How Should We Then Love?

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

I started the week by getting up on my soapbox and boldly declaring: “Love is all we need, folks! All we need is love!”

In our complex, chaotic, confusing world, we Christians don’t need greater certainty about our particular brand of doctrine. We don’t need to find the latest and greatest or oldest and truest form of worship. We don’t need more political engagement, more activism for the Christian cause.

Theology, liturgy, politics, and more are not inherently wrong, of course, and can even be very good, even vitally important—but none of these is the one thing we most desperately need.

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

I’ve spent the last three parts in this series making my case for this claim, and sketching out what this love looks like.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe Scripture points us to this. I believe Jesus points us to this. That was part two.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe all other divine commands and human virtues—including holiness and truth-speaking—are subsumed under love, governed by love, even defined by love. That was part four.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe the love Scripture and Jesus point to is not mere tolerance, or mere affection, but something far more, far more substantial, far more necessary. That was part three.

But what does this love look like in practice? In the nitty-gritty of the real world, where the rubber meets the road of life, what might it look like for us to love each other in the way of Jesus?

The New Testament itself gives some practical suggestions.

Here’s Jesus: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12; Luke 6:31). This has been analyzed and critiqued from every possible angle, but it seems to me this Golden Rule is simply Jesus’ rough-and-ready guide for putting “Love your neighbour as yourself” into action.

Before you speak or act, pause and think:

How would I feel if someone said this to me? If it would be a good or necessary feeling, say it. If not, zip it.

If I were this person, how would I react if someone did this to me? If my reaction would be positive, do it. If not, don’t.

What would I want someone to do for me if I were in this situation? Do it for them, if you’re at all able.

Then there’s the Good Samaritan story, Jesus’ own commentary on “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Luke 10:25-37). In the story, the Samaritan shows compassion for the Jew—typically hostile neighbours, these—caring for one who was violated, left destitute, left for dead. He treats the man’s injuries, brings him to a place of rest and ensures his continued care, all on his own dime, irrespective of who this man was or whether he was “worthy” of such care.

In a similar vein, James connects this neighbour love with how the poor are treated—not just in terms of caring for their material needs, but also in terms of showing them honour and respect (Jas 2:1-9). And John asks this piercing question: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:16-18).

“Go,” Jesus says after telling of the Good Samaritan, “and do likewise.”

That woman violated by her abuser—care for her in this way.

That family left destitute after a sudden job loss—love them like this.

That returning veteran dead inside from the trauma of war—show her compassion like this.

That whole mass of people without adequate health care, education, or even food for the table—treat them in this way.

That Muslim immigrant, that gay couple, that redneck conservative or that flaming liberal, whatever your “despised other” is—shower them with this kind of love.

Another angle on putting this Christ-like love into action can be seen in the many “one another” passages, mostly found in Paul’s letters. If “love one another as Jesus has loved us” sums up all the virtues and ideals for Paul, then all the “x one another” passages are expressions of this love.

“Love one another” means “patiently tolerate one another” (Eph 4:2)—yes, those people you dislike, or disagree with.

“Love one another” means “accept one another” (Rom 15:7)—welcome others with open arms, open homes, open tables, even those you might not normally associate with.

“Love one another” means “encourage one another” (1 Thess 5:11)—don’t tear down others with harsh or cruel words, but build them up with kind words (even on the internet).

“Love one another” means “honour one another” (Rom 12:10)—show respect to everyone, even the “nobodies” and “nothings” among you, those on the fringes around you.

“Love one another” means “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2)—we’ve all got them, those difficult burdens of life, so let’s lend each other a hand with them.

“Love one another” means “do not judge one another” (Rom 14:13)—unless you wear a robe to work and bang a gavel all day, that’s not your job, ever.

“Love one another” means “forgive one another” (Eph 4:32; Col 3:13)—just let it go, release them from the heavy burden of guilt and yourself from the choking tangle of bitterness.

And many more—all specific attitudes and actions that flesh out what it looks like to love one another in the way of Jesus.

The Golden Rule, the Good Samaritan, these “one another” commands—all of these connect to some ideas I’ve suggested already.

In my third post I described this Jesus-love this way: freely giving ourselves for others so that they might experience flourishing life together with us, even if we feel they don’t deserve it, even when it hurts us to do so. This “flourishing life” that is the goal of love, I suggested, is at minimum having our basic, universal human needs met—and this, too, can give us a window on love in action.

Clean air is a basic human need—so love might mean pushing for tougher regulations on polluting industries.

Clean water is a basic human need—so love might mean giving money for clean water initiatives in developing countries.

