How would you summarize the 12 most essential teachings of Jesus Christ? On one hand, you’d want to be faithful to the things the Lord actually taught. On the other hand, you’d want to express those ideas so that people in a post-Christian world could get it and relate them to life. Over the course of 2021, I want to reflect once each month on what the most essential ideas of the Gospel my be. I won’t devote every week to the process because I want to stretch it out with time to reflect. At any rate, here’s my first thought:
#1: Love will get you hurt. Does that sound too negative? It was Jesus himself who insisted, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13 NIV) People who lay down their lives for other people often don’t survive to attend the Awards Ceremony at City Hall. How can self-esteem seekers in a 21st Century consumer society seriously relate to the call for self-sacrifice?
Frankly, people in the 1st Century weren’t so crazy about dying young either. Nobody expected to reach 65 and retire back then, but most people weren’t eager to leave the planet tomorrow! Even so, Jesus made that inconvenient statement over and over in a variety of ways.
He commanded that I must love God with all my heart and soul and strength; and I must love my neighbor as myself. (Mark 12:31) We’ve reduced that axiom to such a familiar cliche’ that I can quote it fervently without wondering what is required if I value God above my own comfort and safety, or if I must regard threats to my neighbor as hazardous to me as well.
The Lord could get away with these outrageous requirements because he was offering his listeners something extravagant and wonderful: a new life. Don’t misunderstand. This would not be a new life in which his followers would instantly do a 180 and suddenly begin to live morally upright lives, obeying all the commandments and always feeling good about themselves. Not that. Rather, Jesus offered men and women a different kind of relationship with their heavenly Father and a new way to draw upon his wisdom, his power and his love. “As the Father loved me, I also have loved you: abide in my love.” (John 15:9 NASV) Think about that. The Old Covenant taught Israelites how to live as a part of a holy nation, a peculiar people. The New Covenant is ordered around living in Christ’s love. The heart of the Old Testament was ten commandments dealing with worship, family, adultery, crime, and covetousness, but the commands of Christ are merely twofold: loving God and loving neighbors.
This is why following Jesus does not begin with a change of behavior. That’s what we tend to talk about and even attempt to measure in ourselves and others, of course. Am I going to church? Is she reading her Bible? Is he trying to convince others to become Christians as well? We operate from this false premise that Christ came to change our behavior when, primarily, he came to change our hearts. Recognizing the love of God and, quite naturally, beginning to love him in return shows up first in my attitudes, affections, and ambitions. After that it begins to alter my habits and daily life.
Motives matter. People who improve their behavior based on religious ambition, determined to prove something, tend to deceive themselves. They can’t accept the fact that they are unable to conquer all their selfish desires and impulses, so they tend to deny having them or behave as though temptation is not a problem anymore. It all begins to feel rather phony, so they compensate by pretending they are superior to others while, deep inside, they feel like hypocrites. This explains so much of the competition and pretense so evident in church life today.
By contrast, people who recognize the overwhelming love of God, who begin and end each day exploring the dimensions of his love, realize the wonder of it all is that God loves them in the midst of their failures and pathetic attitudes. They are so grateful for God’s patience with them that they tend to be more patient with the frailties of others. And the changes that begin to show up in their daily lives stem not from trying to prove anything to others, but rather from naturally emulating someone they love so much. Gratitude unlocks possibilities that guilt can never touch. (Romans 8:39)
The Christian faith seems similar to other world religions only to people who assume it’s about self-improvement and behavior modification. Those are, of course, key ideas that other religions cultivate. But in fact, the call of Christ is radical and unique because it begins with the idea that we cannot repair ourselves in any meaningful way and can find peace only in the God who has taken all the initiative, allowing sinners to rest in his love. (Romans 5:8)
That love will lead you into acts of generosity and sacrifice that feel painful at first. Occasionally, love calls us to lay our lives on the line for our neighbors. But as costly as those sacrifices may seem on the surface, the loss is far, far outweighed by the benefits. Followers of Jesus enjoy the rare privilege of knowing him, drawing upon his wisdom, being shielded by his authority. And even in the face of assaults from people who don’t understand, we enjoy the comfort of God’s nearness and the promise that Heaven will one day afford us his presence forever.
Love will get you hurt, but the point of Life cannot be the avoidance of all pain. The greatest life ever lived brought Jesus Christ to his own crucifixion! A truly satisfying life requires facing adversity and chaos in order to fulfill your purpose, enjoy the great adventure with others, and leave behind a legacy. The Love of God will take you there.
Lift up the Cross…!