This past Sunday I spoke to a group at Lexington’s Second Presbyterian Church that met between the congregation’s two worship services.
As I was making small talk afterward, a woman said something that stuck with me.
The gist was that she wished everyone understood that the defining trait of the Christian faith is love. So often this message gets lost amid the legalistic and political hubbub which now surrounds religion in the public square.
This column is an unqualified amen to what she said.
If you read the early Christian writings — especially the gospel biographies of Jesus and the letters of St. Paul and St. John — it’s hard to arrive at any other conclusion.
Love is, or is supposed to be, the singular characteristic of Christians.
Sad to say, in practice it usually doesn’t work that way.
Warning: I’m about to spout a slew of Scriptures, something I normally don’t do.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life,” Jesus said. “For God did not send the son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be delivered through him.”
“By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” Jesus said in another passage.
“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal,” Paul wrote. “If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.”
“The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love,” John said.
“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love,” John added.
That was merely a sampling.
Let’s review, in case anyone glazed over at the sight of so much Bible in one short space.
First, God loved — and presumably still loves — the entire world (in ancient Greek, the “cosmos”), which he created and declared good.
Thus, he loves Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, stars, atoms, gases, horses, wooly worms, scorpions, deserts, creeks, daffodils, elm trees, men, women, children, black people, white people, brown people, red people, yellow people, the disabled, the healthy, the gay, the straight, the transgendered, the smart, the dumb, the friendly, the obnoxious, the rich, the poor. The whole cosmos.
Second, for this reason he sent his son specifically not to judge. Instead, he sent his son to deliver this creation from its toil and turmoil and futility, to save us from ourselves.
Third, your love for others is all that identifies you as a child of God. Not your political party. Not your dogma. Not your perfect-attendance pin from Sunday school. Not your position for or against abortion. Your love.
Fourth, regardless of how religious you are or how many spiritual gifts you think you possess or how many seminary degrees you’ve earned or how much money you give, you’re worthless as a messenger of God until you’re motivated only by love.
Fifth, if you’re not acting with love toward everyone, especially those you disagree with, you probably don’t even know God. For God is, by definition, love. Love isn’t something he practices; it’s who he is. He is love personified.
Sixth, if you’re cringing in fear that God’s going to throttle you for messing up, you’ve entirely missed the point. Once you recognize how much he loves you, then you realize he’s not out to punish you — he’s out to bless you.
Similarly, if you’re browbeating everybody else with threats of God’s punishment, you need to grow up (which is what the Greek word for “perfected” means) into his profound love, which trades away anger and coercion in favor of mercy and forgiveness.
It’s disheartening to see how many of us self-proclaimed Christians have deviated from this central, unalterable commandment: love as God loves.
None of this means we’re to be stupid. We can be both gentle and shrewd at the same time, Jesus said. That is, we can love people even as we recognize their errant intentions.
It also doesn’t mean bad actions cease having bad consequences. God still loves you even if you rob a liquor store, and that means I must love you as well. But God’s love won’t necessarily spare you from doing a 10-spot in the state pen.
We still live in a fallen world.
Yet if we would be the Lord’s disciples, we’re required to be, above all other considerations, people consumed by love. It’s good to keep that in mind. Every day.