Before he was Paul, he was Saul – a pious man obsessed with upholding the law. In the Acts of the Apostles it’s written “Saul was destroying the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women and imprisoning them” (Acts 8:3). But then something happened to Saul that changed his heart and point of view. He was blindsided by Christ, the Spirit of God’s love (Acts 9:1-22).
Like what happened to Peter, it was such a profound event that it called for a re-naming. He went from being Saul – a law and order kind of guy – to being called Paul, an unapologetic proponent to the Way of Christ. A way, as Paul will write, that is defined by practicing divine love. In his profound letter to the Roman churches, Paul writes:
In three verses Paul, sums up the entire ethical teachings of Torah law. An ethic that Jesus himself not only embraced and taught but commanded his followers to uphold no matter what. That ethic, and commandment, is love.
Christian mystics say love has two feet: love of God and love of neighbor. You don’t need to love God first in order to love your neighbor. The two are inseparable because in Christ God has become the neighbor. And of course, Jesus defined neighbor as anyone we interact with.
If you are a regular of this church, then you know that love will always be woven into whatever theme or scripture we are studying. The reason for that is simple. Jesus said love is the one thing that sets Christians apart from the world. It is the singular mark of discipleship. While there are many ways to show love, there is only one way to define it – by practicing it.
Christlike love is more than a feeling or a matter of the heart. It’s the kind of love makes sacrifices for the other, caring for his or her interests above your own. To Paul’s point, we fulfill the law by acting in love - be it towards our families, our enemies, our friends, the clerk in the convenience store, or the homeless vet holding up a sign at the freeway off-ramp. Love is the law that shows us how to care for the other through just and fair practices.
For most parents, it’s easy to love their own children (most of the time) and to show that love by taking care of their needs. But those same loving parents might have trouble helping a single parent who can’t afford to feed her own child. Or they might have some reserve about having their tax dollars spent to make sure that child has healthcare.
This is where heaven and earth remain apart - at the intersection where law and love meet. The two might stop and recognize each other but then they turn and go in different directions. The way I see it, God didn’t take on human flesh so we could be separated from God’s will. No, God came to us so we could be united in God’s love and change the direction of our lives accordingly.
The incarnation wasn’t a one-time event. It happens day after day – minute by minute, second by second. Likewise, the commandment to love your neighbor is an on-going, daily task for all who dare to follow the Way of Christ through the messiness of life. Which takes us back to the question: How should followers of Christ order their lives? By bowing to the law of the land, or upholding the love of the heart? Depends, perhaps, on who or what you put your priority on.
I will be the first to say that laws are important. They’re good for setting the standards and boundaries for acceptable behavior in our communities. We can’t just have people driving all over the road, or practicing their tubas at 2 a.m. Laws need to be created, executed, and adhered to so the entire community can be safe and flourish without fear.
However, every law is susceptible to abuse. Many are violated on a daily basis. As history has shown us, laws are violated more effectively by those in power, and those who understand how the law works. This is true in our own government just as it was in the Temple in Jerusalem where Jesus entered and exposed the dark side of strict obedience to the law by shining the light of love on it.
As followers of Christ, we must not only see our neighbor through Jesus’ eyes...but we must also love them through Jesus’ heart. Because “What the law cannot accomplish, love can.” To quote Bono from U2, “Love is the temple. Love is the higher law.” The song reminds us that love doesn’t nullify the law... but in fact, shapes and solidifies it.
I think Jesus said love is the greatest commandment, because he fully understood that love is the very foundation which upon all things begin. God’s love for you and me is so powerful that it can make you, shape you, and if needed, transform you. It collides with you at the intersection of life. And spins you in the right direction. This is the good news.
As Jesus showed us, the Spirit of God’s love doesn’t hold grudges but forgives – offering grace upon grace...and peace to anyone who desires it. God’s love unites life, and all that it entails. What God’s love does for us, must also be true about all that we do. Including the laws we put in place.
If you dare to love God and neighbor, then there is no need to keep monitoring or policing what the law requires because the one who embodies love will not harm the other. As Paul puts it, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” If the law requires me to love and care for my neighbor, then I can do it with the assurance that someone will do the same for me.
I’m sure many of you are rolling your eyes when you hear me say that. You might think I am naïve or have drinking too much of the holy Kool-Aid. There’s no way such a world could exist, right? It’s too broken, too corrupt.
But here’s the thing, we’ve never tried it. We might call ourselves Christians and think we’re following Christ. But let’s be honest. We’ve never really put our faith out there in such a way that would make love grow, and overflow, in our communities.
We’ve never fully loved our neighbor as we would want to be loved, have we? But imagine what might happen if we made love the first priority in all that we do? How might hearts and communities be transformed? Even the law would be affected to show love’s power.
As the Bible shows us time and time again, the law bows down to love, not the other way around. Paul discovered that on the road to Damascus. The woman caught in adultery learned this when Jesus forgave her sins. And of course, Jesus proved this point on the cross. Just when it looked like the law would win, God turned the world upside down so that love would win.
Like we’ve learned recently love is the cross we are called to carry. It is all the little stones that build up the church...the body of Christ. Love is you. It is me. And the world comes to know it, in the ways we practice justice, in the ways we tend to the needy and heal the wounds of the broken, and lift up the down and out. One of the best and most common ways love is seen and felt, is in the way we forgive the other.
Henri Nouwen once described forgiveness as “the name of love practiced among people who love poorly.” And we all love poorly, don’t we? Thankfully, God doesn’t judge us by the quality of our love, but by our willingness to be the visible presence of love in our little spaces in life.
I hope that you will remember this: Love, like forgiveness, is a daily practice that invites those who come in contact with you to become a part of you. The wider you cast your love, the bigger your community becomes. “And the more easily you will recognize your own brothers and sisters in the strangers around you,” adds Nouwen.
In this light, we can see what Jesus meant when he said, “Everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
At this church we uphold love above all else. We invite you to do the same. To go out into the world and act with a kind and giving heart to all people, having the best intensions for them as you would wish for yourself.
I urge you to go and make love grow. In your heart, in your house, in the business you frequent, the conversations you have, and yes, even in the way you cast your vote.
For some reason, God has entrusted you and me with this awesome power. Let us go and shape our life accordingly.
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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