by Daniel Harrell
I finish up my survey of the commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself” this morning—from its obscurity in Leviticus to its exalted position in James as the “royal law.” Paul called “loving your neighbor as yourself” “the law of Christ,” the most important act we do as Christians. For some, boiling all of Christianity down to love feels lame. Love is too mushy and permissive, too forgiving and accepting. What about suffering? What about racism and economic disparity and impeachment? What about justice?
We live in a day when everything gets reduced down into binary, either/or simplicity for the sake of a Twitter fight. Left versus right. Red versus blue. Law versus grace. Faith versus works. Justice versus love.
Christians hold that divine justice accords with God’s own just and righteous character, a character codified in stone, a law most familiar to us as the Ten Commandments, its essence sublimely summarized by Jesus as the law of love. Violate love and you violate divine law, evoking, the Bible repeatedly warns, heaven’s most righteous censure.
The starkness with which Biblical justice is portrayed has always troubled people who confuse God’s mercy with benign indifference. For them, a permissively loving God would never judge anybody. “Our Heavenly Father loves the world as his children—how could such love ever express the sort of wrath the Bible so ferociously depicts?” An answer comes from your own experience. Your fiercest anger is reserved for the people you care about most. It’s their betrayals and offenses which damage you most deeply. Love and fury have never been mutually exclusive. Love’s opposite is not hatred, but indifference.
Because fury is a function of love; the love still remains. And since we are talking about God’s love, love remains with unrelenting ferocity. Therefore Paul writes: “What the Law failed to do, weakened as it was through the flesh, through human defiance, God did himself.” If God was ever to have the relationship with sinners he so desired, God would have to make it happen. God did it by sending his Son in a human body like ours, “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” we read, so that Jesus might take on our sin and our condemnation too. For Christians the cross is the supreme expression of God’s passion, in all its darkness and light, the fury of grace. Justice gets done and love does too.
Thus Scripture can boldly declare that there is, right now, no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” You are set free to live and to love in sober obedience to the intentions of God. There is no longer any excuse for pettiness or gossip, for grudges or deception or dissension or any of the many things love opposes. Our righteousness arrives as free gift, but it survives as obedience—as faithfulness to the Spirit—true freedom in Christ. The epic theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr preached that, “Faith is the only possible response to the ultimate incongruities of existence, which threaten the very meaning of our life.”
By faith we’re set free from the law’s condemnation—by our failure to abide by the moral standards of God. We’re set free to love according to the law of Christ—according to the same moral standards of God, a long, one-day-at-a-time, step-by-step of faith, breath-by-breath, possible only by grace.
And thus the prayer for which Reinhold Niebuhr is most famous:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Grace. Love. Faith. Obedience. Freedom. Happiness. Hope. They are all connected. James stresses the connection: “Faith without deeds is dead,” he wrote. Martin Luther hated this book and wanted it deleted out of his Bible. How can we be justified by faith alone if we have to do good deeds too?
According to James, someone will say, “I have my faith, you do your good works,” as if the two are somehow separate. James retorts, “How can you see I have faith without my actions? You say you believe in God? So do the do the demons.” “Why do you call me Lord but not do what I say,” Jesus wondered. “You can only tell a tree by its fruit.”
Jesus once told a parable about a man who planted a fig tree and came back looking for figs, but found nary a one. So he told his gardener to cut the tree down, it was just wasting dirt. The gardener asked to give the tree a little more time. “Let it alone,” he said to the owner, “let me dig around the tree and throw on some manure and see what it does. One more year and if it fails to bear fruit, cut it down then.” God gives our obedience ample opportunity, but faith without deeds is doomed.
On Friday, we planted a fruit tree just off the staff parking lot. More accurately, we transplanted a young apple tree from my yard. As my wife, Dawn, was dying we talked about where she wanted to be buried. Where was less important to her than how. Even though cremated, she did not want to be scattered to the wind, but returned to the dirt—ashes to ashes, dust to dust, so to speak. So we buried her ashes under our young apple tree. To our delight, the apple tree burst forth with new fruit this past summer, a whole year ahead of schedule, a fruitfulness we chose to attribute to Dawn being down in the dirt.
With Violet and I moving to Chicago, somebody else will live in our house, or even tear it down, so the church staff offered us the kindest of going away gifts: to transplant the tree (and Dawn) to the church grounds. So even after we’re gone, you’ll still have Dawn here to haunt you, and I’ll have another reason to visit.
In Jesus’ parable, the tree fails at fruit so the gardener asks for more time. As he appeared to Mary Easter morning, I like the interpretation that names the gardener as Jesus himself. “Let it alone,” he says to the owner, “let me dig around the tree and throw some manure on it and see what it does.” The parable ends and the gardener descends into the dirt and the dung for the sake of the tree.
“Let it alone,” is the same Greek phrase translated later as “Father forgive them,” words Jesus uttered as he hung from his own tree. Jesus descends into the dirt to bring resurrection to our roots. We can be good, but never good enough. There’s no fruit of the Spirit without the Spirit, and no Spirit without the cross. Loving your neighbor happens because your heart has been fertilized by the death and resurrection of Christ.
As Christians we believe the Holy Spirit of Jesus abides in us. It’s the only way we have enough power to really love our neighbor as ourselves.
