Tuesday, September 8, 2015

We are walking…

Years ago, I read an idea that’s shaped my thinking since. It claims that Christianity can be understood as a long-running debate. In one corner is the church behind John’s Gospel, typified by Christ’s final commandment in that book: Love one another as I’ve loved you. In the other corner is the church behind Luke’s Gospel, typified by another commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Shane, what debate? Those ideas are the same!” In some cases, maybe. But look closer, and at least I see two poles on one constantly swinging pendulum.

After all, in John’s Gospel, the focus is internal. Love one another, Jesus says, as in your fellow sisters and brothers in Christ. The goal here is guarding the faithful, defending the purity of their truth claims, not letting “the world” invade. There’s some historical justification for that sentiment. John’s community was harassed. They experienced derision from neighbors, expulsion from synagogues and cities, occasional outright persecution. And such looming threats can weigh on a community. Infighting and bickering become common: “If only she’d shut her trap…” “If only he had done more…” John, therefore, quotes Jesus begging, “Love one another,” or else the whole ship might sink!

Luke’s Gospel, by contrast, focuses outwardly. His Jesus spends less time concerned about his disciples’ relationship to each other, than their relationship to the world. In particular, he wants them offering love and service, guidance and acceptance, forgiveness, to the most vulnerable around them. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he counsels, and it’s not like his community had it easy. They too experienced derision, rejection, persecution. But to keep people united, Luke counsels they focus on helping widows, orphans, outcasts, strangers, and not buildings a wall around the church, enforcing strict standards of identity and purity, a la John. Rather, Luke says, “Hey, if we wanna beat this trouble, let’s throw our doors open wider! Serve and love our neighbors more!”

Hence, the debate that’s evolved within Christianity across centuries and cultures: Is our primary mission internal or external? Especially when we’re vulnerable, should we guard our “truth”, protect our Christian identity above all, or should we open our doors and tables wider, aiming above all to love neighbors as best we can?

Both answers, of course, have value. When forced to choose, though, I go with Luke. I love John’s language, poetry and insights. But I think he’s wrong about the best Christian mission. It’s not defending truth; it’s showering love, particularly on and with those in need.

I bring this up by way of introducing an idea that began with a Servant Leaders conversation months ago, and will become a church activity this month. Every year, our city has a parade, aptly called Plymouth on Parade. Local institutions, schools and citizens march together, celebrating the tapestry of our community. This year’s parade is September 26. Our Servant Leaders wanted us to join in, signaling to neighbors, “We’re here! You can be too!” In other words, it’s an act of opening up, of challenging the church to think beyond our building and our relationships, and instead to imagine anew the new connections we can create with others.

So they signed us up! All PCCCers are invited to march. We’ll bring the bus, wear church t-shirts, have fun together. We’ll also hand out fliers to onlookers, which will include worship information as well as a call to action. We’re inviting neighbors to join a food/clothing drive the following week. The flyer will say, “Bring donations to our church by October 3. We’ll take them to people in need!” That, too, is about opening up, communicating not just, “We’re Here! You can be too!” But also, “We’re here! We love people! You can too, with us!”

Will that bring more visitors? Maybe. It’s certainly worth trying. Will those visitors return? Perhaps, especially if we’re open to forming new relationships. Will we collect enough donations to feel like it’s “worth it”? Who cares?! Jesus said Love, in both commandments. And however we do that, if we love, actively, we’re behaving as we should be. No debate about that!

Grace and Peace,

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