Nourishing food is a basic human need—so love might mean volunteering at a breakfast program in your local elementary school.

Adequate warmth in clothing and shelter is a basic human need—so love might mean donating blankets and jackets to an inner city soup kitchen before winter hits.

Simple health and safety is a basic human need—so love might mean supporting restorative justice programs in your community. 

Positive relationships with others is a basic human need—so love might mean learning about the complexity of human sexuality so you can better empathize with LGBT persons.

A sense of belonging in a group is a basic human need—so love might mean inviting your new-to-town neighbour to your weekly bowling night.

A sense of meaning or purpose, of experiencing and contributing to beauty, truth, and goodness in the world, is a basic human need—so love might mean starting a community children’s choir or a neighborhood book club.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question, “How should I love others?” Each person is unique, each interaction between people is unique—and each person needs love, every single time we interact with each other.

We can’t do all these things I’ve suggested in this post. We can’t do everything we could ever imagine. We can’t love everyone. We can’t even love all the time.

But we can love this person. We can love in this moment. We can start with one act of love, however small, and let it grow from there.

That’s how kingdoms are born, after all.

Treat others the way you would like to be treated, in your attitudes, your words, your actions toward them.

Give yourself—your time, your energy, your attention, your compassion, your money, your things, your very self—for others.

Do these things, striving for flourishing life together: our basic needs as human persons met, all shared together.

And do these things for all others you encounter: neighbours and enemies, friends and strangers, family and foreigners, good and bad alike.

Sounds simple, and in a way it is. Love cuts through the chaos and confusion of our complex world, it slices through all our insistence on right doctrine or correct morality or proper ritual, right down to what matters most.

But it’s not easy. It is the most difficult thing we can do in life, loving each other.

It’s also the most important.

This kind of love is the foundation for true justice.

This kind of love is the basis for lasting peace.

This kind of love is the source of flourishing life.

This kind of love is the love that God is, the love that God has shown us in Jesus, the love that God calls us as followers of Jesus to live out, energized by the Spirit.

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

Cross-posted from © Michael W. Pahl.


What is Love?

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

In my first post I got on my soapbox and boldly declared: “Love is all we need, folks! All we need is love!”

diversityIn our complex, chaotic, confusing world, we Christians don’t need greater certainty about our particular brand of doctrine. We don’t need to find the latest and greatest or oldest and truest form of worship. We don’t need more political engagement, more activism for the Christian cause.

Theology, liturgy, politics, and more are not inherently wrong, of course, and can even be very good, even vitally important—but none of these is the one thing we need always and forever.

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

I say this, because, as I outlined in my last post, I believe Scripture points us to this. I believe Jesus points us to this.

But what is this love? What does it look like?

Some people hear “love” and think “affection,” a surge of warmth and fondness toward others. Some people hear “love” and think “tolerance,” acknowledging and accepting others and their actions with a kind of benign smilingness. Some, perhaps conditioned by Christianity, hear “love” and think “self-sacrifice.” Some, of course, hear “love” and think “romance” or even “sex”: physical, emotional, even erotic intimacy.

But the love I’m talking about is not merely affection for others, though feelings of affection are good and beautiful. This love is not merely tolerance of others, though it is important that we acknowledge and accept others’ differences. This love cannot be reduced to simple self-sacrifice, though it is true that we need to break through our selfishness and give of ourselves to others. And although physical and emotional intimacy is a necessary, God-given gift, by itself this is not the love that saves us.

Acceptance. Affection. Self-sacrifice. Intimacy.

Each of these is good and necessary. Each of these gives a glimpse of love, one angle on a multi-faceted love. But none of these by itself is the love we need.

When the biblical authors attempt to describe “love” they consistently point to God’s love for us. In the New Testament, more particularly, they point to God’s love for us in Jesus. To get even more specific, the New Testament often points to Jesus’ suffering and death to portray what true love is all about.

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

So, for example, in the Hebrew Bible we hear of God’s hesed, Yahweh’s loyal love for ancient Israel, standing at the very centre of God’s self-revelation (e.g. Exod 34:6; Ps 145:8-9). We see this loyal love in action from creation on, Yahweh providing and protecting, giving and forgiving, rescuing and restoring, time and time and time again.

In the Gospels we hear Jesus speaking of an Abba Father who cares for the least and last, who seeks the lost, who loves sinners with a ring-and-robe and fatted-calf-feast kind of love (e.g. Luke 15). In the Epistles we hear that “God shows his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8), that “we know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16), and that we are to be “imitators of God” by “living in love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph 5:1-2).

