This Sunday some of us will hear a portion of Peter’s first sermon from Acts calling on his listeners to repent and be baptized, followed by a portion from 1st Peter saying that Christians have been ransomed with the precious blood of Christ.
Repent, be baptized, you have been ransomed by the blood of Christ. That’s the call, but I think it falls short. There is a ‘so that’ attached to it. “[S]o that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.” It is this heartfelt, deep, mutual love for one another that must be the intention of our repentance and the sign of our Christian fellowship that is displayed to the entire world.
My experience is that the Church, writ however large or small you want, pays little more than lip service to the commandment to love and the importance of displaying that love as a sign to the world. Most of us are not unaware of that even if we don’t want to admit it. It’s why contemporary figures such as Tutu, Teresa, Nouwen, Merton and others are revered as the ones to whom we can point while generally rejecting their example as having any practical application in our own daily lives. Few of us are called to become a Tutu, Teresa, Nouwen or Merton. We are neither monk, nun nor bishop, we don’t want to become one, and we wouldn’t be good at it if we were. Nevertheless, every Christian is called to a life of discipleship, not at the margins but at the core.
Since formation for discipleship is among the highest priorities across all denominations, I suggest that deep mutual love for one another must be an essential ingredient of it. Without it there is no true repentance, baptism loses its meaning, and the ransoming blood of Christ is trivialized. The problem, at least for me, is that deep mutual love for one another is an abstraction without clear definition. It sounds great – just exactly what a good Christian should exhibit. But how does that get worked out in real life? The kind of life most people actually live?
There’s the rub. Learning to follow Christ through love is the hardest thing any of us will ever attempt. Yet I believe that it is only through one’s own personal commitment to the discipline of Christlike love that we can truly claim formation as believers. It would please me to make that claim for myself, but I can’t. I’ve been working on it a long time with only marginal success. I can forcefully assert that I know what needs to be done, but I am not the one others should aspire to emulate. What bothers me is that too many leaders appear to ignore the love commandment altogether, or dare to claim that their narrow minded, bigoted teaching is a fulfillment of it.
Scripture offers many places to begin. One of them is the 12th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.