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Will They Know We Are Christians by Our Love?

October 19, 2020

“’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’” (Matthew 22: 37-39).

Gandhi reportedly made his famous statement, “I’d be a Christian if it were not for the Christians” after a church in Calcutta refused him entrance, telling him that the sanctuary was only for high-caste Indians and whites.  If any country, religion, group, or person was judged based on its citizens or members worst moments, all would fail, including you and me.  

There is no question but that Christians have made significant contributions to society over the millennia.  The late Dr. James Kennedy listed some of these contributions in his book, What If Jesus Would Have Never Been Born.  The list includes the formation of hospitals and universities that were started in the Middle Ages by churches; literacy and education for the masses; capitalism and free enterprise; representative government, especially in America, and other innovations and improvements including the separation of political powers; civil liberties; higher standards of justice;  the abolition of slavery both in the ancient world and in the modern world; the elevation of women in society; benevolence and charity (Good Samaritan ethic); high regard for human life (love for the unborn, sick and elderly); the translation of many of the world’s spoken languages into writing; and inspiration for the greatest works of music and art, to name a few.

Christianity’s benefits to society cannot be overstated.  The foundation for these accomplishments was Jesus’ mandate to love others as we love ourselves: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’” (Matthew 22: 37-39).[1]  This mandate was also recorded centuries earlier in Leviticus: “Love your neighbor as yourself.  I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18b).  

God’s law is clear:  Love others as yourself.  The psalms extol the virtues of following God’s law.  The psalmist says that the blessed man delights “in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water . . . Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.” (Psalm 1: 2, 4).  Those who follow the law are blessed by it.  But the wicked lead faithless lives, drifting without direction, and are blown about like weightless chaff.  In this context, the psalmist shows us that God’s law is life-giving and sustaining, not repressive.  Its purpose is to help us and to protect us.

Loving our neighbors as ourselves is at the heart of Christianity.  It is God’s guiding principle for everyday behavior.  A song that Christians often sing is “They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love.”  But do we live up to the title lyric? Do we as individual Christians set ourselves apart from the general populace by our winsome, welcoming, helpful, sympathetic, and friendly expressions of love to others on an everyday basis?  Do the people we encounter at home, at work, at church, at school, or in the community regularly see our love expressed to them? 

It’s not easy.  Loving does not come naturally to people. Peter Kreeft, a longtime Boston College philosophy professor, summarized the human condition: “Original sin is the proclivity to say ‘my will be done,” instead of ‘thy will be done.’”  We really don’t want to follow any mandates except our own.  And loving takes practice.  Self-described atheist Eric Fromm, suggests in his classic book, The Art of Loving, that while we all want to be loved, we spend very little time practicing loving.  He explains that loving, like any other art, requires commitment and time.  We neglect practicing loving others because we spend our time pursuing many less important goals such as success, prestige, money, power, and recreation. He has something there.  

In the traditional Christian liturgy, we confess, “Merciful Father, . . . I have not loved you with my whole heart, and have not loved my neighbors as myself.”  Consider the message we would send to the world if we not only prayed for others, but also expressed our love to them in tangible ways.  Of course, left to our own devices, we regularly fall down on the job, which is why we need to go back to God every day and ask him to help us. 

To be clear, loving our neighbors as ourselves does not mean that Christians should avoid conflict.  In his book Caring Enough to Confront, David Augsberger explains that healthy conflict is a necessary part of every relationship. Echoing Paul, he advises to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).  We can express our views truthfully, but we must do so respectfully and with love. 

To summarize, God promises that if you obey the two commandments to love God and to love others, everything else will fall into place. Paul understood the importance of expressing love for others in tangible ways, and assured the church at Thessalonica of his love: “Because we love you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our lives as well . . . For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God” (1 Thessalonians 2: 8, 11,12).  Luther explained it this way in a Christmas message to his congregation: “You have Christ in your neighbor.  You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord himself.”[2]  

The song, “They will know we are Christians by our love,” is a good reminder of what God requires of us. Love God and others as yourself. Ask God to help you practice it.

Prayer: “Blessed Jesus, you know the impurity of our affection, the narrowness of our sympathy, and the coldness of our love; take possession of our souls, and fill our minds with the image of yourself, break the stubbornness of our selfish wills and mold us in the likeness of your unchanging love, O you who alone can do this, our Savior, our Lord and our God. Amen.” William Temple (1881-1944)

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost are Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-18; Psalm 1; 1 Thessalonians 2: 1-13; Matthew 22: 34-46.

[2] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand (1950) Abingdon Press, p. 366

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