Here in James, loving your neighbor as yourself meant loving those different from yourself. Last week in Galatians, the distinction was racial: Jew and Gentile. This week it’s economic: rich and poor. The scene is a church service where a rich person arrayed in gold rings and fine clothes saunters in alongside a poor person dressed in dirty clothes. The rich person gets the best seat and the poor person gets the floor. This happens all the time out in the world, but it’s not supposed to happen in church. James labels it judgmental and calls it evil. “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom promised to those who love him?”
Years ago, I helped start a street ministry we ran out of our downtown Boston church—still necessary and running fifteen years hence. I remember meeting poor people and getting to know them well enough to befriend them and invite them inside to be a part of our community. Unfortunately, the better-heeled Brahmin of our Beacon Hill congregation were less charitable than I presumed they would be; worried, I guess, that someone might make off with one of our old sterling silver communion cups. One guy did swipe a handful of cash from the offering plate once and bolt for the door. So the next week we started leaving out a bucket cash now and then, so folks could just take it and not have to steal it. We ended up baptizing a few of these friends, and one took over the leadership of the street ministry itself. We figured she knew a lot more about the streets than we did, so we followed her.
We don’t worry about this so much in suburban Edina. Not that rich people don’t need Jesus too. According to James, the richer you are the harder it is to get into heaven. Harder than squeezing a camel through a needle, Jesus said.
James was appalled by the way the poor folk in his church fawned over the affluent. “Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not the rich who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?” Likely, the poor Christians in James’ church had already borne the brunt of political disenfranchisement, red-lining, usury and other disparities and abuses of power and privilege. You’d think having suffered such degradation, the last thing they’d ever want is money as power to lord over others. In Scripture, the problem of prosperity is mostly its effect on the heart. Human nature being what it is, we tend to do unto others as we have had done unto us. We too often take on the traits of our tormentors.
We live in a day when everything gets reduced down into binary, either/or simplicity for the sake of a fight. It makes it easy to make enemies. To show partiality. Best-selling author Tara Westover was raised by survivalist parents in the mountains of rural Idaho, and didn’t go to school. “Dad said public school was a ploy by the Government to lead children away from God.” Remarkably, Tara managed to teach herself enough to get into college and later earn a doctorate.
In a recent interview, she remarked how, “Social media has flooded our consciousness with caricatures of each other. Human beings are reduced to data, and data nearly always underrepresent reality. The result is this great flattening of human life and human complexity. We think that because we know someone is pro-choice or pro-life, or that they drive a pickup or a Prius, we know everything we need to know about them. Human detail gets lost in the algorithm. Thus humanity gives way to ideology.” The resulting “loss of empathy is what I call a breaking of charity. It’s a term that’s associated with the Salem witch trials, and it refers to the moment when two members of a tribe disfellowship each other, and become two tribes. That, I think, is the biggest threat to our country, more than any single issue or politician. It’s the fact that the left and the right, the elite and the non-elite, the urban and the rural—however you want to slice it up—they no longer see themselves reflected in the other person. We no longer interpret each other as having charitable intent.”
In a day when everything gets reduced down into binary, either/or simplicity for the sake of a fight, it is easier to hate your neighbor than love your neighbor. But love and fury have never been mutually exclusive. Love and hatred tap the same energy. The trick is to convert the energy. Jesus’ solution was to reduce down even further. “I tell you the truth,” he said to the adults in the room, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of God.” And then further down still, sell your possessions and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.” And then the rest of the way to the bottom, “Whoever loses their life for my sake will save it.” We all stand on level ground at the foot of the cross. There is no partiality. James sums it up this way, “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up.”
(Sigh.) It can be extremely difficult to be Christian.
You may remember me cooking down a pot of bolognese sauce in this room a few years ago as an illustration of how the best sauce only happens by way of reduction. With heat and time, with Christ as the cook and the Spirit his spoon, we simmer down and intensify into aromatic disciples, fragrant with the flavor of love. Granted, just because something is flavorful doesn’t mean you’ll like how it tastes. You liked the sauce that day, not so much the sermon. Who would? What kind of twisted religion boasts of humility and loss? Indignity and defeat? Who’s ever heard of a Savior who saves by getting killed on a cross? To early church detractors, the whole thing smelled fishy. And yet the apostle Paul called it the fragrance of life, “the aroma of Christ to God,” the scent of sacrifice, the essence of love, the royal law.
A couple of my literal neighbors—an artist from California and a retired Navy lieutenant—gathered to watch the tree guys dig up Dawn. I explained how she’d died of cancer and wanted to be buried in the dirt and we picked this tree but are moving and our church lovingly offered to have her exhumed with the tree and transplanted at the church because Dawn loved going to church and now her remains wouldn’t have to remain among strangers. The artist said that had to be the most bizarre and beautiful thing she had ever heard. The Navy man thought it was beautiful too.
One last time from the Puritans: “O my Savior, May thy cross be to me as the tree that sweetens my bitterness, as the rod that blossoms with life and beauty, as the brazen serpent that calls forth the look of faith. By thy cross crucify my every sin; Use it to increase my intimacy with thyself; Make it the ground of all my comfort, the liveliness of all my duties, the sum of all thy gospel promises, the comfort of all my afflictions, the vigor of my love, thankfulness, graces, the very essence of my religion; And by it give me that rest without rest, the rest of ceaseless praise.” Amen.