“God is love,” we are told, and Jesus comes as “the image of the invisible God,” the “exact imprint of God’s very being,” the ultimate revelation of the God who is love (1 John 4:8, 16; Col 1:15; Heb 1:3; John 1:18).

So in light of God’s love for us, and especially God’s love for us in Jesus, what is this love, this one thing we really need? A few reflections, and then a summary description.

Love starts with a stance of openness. It doesn’t stand aloof, arms crossed in suspicion or scorn, waiting for the other to prove themselves. Love steps forward with arms open wide, even running toward the other. It sees the other as a person, inherently worthy of welcome, of compassion, of affection, of respect. It sees these things, even when the other person cannot see it themselves.

Love is freely given. It is “freely given” in that it is voluntary, not coerced. A forced “love” is no love at all. It is also “freely given” in that it expects nothing in return. That is barter or bribery, or crass capitalism—it is not love.

Love is a giving of oneself. Our time, our attention, our listening ear, our gracious words, our empathy, our loyalty, our experiences, our material resources—all the things that make us who we are as persons, all the things we value as humans, given for the other person. This puts us in a precarious position, because we love without knowing how our love will be perceived, without knowing how it will be received. There is always risk in love.

Love is given whether the recipient deserves it or not. It is loving anyone we cross paths with day by day, our “neighbours.” It is loving “strangers” or “sinners,” those who are different than us in any way, even in ways we vehemently disagree with. It is loving even those who oppose us in anything, even if they do so violently: our “enemies.”

Love is given even when it hurts the giver. This is not an excuse for abuse—remember, love is freely given, never coerced, never forced. This is not the weak being oppressed by the strong, but the strong giving themselves for the weak. Love, at one time or another, in one way or another, will always suffer for the other person. To love is to suffer.

The goal of this love is mutual flourishing, giver and receiver together. The objective is life shared together: not merely surviving but thriving. It is the opposite of what Christians call “sin,” those attitudes and actions that cause harm to others and ourselves.

Think of our most basic needs as human beings. We’ve got those basic physical needs, what we need just to exist: clean air and water, nourishing food, adequate warmth in clothing and shelter, simple health and safety. Then there are those basic psychological, emotional, and social needs we all have, without which we are diminished as persons: positive relationships with others, a sense of belonging in a group, a sense of meaning or purpose, of experiencing and contributing to beauty, truth, and goodness in the world.

These are universal human needs. They can give us a minimal, rough sketch of what “flourishing life” can look like. Which means they can give us a working description of what love should strive for: ensuring others have these basic human needs met, meeting these basic needs for others, for one another together.

This, then, is love: freely giving ourselves for others so that they might experience flourishing life together with us, even if we feel they don’t deserve it, even when it hurts us to do so.

Let that sink in a little.

Go back and read that again.

As you do, pause to think about different people in your life, people you encounter day by day—those you’re close to, those you’re not, those you like, those you don’t.

What would it look like to love them like this?

What would our world be like if we loved one another like this?

Stay tuned for part four.

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

Cross-posted from © Michael W. Pahl.

Mary on the Margins

Yesterday I preached on John 20:1-18, focusing on Jesus’ encounter with Mary Magdalene. We don’t know much about the historical Mary Magdalene, but the little we get from the Gospels indicates she was a significant person in Jesus’ life and ministry.

You’d be hard pressed to find an early Christian with as impressive a résumé as she had. Consider this:

  • Mary was with Jesus throughout his ministry after being healed of demon possession, traveling with Jesus and the Twelve disciples, one of a group of women who supported them out of their own pockets (Luke 8:1-3).
  • Mary witnessed the three central gospel events: Jesus’ death, his burial, and his resurrection (Matt 27:55-56, 61; 28:1-10).
  • Mary was the first person commissioned by the risen Jesus to bear witness to his resurrection (John 20:17-18; Mark 16:9-11).
Mary Magdalene Announces

Mary Preaching to the Apostles

As I noted in my sermon, Mary thus fit the criteria for being an apostle: she had been with Jesus through his ministry, and she was the star witness to his resurrection (see Acts 1:21-22). It is not surprising, then, that she has been called “Apostle to the Apostles” in the Western Church, and “Equal to the Apostles” in the East.

However, through much of Church history Mary has been pushed to the margins.

From early on she was ignored. In the New Testament she disappears after the Gospels, and she’s left off the “official apostolic list” of resurrection witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15.

And then she was maligned. As the centuries passed she was identified with the unnamed woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, who, in Luke’s Gospel, is identified only as a “sinner.” In the medieval imagination this morphed into Mary being a prostitute, and a particularly lascivious one at that. Paintings of a later era often show her in a provocative pose even in penitence, taunting the viewer with her brazen sexuality.

