Feb 132011
 
This post is a significant revision of a note written for my Facebook page in 2009. I retitled it “Radical Love”, and have since found there are books with the same title.  This post does not reference any works by this title.

Imagine what it would be like to be taught from infancy that God wants to be feared, gets violently jealous and angry, hates a specific list of behaviors, severely punishes the people who do them, and expects us to reflect these same attitudes and actions with each other.  Imagine you have also been taught that all these things have been literally dictated by God into a single book of lore and laws revered for thousands of years as the supreme encapsulation of absolute and unchanging Truth.  Well, for many of us Christians that’s not hard to imagine because it’s so close to the way we were raised.  Now imagine how you would feel when the most scripturally literate, charismatic and miraculous person you’ve ever met also speaks and acts in ways that violate those laws, and even claims a divine right to do so!  I think this is what it was like for the Apostles and others of their time to be in the presence of Jesus.

A Radical Idea: Breaking the Law in Order to Fulfill It

Scriptural laws, such as the Levitical laws, were deeply established as the basis of the Apostles’ world; the law dominated their identity as a culture, as families, and as individuals.  But Jesus shook things up with a radical teaching about a relationship with God and other human beings that was chiefly based on trusting God’s limitless love and listening to God’s Living Word spoken in our hearts, rather than uncritically obeying the words spoken by religious authorities or written in a book, even the Bible.  This devotion to love as the primary arbiter of righteousness and morality is what enabled Jesus to break the letter of the law in order to best serve its spirit, which I think is part of what he meant by “fulfilling the law” (Matthew 5:17).  His teaching did not set aside the Bible, but clearly placed it beneath loving God with all one’s heart, mind and strength, and loving others as oneself (Matthew 22:36-40).

To me, the Good News that God is infinitely loving, combined with the Great Commandments, is the essential formula of Christian life whether we call it mystical or not.  But as inspiring as many people have found it, to countless religious authorities and devout people of Jesus’ time that message was unacceptably threatening, just as it seems with many of us Christians today.  Yet the Apostles were close enough to Jesus to see the Divine Light, the Logos, shining through him even, and perhaps especially, when he repeatedly violated the law in fulfilling the higher law of love.  They constantly had to face tough questions about how far they should go in putting love above and beyond the laws that defined their very lives and, in fact, threatened their lives if they went too far.

If you have read the Acts of the Apostles, you know that after the death of Jesus this issue came to a head and they were deeply troubled by it.  Specifically, there was concern among them about who was and was not worthy of Christian love, and how that love could be properly expressed.  Could someone who was not Jewish be considered a sibling in Christ?  After all, those who weren’t Jewish didn’t practice all the purity codes prescribed by the Bible and Jewish tradition.  It was seriously risky to freely socialize with “impure” people, to eat with them, to touch them, let alone baptize them and treat them as beloved family members.

One of the most crucial moments of transformation on this issue is recorded in Acts, chapter 10.  Peter, the “Rock” of the Apostles, had two visions that led him to say:

God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. … I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism…. (Acts 10:28, 34)

This realization is echoed in Romans 2:11, showing from that point forward the Apostles became more inclusive with their ministry, freely violating laws in the process.  It seems obvious to me that they were beginning an ever-expanding expression, a progression,  of Jesus’ teaching to put love above all other considerations. The lives of Jesus and the Apostles illustrate that Christian life is meant to be a vital, growing, evolving presence of love in this world, whether we are speaking of the whole Church, of specific congregations, or of the individual follower of Jesus.

The best examples provided by Jesus and the Apostles always take us right back to the two greatest commandments: love God with all that you are, and love others as yourself. For followers of Christ, love has never been, and never will be, more adequately captured by any other written or spoken laws.  Love is always outgrowing whatever else we want to idolize as perfect and permanent, even the literal words of the Bible.  Love forever challenges us to let go of whatever else we might cling to in the desire to feel more comfortable and confident amid all the uncertainties of life.  But, in the absence of laws settling all sorts of specific behavioral issues, are there more specific principles we can apply to be more complete and vital lovers of God and other people?  The Beatitudes reveal a wonderful set of such principles, but something very crucial is demonstrated in that early struggle of the Apostles in their post-Jesus ministry, and that’s where we will continue in Part 2.

