It seems as though everywhere I look lately, christians are talking about the ‘deconstruction’ of their faith and a growing sense of unease about calling themselves ‘christian’ at all.
And it’s not that they have a problem with Jesus and His teachings in any way; it’s just that so much of the present ‘brand’ of western, evangelical christianity has become too toxic and mis-representative of what their faith actually means.
To be honest, I absolutely understand this sentiment as well, because lately I have often felt the same way too.
Sometimes it can be pretty embarrassing to admit that you’re a christian, when it’s so often mis-interpreted to mean that you’re a right-wing, racist, homophobic, and basically ‘anti’ all sorts of people and things. And I don’t think Trump politics is solely responsible but it does feel like another nail in the coffin…
The fact is that it’s hard to wear a label that increasingly feels ill-fitting because it implies certain values that sit ideologically far away from your own, and have almost nothing at all to do with the life of love that Jesus called us to live.
And it leaves me wondering, how did we get here? And how do we find a way through, without trashing everything about living a life of faith that we hold dear?
But whenever I open the Bible, it strikes me that these issues around religious ‘hijacking’ by the powers that be is not really a new one at all, and that the answers are really best modelled in Jesus’ life itself.
So many people forget is that Jesus was a revolutionary and rule breaker, who openly challenged the religious and political power structures of his time – particularly those Pharisaical leaders who exalted religious legalism, judgment and exclusion, over His uniting message of love.
In fact, the whole central narrative that runs throughout the Gospel is that Jesus came to replace the law with all of its inflexible regulations and restrictions, replacing that old form of religion with a personal relationship instead.
And so it’s kind of hard to understand why so much of the institutionalised church throughout history has continued to be so preoccupied with upholding rules and creating more bureaucracy in His name?
I guess the problem with Jesus’ message about living a life of love being the totality of what it means to follow Him, is that although it’s so simple, it’s also kind of hard to do consistently and well.
So maybe instead of trusting that grace is enough to cover our lack, the temptation is for people to end up adding their own external markers and measures back into the equation too.
And maybe it’s also just part of human nature to want to limit and control and contain a message that is so wild and dynamic and inclusive and outrageously good.
But Jesus was actually very clear on this point. In fact, He was once directly asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” In other words – what is the single, most important thing about living this life of faith well?
And these were the words that He replied:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Matthew 22)
Love God and love others. Not either/or, but both.
And that’s it. That’s all! There’s nothing more we need to add.
He said that ‘all the law and the prophets’ hang on this one thing…
And so all of the blood sacrifices to atone for sins, the food laws to separate His people, the temple to contain the presence of God, and the priesthood which acted as a bridge between God and man… Jesus came to replace it all with this single, yet all-encompassing, command to simply live a life of love for God and others.
And if all the law can be summed up in this one commandment, then really that’s the only measurement left for us today of whether we’re really living a life that’s pleasing to God or not.
It’s not about works, or apologetics and arguments, and it’s not about how much you know, or how good a person you are either. It’s simply about growing your capacity for love.
How beautiful, how freeing, and what wonderfully good news! But yet, how often as Christians do we forget, or find ourselves trying to tell a more complex story?
In lots of ways 2018 was a pretty divisive year in religion and politics, and so far 2019 doesn’t look to be any better.
But I really think that this world has had its fill of people who claim to represent Jesus, whilst armed with their protest signs, their personal prejudices, and their silent rules about what kinds of sinners are welcome in their midst or not. And declining church attendance figures seem to agree…
Of course, it’s very easy to point at the overtly racist, sexist and exploitative strand of politics getting peddled by the Trump administration as being mostly responsible for the polluting of christianity’s name… but I wonder if maybe we should also look a bit closer to home as well, in our communities and churches and social spaces.
And so as we begin 2019, I think it’s a question worthy of some personal reflection; are we really following Jesus based on this benchmark of love that He set, or just peddling a religious system?
Are we becoming more loving or less?
And are we loving people better today than we did yesterday or not?
At its very worst, the church has become so bound in bureaucracy, tribalism, self-preservation, and the exclusion of those who are different.
Yet I have also seen glimmers if it at its best too, which give me hope to still believe that ‘the church’ – by which I mean the people of God, not buildings or institutions – is still God’s very best vessel for demonstrating love to a grace-starved world.
Throughout the entirety of the Gospel, the Jesus I read about just keeps on telling us the same story in lots of different ways, that the greatest thing is love.
And that means loving the orphan, the widow, the weak, the marginalised, the poor, the sick, the foreigner, and even the person who’s opinion or lifestyle is very different to our own.
John 13:35 puts it like this:
‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples’.
So why don’t we just take him at His word?
Because honestly, that’s exactly the kind of church that I really long to be a part of; a community of people set apart simply by how well they love God and others. No other strings attached.
And isn’t the world hungry for that kind of christianity to make its presence really felt right now as well?
I know that it’s a constant challenge to live out this value of love moment by moment and day by day, preferring others to yourself. My gosh, I know it’s hard, and we really need His help.
But the thing that I just can’t get away from, is that whenever I open up the Bible, it keeps reminding me that love has to be my start point, my end point, and the litmus test for almost everything I do…
So whatever your personal theology or religious practices, preferences and persuasions may be, if you’re a follower of the teachings of Jesus, the test bed should always be this one thing: Am I becoming more loving as a result?
If the fruit of your faith is something that’s leading you to love God and love others better than you did yesterday then chances are you might be onto something good, but if not, then it might need a rethink…
And it’s a big aspiration for 2019 I know, but whenever it feels hard to open my heart up to people who look and vote and think and worship and live differently to me, I just keep making it my prayer that He would enlarge my capacity for love. Because there is always more to be found in Him.
James 4:6 says ‘But He gives us more grace’ – and so my hope and prayer for myself, my community, and for you too, is that whatever ‘buts’ we might face in this coming year, that we would discover more of His grace in this.