Recently I wrote a column about what it might look like if those who profess their Christian faith spent less time harrumphing about it and more time attempting to imitate the Jesus they claim to follow.
That piece drew so much response I thought I’d revisit it. It’s an idea worth contemplating. After all, no telling what impact such lives might have on Congress, education, poverty, prisons, medicine and marriages.
Having spent the past 40-plus years preaching and writing about the good news as it’s put forth in the New Testament — our faith’s foundational text — I’ve concluded Christianity’s overriding message is: “Love them all.”
Jesus said God’s commandments were: love God with all your heart, and love other people as much as yourself. That’s it.
He, St. Paul and the other New Testament writers repeatedly reinforced this principle.
St. Paul: Even if I’m a prophet who knows all mysteries, even if I can move mountains with my faith, but I’m not consumed by love, then I’m just a noisy, clanging gong.
St. John: The one who doesn’t walk in love doesn’t know God, because God is love.
If you read the New Testament, you can’t miss this principle, unless you’re trying to miss it.
Which raises obvious questions: Why do Christians so routinely miss it? Why do we—and by “we,” I mean nearly all of us—fail to obey the gospel’s very foundation?
I can’t speak for all Christians, but I fail to follow that message because it’s incredibly difficult and also counterintuitive. Plus, it scares me.
The biblical scholar N. T. Wright has a remarkable theory about what Jesus was doing here 2,000 years ago. He says Jesus meant to literally bring heaven to earth, to unite the two domains into one.
When Jesus told the disciples to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” he wasn’t blathering platitudes. He was proclaiming that right then, right there, the kingdom of heaven had invaded the earthly realm—and he wanted his followers to participate. Being lug heads, they’d need divine help and should ask for it.
Jesus believed that by learning to live God’s way, by getting their minds changed (that’s the literal meaning of “repenting”), his disciples could eventually push back darkness from this world until the earth was permeated by heaven’s joyous, wondrous light.
To that end, they must stop hating anyone and start loving everyone, he said. They were to judge nobody, but show mercy to all. They were to stop fighting and instead pray for their enemies. They were to quit hording and begin sharing their possessions. They were to avoid shoving petty religious rules down people’s throats and start demonstrating humility, recognizing themselves to be royally screwed up.
If you think about it, the kingdom of heaven is a beautiful thing. It’s a realm of peace and grace and abundance. We should all hope to see it take over. It’s no party’s political agenda, I can assure you.
And we do want God’s kingdom, in theory. But inhabiting it while walking on the presently unredeemed earth, down here in the muck, is tough. Heaven’s laws are contrary to everything our nature and culture tell us. Living the kingdom-of-heaven life is dangerous.
If you practice unconditional love, others absolutely will take advantage of you. They’ll use up whatever you give them and come back demanding more and more until you’re ruined. The violent among them will interpret your meekness as permission to rob, enslave, rape or murder you. The cynical will mock you.
If you obey heaven’s rules, you’re not stepping into a dreamy, mushy utopia. You’re likely as not to get your throat cut by barbarians. Which is basically what happened to Jesus and his apostles.
Subsequent Christians have long tried to find a compromise, a way to nod at what Christ commanded without getting goofy or risky about it.
Instead of settling into even a 50-50 compromise between the heaven life and the earth life, we operate at about 10 percent heaven and 90 percent earth. We give the Lord a tithe of our devotion. The devil gets the bulk. We’ll do a couple of hours at a soup kitchen, so long as we can return home to our comfy recliners and not have to deal with any more bedraggled people for another month.
It’s not surprising, then, that the church generally and Christians individually have proved about as corrupt as the rest of our broken society.
What impact might we have if we actually began to quietly demonstrate God’s unconditional, self-sacrificing love—full-time? Why, we might reform this world and its institutions without firing a shot or carrying a placard or sweeping a primary.
But we’re not likely to find out.
I don’t claim I’ve managed to live out the laws of heaven, either. I’m as myopic and self-serving as the next guy.
Yet, occasionally, I’ll catch a glimpse of Jesus’ kingdom and what it teaches and what it calls me to be. I keep trying, incrementally, with more failures than successes, to enter it.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at email@example.com.