None of this, however, is even hinted at in the Gospels. Mary Magdalene is never identified as the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet. She is never described as a “sinner,” let alone as a prostitute or adulteress. She was as I described her above: healed of demon possession, and then a faithful disciple of Jesus, an important person in Jesus’ life and ministry, and a crucial witness to Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.

Mary Magdalene, faithful disciple and first witness of the crucified and resurrected Jesus, was first ignored, and then maligned. Mary was shoved to the margins—all because she was a woman.

Yet this was not Jesus’ perspective on women. Of course, Jesus was no modern feminist. He chose twelve men to be his first apostles, after all, a nod to the patriarchy of his ancient Jewish world: the Twelve represent the twelve tribes of Israel, the sons of Jacob, as Jesus is re-making the people of God.

Yet along the way Jesus undermined that patriarchal mindset. He is remembered across the Gospels as sticking a burr under the saddle of patriarchy, a barb here, a bristle there, until the male-dominated world gets mighty uncomfortable. Consider this:

  • Jesus talks to women as equals, not as inferiors—like the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42).
  • Jesus even accepts a rebuke by a woman, and commends her for it—the Gentile woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon (Matt 15:21-28).
  • Jesus frequently praises women for their faith and piety—the poor widow with her meagre offering (Luke 21:1-4), the bleeding woman who touched his garment in the crowd (Mark 5:25-34), the ten virgins waiting faithfully for the bridegroom to come (Matt 25:1-13), and more.
  • Jesus heals women in ways that show concern for their unique difficulties in society, or that elevate them to places of honour—raising the widow of Nain’s only son so that she would be cared for (Luke 7:11-17), or healing the woman bent double and calling her a “daughter of Abraham” (Luke 13:10-17, the only place that phrase is used in the New Testament).
  • Jesus speaks of women as his “disciples,” his true “mothers” and “sisters” who do God’s will—unusual if not unprecedented for a Rabbi of the day (Matt 12:46-50).
  • Jesus even highlights another Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ sister, as the ideal disciple learning from her Rabbi (Luke 10:38-42).

And when the resurrected Jesus appears, he appears first to the faithful one on the margins, the one whose testimony would be suspect simply because she was a woman: Mary Magdalene. Jesus doesn’t marginalize Mary—he brings her right into the centre of God’s work in the world, first witness to the dawn of a new creation.

How well are we following Jesus in this way? Are we men following Jesus in drawing women into the centre of God’s work in the world, deliberately creating space for women among us to use their gifts and share their voice, allowing them to create this space for themselves, sharing this co-created space as full equals?

And what about others on the margins? What about those who have God-given gifts to share, God-given voices to use, but whom we hold at arm’s length, keeping them on the sidelines, in the shadows?

Jesus looks to the last in the world, the least in society, those who have lost their way. He sees them. He sees their gifts, he hears their voice. He seeks them, he finds them. He draws them in, and lifts them up, and empowers them to use their God-given gifts, to speak with their God-given voice.

May we who claim to follow Jesus do the same.

In a moment of inspiration last week I wrote a poem (it is still National Poetry Month, after all). It’s a poem about Mary Magdalene, Mary on the margins, Mary brought into the centre of God’s work in the world. It is simply called, “With.”


I stand among them,
yet not with them.
Their number is fixed:
signs of the heavens,
tribes of the father
—no girls allowed.

I learn among them,
yet not with them.
Hearing good news,
kingdom come
and will be done
—first for the Jew.

I walk among them,
yet not with them.
Preaching good news,
feeding poor mouths,
healing disease
—cast out with the demons.

Where have they gone?
Why have they fled?
The cross before me,
the tomb behind me,
the garden around me:
he is with me
—and I am with him.

Cross-posted from © Michael W. Pahl.

Sermon from a Morden Church

“Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King JrOut of great struggle rise great women and men, to do great things. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of these. His voice gave dignity to African-Americans in a world that gave them none. His example of nonviolent resistance gave others the courage to stand for truth in love. His ideas fueled a movement toward freedom and equality that continues to this day.

MLK’s legacy is an American treasure. But it is a treasure big enough for all people to share.

I was reminded of the above quote from MLK’s book, Stride Toward Freedom, a couple of weeks ago when I preached on Epiphany Sunday. My sermon was on diversity, on the ways we “other” others. Sound odd? Here’s an excerpt…

“Others,” and How They Are Made

It happens all the time, and we’re all prone to it. We all like to be around people who are like us, people who generally think the same way we do, who dress much the same way we do, who speak the same language, like the same food, have similar interests. But then someone new arrives on the scene, someone who doesn’t quite fit the mould, someone who looks a little different, who speaks a little different, who likes different things.

