Well, love one another. We were designed from the Creation to be creatures who, like God, love all that God has made. We were made to love — with a fierce, self-giving, self-denying passion. We were made to love so much that we voluntarily wake up each morning and lift up whatever cross it takes to do so.
Of course, we teach this in church. But not really. Because our goal is to get people to heaven when they die rather than to form our members into people who love as Jesus love, and as we see church membership and attendance as the pathway to heaven, we are far more focused on attendance and membership than on personal transformation. And the result has been to create churches as purveyors of spiritual goods and services rather than communities of personal transformation.
Doubt me? Here are some quick and easy tests:
- When your members have more tenure in your church, do they become more entitled and demanding or less?
- Are your older members harder to please and appease than your younger members?
- When your members are unhappy, do they voice their unhappiness by economic/power means (withholding money; threatening to leave) or as family (through conversation; persuasion)?
- When a difficult change is suggested, do the members respond in terms of how this change will affect the members? Or how it will affect the people they plan to invite to church, have a Bible study with, or serve in the name of Jesus?
Now, notice that adding a strong dose of external mission to the mix can help quite a lot. As we get outside of our self-interest and learn to serve others, our hearts are hollowed out and reshaped to be more giving and loving. All good. But we are quite capable of being extraordinarily loving to outsiders while still being complete jerks to each other. Sometimes it’s easier to love a stranger than the person sitting next to you on the pew. The stranger didn’t support the hiring of the preacher who preaches insufferable sermons. The stranger didn’t leave me off the invitation to his daughter’s wedding — which I wasn’t going to attend anyway but it sure would have been nice to be invited. A stranger, however, can be loved as nearly a pure abstraction. It’s the people closest to us who are the hardest to put up with.
So without a doubt we need to add a strong dose of outreach to the mix, but it’s not the cure. If we can’t learn to love people as they really are, we haven’t really learned to love.
Just so, individualized spiritual disciplines can help, but they also avoid the general ickiness of having to deal with real other people with real problems. I can study my Bible, walk prayer mazes, and engage in meditation and solitude without once being burdened with the rudeness and foolish decisions of my brothers. I can see the appeal of the individual spiritual disciplines! But aren’t you glad that Jesus didn’t see his prayer life, solitude, and meditations as the ultimate end of his mission? I mean, those were preparatory to walking the dirty, excrement-filled street of First Century Palestine to deal with nasty messes of the lives of real people.
Jesus even allowed himself to get close to some people — one of whom denied him. Another betrayed him. Lazarus died — which you know had to hurt. Getting close to people opens us up to pain — and there are precious few exceptions. It’s just hard — which is why we so often don’t do it.
Worse yet, if you get close to people and then try to live the Sermon on the Mount, well, things get really hard. No lusting after the women. Walking the second mile when the first mile was an unjust imposition. Going to the brother who has a grudge against you — and it’s not really your own fault. Not judging … well, that goes against a few centuries of church practice. I mean, if you stop judging your brother, you’ll be practicing that corporate discipline all alone in some of our churches. This is not easy stuff.
And as Hauerwas sagely advises, this kind of behavior only makes sense within the church as gathered community — a colony of heaven in a very worldly world. And it will never be easy, but it’ll be much easier if the other people are church are trying to do the same thing. If it’s something we talk about in our small groups, pray about in our gatherings, sing about in our assemblies, preach about, talk about, wake up thinking about so we remember why we’re stooping down to pick that cross up again yet one more morning.
And somehow or other, we need to figure out how to do this without become legalists. I mean, it’s just easy to reduce the SOTM to a body of rules to impose on others so we can more easily impose them on ourselves. But that takes what’s supposed to be a source of joy and fulfillment and turns it into misery. Rather than being unburdened of lust, grudges, and judgmentalism, we become burdened with a nearly impossible path to salvation.
Ahh … but there’s a key distinction. We were saved back in the baptistry — in large part so that obedience would no longer be about buying our way into heaven. That’s already been done for us — and so we really have to stop thinking that way. It’s NOT about going to heaven when we die because we are ALREADY saved. Our motivation is no longer about earning what’s already been given to us.
Rather, our motivation is love. Why put up with my brother’s mess? Because I love him. And, of course, we’ve had that theology down for quite a long time. We just haven’t been taught how to do it. Theory is so much easier, so much less costly. I’d far rather spend my life preparing for the Great True-False Test in the Sky so I get into heaven by having all the right positions — far better a test than having to actually love my brother — the one sitting on the same pew as me. After all, that’s been my pew for 20 years …