world in understanding where Christianity begins and ends in relation to national identity?

Leland is a model of what seminary education can look like when cultural, ethnic, racial, theological, and contextual diversity is embraced for the mutual benefit of the community at large and the kingdom of God. And this diversity presses us to stretch beyond the media sound bites and exaggerated rhetoric to become signposts of the politics of God, rooted in love and groaning toward the restoration of the world and signaled by the visions of John in Revelation:  “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands (The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Re 7:9). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.)”

Yet, in spite of the often poor models of leadership we find in the royal tradition as explored by Ellul in 2 Kings, God’s salvation is greater and may be a point of emphasis for Christian leadership during this election season. As Christian leaders we can emphasize God’s intervention in that “God takes upon himself the misery of this people, its shame and the evil it commits (Ellul, The Politics of God & The Politics of Man, 68).” As leaders in the Christian situation today, we can find hope that God’s freedom is bound to take on the suffering and misery of humankind so that it will lead to our eventual and mutual salvation. And we can pray together that we will have the ears to hear God’s call during a political season marked by alienation and fragmentation, so that we might be able and willing to choose a politics of love rooted in the salvation of God for all people—no matter their party affiliation or national identity—because we are all made in the image of God.

By: Rev. Josh Hayden

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