  9 Responses to “Radical Love: The Progressive Good News – Part 1”

  1. There is quite a Flame going on here! I do not understand it, I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to do. What I do know is that I am drawn to it like a moth to a midnight campfire. Another log kind muse, another log! 🙂

    In Love,

    simplemystic

  2. Hi Chuck,
    Your reference to Matthew 5:17 is a portion of the Gospel for todays reading in the Latin Mass. So, I had pause to reflect on it before I read your post.
    It’s hard for us today to understand how amazed Jesus’ followers were when they heard these words. His teaching in this regard continues through Matthew 7 and ends with the statement” And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine: For he taught them as one having authority, and not as scribes.” (Matthew 7:28-29).
    Today I find it just as amazing that so many people seem to choose to ignore these words. They are merely inspirational platitudes which don’t really apply in our ordinary lives. I believe I have been guilty of this in my own life. I’m quite certain I could spend the balance of my natural life attempting to penetrate the meaning contained in these few chapters of Matthew and not arrive any closer to the truth than where I am now.
    The path of human existence is different road from what Jesus described. From time to time we are presented with the Truth by one who speaks with authority. And from time to time we may turn aside to look, but most of us continue on as before because the other path is just too difficult.
    God’s Peace
    Steve

    • Thanks for the comments, Steve. It is with similar implications of Jesus’ message in Matthew that I read what Paul has to say in the next several verses after the denial of favoritism in Romans 2:11:

      “13 For the hearers of the law are not righteous before God, but the doers of the law will be declared righteous. 14 So, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, instinctively do what the law demands, they are a law to themselves even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts. Their consciences testify in support of this, and their competing thoughts either accuse or excuse them…”

      Words like “instinctively” (“by nature” in YLT), and “written on their hearts” speak volumes.

  3. You sure led us into that one so beautifully, Chuck. Yes, unfortunately, many of us can imagine it. The movement from the Law to the Prophets to Jesus is so deeply radical that it is taking centuries to seep in. I posted on this theme on my own blog at some point and may clean it up to post here too.

    Meanwhile, beautiful contemplation on breaking the law in order to fulfill it. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself” becomes an absolutely radical theology in light of a law of commands that helps to maintain order in society. Love does not always maintain order, as Jesus demonstrated when he overturned the moneychangers’ tables in the temple.

    Looking forward to your post on the early church,
    Karina

  4. After reading and rereading this reflection, an inspiration came to me I would like to share. In the link, provided as to the Jewish Perspective of the sinless Jesus, this verse they highlighted caught my eye.

    Mathew 5:19
    (19) Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

    Then Jesus goes on to say in
    Mathew 25:40
    And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done [it] unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done [it] unto me.

    Now many here may remember before this very cool avatar that Chuck is using now (the laughing Christ) he had another and that was Buddy Christ from the movie Dogma. Hopefully many of you have seen this film. In the film, towards the end God shows up (played by Alanis Morrissette) and of all the people there witnessing this event , the one that was the most irreverent, the most sexually flamboyant, crude etc… as I recall was the only one God kissed. I think even at one point he solicited God.

    Another movie also comes to mind when considering God’s “benefit of the doubt.”
    In Bruce Almighty “ God (played by Morgan Freeman) reminds Bruce of a statement he made “Smite me almighty smiter” God says something to the effect “ Now I don’t care for blasphemy, but that was funny.”

    Just a few illustration of how God’s mercy and love exceeds God’s judgment.

    Love,
    simplemystic

    • Thanks for the interesting comments, simplemystic!

      Matthew 5:18 & 19 lead some people to believe that Jesus was speaking literally about obeying the letter of all 613 commandments. On the other hand, some people will argue that because Jesus was God incarnate he was not bound by the law and therefore did not technically break it, and neither did his Apostles when they were following his instructions. But there are two problems with that view: First, it denies the full humanity of Jesus. If he was bound to suffer the temptations and the wounds of being an ordinary human, then it follows that he would also be bound to follow the same laws as an ordinary human. Second, if his instructions superseded the old laws for his Apostles, then it follows that they also supersede the old laws for his present day followers. If this is true, then Jesus’s actions contradicted what he said in Matthew 5:18-19.

      In either case, logic shows us that if we take Jesus literally and suppose he was speaking of all 613 commandments, then we must conclude he was either lying or speaking truth in some other way. Perhaps he was just being rhetorical! If he wasn’t speaking of all 613, then where did he draw the line? He doesn’t say. In fact, I’m glad he doesn’t because that would be even more fuel for the fire of literalism.

      Another consideration is the possibility that Jesus didn’t actually say what Matthew has in those verses. They aren’t recorded in any of the other Gospels, and some scholars of Biblical criticism suggest Matthew had an agenda to make Jesus more palatable to a devout Jewish audience.

      In any case, I think the old adage “actions speak louder than words” is most applicable here.

      Peace,
      Chuck

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