Based on Ruth 1:1-18, Hebrews 9:11-14, Mark 12:28-34
Most of you have not studied Church History in any organized manner or depth. Many have encountered some aspects of it while reading a “study” Bible or maybe in Sunday school or Confirmation lessons. However, I suspect that you have wondered a time or two just how it was that the Church of Jesus Christ was able to make its way from 12 men in a miniscule portion of the largest Empire in the world to become the world’s dominant religion for more than 1500 years.
One answer for our wondering is contained in the Introduction to a book entitled, “The Christian Conquest of Pagan Rome”. In it, Stuart Strachan writes: “…A passage often referred to in order to describe the sacrificial, countercultural quality of the early church comes to us interestingly enough, from one of its strongest critics, known later to history as Julian the Apostate, the last non-Christian (or pagan) Roman emperor (serving from 361-363 AD). Emperor Julian had begrudgingly acknowledged that the Christians, or the “Galileans” as he referred to them, took care of the needy far more so than its pagan counterparts, which led to many new converts. This concerned the emperor because it threatened Julian’s attempt to restore the supremacy of the Roman pantheon. Most importantly, the passage describes just how powerful the Church can be when it models the sacrificial love of Christ to its neighbors: ‘These impious Galileans (Christians) not only feed their own, but ours also; welcoming them with their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted with cakes…Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors. Such practice is common among them and causes contempt for our gods (Epistle to Pagan High Priests).’ Those in the early church lived in a conflicted but beloved covenant community in peaceful opposition to the militaristic, materialistic, racist, and sexualized culture of the Roman Empire. The church was distinct, noticeable, and uncompromising. This type of prayerful resistance and faithful witness is needed today….”
Our scriptures for today call us to this “prayerful resistance and faithful witness” through the power of selfless love, known in Greek as agape. Whether it is Ruth’s commitment to follow Naomi back to Bethlehem and beyond or Jesus’ answer to an inquiring scribe or the writer of the letter to the Hebrews extolling the selfless love of Jesus which led him to sacrifice himself for all of us – we are reminded that salvation through Jesus is all about learning how to love like Him. Before we go farther, let us go to God now in prayer asking that we might be transformed into disciples who live a life of agape…
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews is continuing his treatise on how Jesus as the divine high priest is different than the high priests of the Jews. Jesus, our eternal high priest offered himself as a sacrifice once instead of the annual ritual of forgiveness of sins. If the annual sacrifice offered was enough to redeem the sins of the people for one year, the author posits, “…how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!…” Through the sacrifice of Jesus, our will is transformed from doing things that worship the dead idols of the world, into the
selflessly loving children who worship and act on behalf of the living God. That is a powerful love indeed!
Naomi and her two daughters-in-law lost their means of support when their husbands died. None of the younger wives had been blessed with children and so the three of them were faced with a life of hardship and living on the edge of society and survival. Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem, but she implores her Moabite daughters-in-law to stay behind in Moab and rebuild their lives with men from their country. One of the young women, Orpah, sees the wisdom in Naomi’s words and leaves to seek out her future. The other, Ruth, clings to Naomi and speaks a covenant promise that resonates down these millennia. The strength of her selfless love changes the mind of Naomi, and the two women travel together back to Bethlehem and into God’s great plan for salvation.
Jesus has just finished teaching some Sadducees about the resurrection. A scribe, hearing how well Jesus answered the question of the Temple leaders asks a probing question, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answers with the Shema, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” He goes on to add that all believers are called to love God with all that they have and all that they are and their neighbors as themselves. This pleases the scribe, and he congratulates Jesus on coming up with the correct answer. Jesus blesses him and tells him that he is “not far from the kingdom of God”. We are told that after this answer, no one dared to ask Jesus any more questions.
Loving our neighbor as ourselves, which Jesus commands us to do, will be disastrous if we don’t know ourselves first as beloved by God. In the very first chapter of the Bible, God speaks unconditional love, and all things are created. From that very first moment, we are all created through God’s selfless love and are in fact called “beloved” by God. It is important to realize that this beloved-ness, this creation in the image of God, this creation containing the very image and likeness of God, comes before the sin of the Garden of Eden – so called “original sin”. Yet, the Church has focused its teaching and preaching on the latter far more than the former. Is it any wonder then that Christians have come to think of salvation as elimination of sin rather than growing into the beloved-ness of Jesus the Christ?
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, thought and spoke a lot about agape and its beneficial effects on society. In an excerpt from The King Center on Beloved Community (www.thekingcenter.org) we hear his understanding of agape as the critical element in our transformation. I quote, “…The core value of the quest for Dr. King’s Beloved Community was agape love. Dr. King distinguished between three kinds of love: eros, ‘a sort of aesthetic or romantic love’; philia, ‘affection between friends’ and agape, which he described as ‘understanding, redeeming goodwill for all,’ an ‘overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless and creative’…‘the love of God operating in the human heart.’ He said that ‘Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people…It begins by loving others for their sakes’ and ‘makes no distinction between a friend and enemy; it is directed toward both…Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community.’
In his 1963 sermon, Loving Your Enemies, published in his book, “Strength to Love”, Dr. King addressed the role of unconditional love in struggling for the Beloved Community. ‘With every ounce of our energy we must continue to rid this nation of the incubus of segregation. But we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege and our obligation to love. While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community.’
Agape love, the selfless love that the Emperor Julian railed against to the priests of the Roman gods, creates in us the space to love everyone just as they are. This selfless loving will recapture those behaviors that made the early Church unique in the Roman Empire – behaviors that were distinct, noticeable and uncompromising. Twelve dedicated and faithful men, in relationship with and empowered by God’s love, began a revolution that changed our world. They knew that God’s unconditional love through the Holy Spirit reaches out to and meets us where we are. When we grow in agape, we find ourselves loving the same way that God loves – unconditionally loving all others where and how they are, while fully expecting that God’s love made manifest through our loving relationship will transform all of us. The institutional church and her members have forgotten this. Like the Sadducees, Pharisees and scribes of old, we are familiar as they were with the text of the Bible, yet tragically unfamiliar with how the agape of God is at work in our world. In Jesus’ answer, I think we discover some challenging questions: Do you disciples of Christ, obey as much as know these two commandments? Do you yourselves love God and neighbor selflessly, or do you prefer a Pharisaic-style debate without insight or transformation? Salvation is learning how to love selflessly and then sharing that love with the world in distinct, noticeable and uncompromising ways. Amen and amen!