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.