These days “religious freedom” is used by individuals and institutions as an excuse for intolerance, hatred, refusal of justice, and discrimination. “Christianity” is often equivalent to narrow-minded exclusivism and meanness, thus driving away from the Church those who may in fact admire Jesus.

I ran across some observations from one of the theological forebears of my Reformed and Presbyterian tradition the other day that ought to be taken to heart by anyone of any branch of the faith as a corrective to such a twisted version of our religion. John Calvin, you may know, was not exactly a warm, inviting man, but I believe he sought to follow Christ. In his Institutes (II, viii, 55) he wrote*:

Now, since Christ has shown in the parable of the Samaritan that the term ‘neighbor’ includes even the most remote person…we are not expected to limit the precept of love to those in close relationships. I do not deny that the more closely a man is linked to us, the more intimate obligation we have to assist him. It is the common habit of mankind that the more closely men are bound together by the ties of kinship, of acquaintanceship, or of neighborhood, the more responsibilities for one another they share. This does not offend God; for his providence, as it were, leads us to it. But I say: we ought to embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love; here there is no distinction between barbarian and Greek, worthy and unworthy, friend and enemy, since all should be contemplated in God, not in themselves…. When we turn aside from such contemplation, it is no wonder we become entangled in many errors. Therefore, if we rightly direct our love, we must first turn our eyes not to man, the sight of whom would more often engender hate than love, but to God. who bids us extend to all men the love we bear to him, that this may be an unchanging principle: whatever the character of the man, we must yet love him because we love God.

Or if Calvin doesn’t have sufficient authority for you, how about this from the Gospel of Mark (12:28-31):

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.

*Original gender-specific language retained. Footnotes omitted.

© 2015 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

Recently I heard a minister claim that God could (and presumably would) lead a congregation to split from the PC(USA), whose elected representatives had had the audacity, at this summer’s General Assembly, to pass some measures that he and his church council vehemently disagreed with. At the same time, other people are pleased to remain in the denomination, also because they feel led by God to do so, but in their case because they are convinced that the Assembly followed the Spirit of Christ in its decisions. Still more folks are not particularly interested in politics, policies, and pronouncements and simply want to be left in peace to minister in their own communities, far from the storms raging elsewhere. And again, they would claim it’s God’s will that they do this.

When I reported what I heard to my wife, she and I both wondered how exactly it worked that God told people contradictory things and led them to do precisely the opposite from what their sisters and brothers in faith did.

Isn’t it more likely that all this “God” talk is really just the baptism of what we already wanted to do? We take the Bible and read it through whatever lenses feel comfortable to wear and claim that our sin-soaked interpretation is the “right” one, the “only” one, the “clear” one, “God’s word.” And we’re not even aware that our take on Scripture and God’s will may well be just as mixed up and prejudiced and downright wrong as anybody else’s.

None of us, in fact, can or does see the whole Truth. Like Moses (Exodus 33:23), we can only see God’s back, not God’s face, the full-on revelation of all God is and where God leads. Yes, God has come among us in Jesus Christ, who is God’s Word, but that does not mean he ceases to be sovereign or mysterious or “wholly Other” (Tillich). So unless and until we have plumbed the depths and scaled the heights of God’s reality and spoken with him face to face and have had definitively revealed what he wants, a little humility is called for. Let’s focus for now on what we do have clearly from both testaments: that the will of God is love. For him. For our neighbors. For ourselves. As Paul put it, in these days of dim mirrors and partial knowledge, love abides. When we love, that’s the surest sign we can have that we are indeed being led by God.

© 2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).

So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith (Galatians 6:10).

I’ve loved figs ever since I was a boy. My grandma had a little fig orchard on the side of her house, and I would go out on a Sunday during the season and pick the fruit, which she would turn into delicious preserves to spread on her homemade biscuits.

So when we bought our current home, I was delighted to find it had a mature fig tree from which we could harvest and enjoy the succulent, sweet fruit. Hurricane Katrina, even as a Category 1, almost destroyed the tree, but it came roaring back, surely by the grace of God. It’s now so tall that it reaches above the roof line in one place. And we can no longer put a net over the tree to protect the fruit from hungry birds; it’s too big for that now.

The tree endured a storm and will keep on growing, I expect. As my wife pointed out, however, the fruit is fragile. It’s easily crushed. Pick it and leave it on the kitchen counter, and it will mold. Keep it in the fridge too long, and it loses its firmness. The best time to eat figs is right away, as soon as you pick them.

I think love is rather like that fig tree. It will endure all the forces that try to eliminate it from the world, because God is love. As long as God lives, there will be love in the universe. So because God was, and is, and is to come, eternally present, love will never die.

Not so opportunities to love, though. They are much like the figs themselves. We have to love now, capture the sweetness and joy of the moment that will delight like a fresh fig, or the possibility may be gone, like the fruit left out too long. That’s especially true when someone is sick or dying, soon to move away or grow up and change.

Opportunities to show compassion, to care for another, are fragile; they soon lose their “freshness” and are gone. And they may not come to us every day. The time to love is now.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another…. Love does no harm to a neighbor” (Romans 13:8a, 10a, based on NRSV).

In last week’s post, I explored how Paul talks about actual debt and money in the text from Romans. How we spend our funds and the amount of debt we have are moral and ethical issues.

But even if none of us had any mortgages and paid for everything we got with cash and barter, there would still be a debt crisis in our land. Because every one of us owes, or ought to owe, a debt of love to our neighbors. No collectors call if we don’t pay. Our credit rating with the credit bureaus stays in the high numbers. But there are other, more dire consequences. Ironically, if we don’t pay this debt, our lives will be impoverished. We’ll be ruined at the deepest level of our being. We could have millions of dollars in the bank, but you and I would be morally and spiritually bankrupt.

We’re called on to pay this debt frequently. In fact, it comes due not just once a month or on Sundays, but every minute, every hour. The bill varies. Sometimes it’s really big, and we wince at the cost. Other times we can pay it with the smallest of coins.

But it’s an urgent responsibility. See, love is in danger of extinction worse than the polar bears or some other creature we hear about. We live in a malicious and mean-spirited society. Everywhere, including in the churches, I see prejudice and hatred, lying and backstabbing, the desire to get revenge and promote fear. Paul calls on us to stand against the culture and make the decision to love.

Let’s be very, very clear. Love is not a warm fuzzy, though who doesn’t like a soft kitten or cuddly puppy? He’s not talking about romantic attraction, though that is one of the greatest powers in the world. Love doesn’t mean never having to say you’re sorry, if you remember the old movie line. In fact, probably just the opposite. No. Love is a verb. And we all remember our grammar. A verb is an action word.

Paul sums up what he has in mind with one sentence: “Love does no harm to a neighbor.” Just seven words in English and in the original Greek. But unpacking that brief sentence is complicated.

A key question, of course, is “Who is my neighbor?” The Bible’s definition is quite broad, and the Greek word also means “fellow human being.” Certainly we think of those of the church and our immediate community. But is not anyone and everyone on this planet in some sense our neighbor, especially those in need?

And how can I know if I’m doing no harm? We would not think of striking and injuring someone. But are my spending and consumption hurting someone across the globe because the products I buy are made in a sweatshop and my neighbor in another country is thus working under miserable conditions so I can have a product? If I drive carelessly or when I’m angry, could I not very well harm my neighbor who is also driving his or her car or simply crossing the street? What if my off-hand, insensitive remark deeply wounds someone else?

Tough stuff. Enough to drive you crazy. Or to the cross.

Next week: Some help in answering the questions.

© 2008 Tom Cheatham