We stand divided as a nation, and as Christians. The issues that divide us are significant, and important to us. The chasm between our beliefs is large and defies efforts to bridge it. We all believe that morality, scripture and God himself are on our side. We wield carefully selected verses like weapons against each other to “prove” our points. The differences seem irreconcilable, and more divisions among us seem inevitable, as we each flee to the comfort of like-minded brothers and sisters.
Or is it inevitable?
In times like these, perhaps what we need to do is not drive ourselves further apart by accentuating our differences, but rather look deeper for what holds us together.
We need to get back to basics.
Where do we look for these basics?
To the Bible, of course. While it is not the only source of divine inspiration and knowledge, it is the best. It is a tool to be used to learn more about God, grow closer to him, and discern his will, with the humble admission that we are not God, and will never fully understand his will. Nonetheless, he does not want us to live in ignorance and has given us abundant information about his will for us.
Of course, the Bible is an incredibly complex work, that can be studied for decades and still reveal new insights with each new reading. As I’ve already mentioned, it can be the source of quotes that, taken out of context, can be used to justify virtually any position. In history, the Bible, or at least carefully selected portions of it, has been used to justify a wide variety of political, military and economic actions, from slavery to abolitionism, from the Crusades to pacifism, from capitalism to communism, and from monarchy to democracy. So where do we start? And how do we keep from being led astray, as has happened so many times in the past? How do we keep ourselves from being corrupted by the politics of our age?
Well, perhaps we should begin with what we call ourselves. Christians. That indicates the centrality of Christ to our beliefs. Therefore, logically, it would seem to me, the directly recorded words and teachings of Christ himself should form the core of our beliefs.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that we should cast aside the rest of the Bible as unimportant. The wisdom of the ancient prophets, the grand scope and lessons of Israel’s history, the bedrock theology of Paul’s letters – none of it should be put aside lightly.
But it is not the core, and is best understood when taken in the context of what is the core – the words of Christ. There is a reason we are not called the Levitican church or the Paulene church, but rather the Christian church.
So, I would propose that we look to the Gospels for our inspiration as we seek to heal the wounds and find a way forward for our denomination, our religion and our nation. In these four books, we find the words of Christ. Like many of you, the Bible I most frequently use has the words of Christ helpfully printed in red, for easy reference. It’s only a couple of thousand words. Reading them all doesn’t actually take all that long, and I find it quite instructive, not to mention exhilarating and inspirational. Of course, the narrative between Jesus’ words is also very important, but His words stand up pretty well even without that narrative.
If you take the time to do this, several themes quickly begin to emerge, those things that Jesus felt important enough to emphasize, sometimes repeatedly. I think everyone who reads the words of Christ will find something slightly different, something that speaks to them, but certain themes are obvious to all. Here are some of the themes that I find.
Grace – that we are saved not through any merit of our own, but by the Grace of God, his great love for us. We are all redeemed sinners, imperfect vessels made whole by Christ’s blood.
Hope – that God loves us and means us well, and that he will triumph in the end, despite all the trials we must go through before then, and that there is a place for us in his plan.
Faith – that the key to our salvation is faith in God.
Peace – that God intends us to live in peace with each other, a blessed state.
Charity – that God loves and cares for the poor, the humble and the unfortunate of the world, and that the wealthy, the prideful and the powerful of the world cannot gain his favor through their wealth and power. Indeed that wealth and power may imperil their souls.
Service – that God intends for us to follow Christ’s example and serve those in need. Feeding the hungry. Caring for the ill. Visiting the prisoners. Welcoming the strangers.
Mercy – that the sins we should care most about are our own, and that we should be hesitant to judge or accuse others, instead focusing our energy on walking our own path in His name.
Love – that we should be ruled in all we do by love. Love of God and love of each other. That that love extends to all the world and its peoples. Even the stranger. Even our enemies.
These are the basics I was looking for. These are the things that we all believe. The things that bind us together. The things that make us Christian, and make us Brethren.
Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, the issues which threaten to divide us as a church today receive little, if any, attention, in the Gospels. It is not that those issues did not exist in Christ’s day. Many of them did. This is not to say that Jesus did not care at all about the issues we worry and fret about today, the issues that threaten to divide us brother against brother. It merely shows that he chose not to emphasize them, when he could have. It shows that these issues are not central to his teaching.
In fact, Jesus has answered the most important question of all for us. How should we relate to God and to our fellow man? His answer is recorded in the Bible. It has been called the Great Commandment, and many of us likely know it by heart.
One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “’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. (Matt 22:35-40)
In these six short verses Jesus lays out for us how we should relate to God, and how we should relate to each other. Through love. We are to love God and love each other. So simple. So hard to do. He goes on in other passages to make clear that by neighbor he means everybody, including our enemies.
This is the heart, the core, of Christ’s message to us all, and it is timeless. If we use this as the lens through which we view all else, we may find that those things on which we differ are not so blindingly important. That we can disagree without accusing or judging, acknowledging that God is the ultimate judge of us all, and that our understanding of his will is imperfect. That we can live together rather than apart. That, rather than emphasizing our differences, we can emphasize those things that Jesus himself thought it most important to teach us about: Grace, Hope, Faith, Peace, Charity, Service, Mercy and Love.
That’s what I call getting back to basics.