It’s so easy for us to fear the different. Often this is motivated by ignorance—we just don’t know what to make of them, we don’t know what their presence might mean for us. And so we’re afraid: there’s something threatening about their differences, as if we think they might undermine our own comfortable life just by their presence, as if the fact that they think and do things differently might call into question the legitimacy of the way we think and do things.

At this point things are still salvageable. Difference is not the problem. But when, out of ignorance and fear, we push differences to the outside, we make the different into the outsider, then we have a problem. They are no longer “us”; they’re not even “you’s” anymore, people we address directly. They are simply “them,” “those people,” consigned to third person pronouns.

But things can even get worse. When someone we’ve labeled an outsider actually does something to us, or our family, or our community, when one of “those people” does something that threatens something we hold dear, the outsider can become the enemy. Then it’s not simply “us” and “them”: it’s “us versus them.” Suddenly “those people” get blamed for everything that’s going wrong. Suddenly the greatest threat to our world is Muslims, or evolutionists, or gays, or whatever we’ve made into our polar opposite—and if nothing is done, we believe, the world as we know it will be lost. Again, more ignorance and fear.

The different becomes the outsider, the outsider becomes the enemy—but we’re not done yet. In extreme cases, we then demonize these enemies, we de-humanize them. Think of Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden: by the time they died they were no longer seen as flesh-and-blood human beings, regular people who still had to get dressed every morning, who still laughed and loved with friends and family. Our greatest enemies become symbols of something greater, something more terrible; they become icons of evil. And then we can imagine horrible things done to them that we would never wish on any flesh-and-blood human being.

The different becomes the outsider, the outsider becomes the enemy, and the enemy is demonized, stripped of their humanity.

Reversing this “Othering”

But this is not the way of Jesus. This is not the gospel. Jesus is about breaking down walls, erasing lines in the sand, widening circles, extending tables.

Rembrandt Christ on the CrossIn a brilliant passage that deserves careful, repeated reading, Ephesians 2 describes how Jesus has come to “destroy the dividing wall of hostility” between Jews and Gentiles: he “preached peace to those who were far away and peace to those who were near,” in order to create “one new humanity” and thus “bring peace” (Eph 2:14-18).

Here’s the hard part, the more excellent way, the narrow road. Following in Jesus’ footsteps, motivated by love, we are called to reverse this process of “othering”: to humanize our enemies, to bring the outsider in, to celebrate our differences.

“There is no fear in love,” we’re told in 1 John 4, “but perfect love casts out fear.” So we begin to follow Jesus in this by replacing fear of others with love. We don’t fear those who are different simply because they are different; we love them.

This sounds so idealistic, and it is—the gospel is idealistic, the kingdom of God is the ultimate in idealistic, imagining a world better than the one we’ve got now. But this love can still take seriously the dangers around us. Sometimes we have legitimate reason to fear other people. Sometimes other people’s actions do threaten something or someone we hold dear. We should be cautious in a dangerous world. We still lock our doors at night; we don’t leave our keys in the ignition; we don’t let our kids walk alone across town. We promote just laws, and compassionate policing, and restorative justice.

Yet if this appropriate caution becomes a fear that drives us, defining the way we interact with those we meet day by day, defining the way we engage those who are different than us, making the different the outsider and the outsider the enemy—then we need love to drive out that fear. That kind of fear-based approach to those who are different just doesn’t work. It has got us as a human race into a mighty mess—polarized politics, radicalized religion, angry fundamentalism, culture wars, real wars—and we need love to drive that fear away.

This love is not a sentimental “smile and nod” kind of love. It is heartfelt, active, Jesus-love. It shows interest in the other person, in their loves and longings, their joys and sorrows. It learns about that person, where they’re from, what they eat, what they like to do, how they live. It reaches out to that person in their need—loneliness, despair, hunger, illness, grief—and accepts help from that person when we’re in need. This Jesus-love is a love that gives itself for the other, even when it hurts, even when the other is different, an outsider, an enemy.

And when we love like this, the process of “othering” someone else turns back on itself. That enemy we have demonized, is humanized. We see them for who they are: people just like us, just as frightened as we are behind their pomp and power, feeling just as threatened in their world, with things they value and people they love, longing for the basics of a meaningful human life—good and nourishing food, clean air and water, warm shelter and clothing, personal freedom, a safe home, loving relationships, dignity and respect.

And when we love like this, the outsider is brought in. It’s no longer “us versus them” or even just “us” and “them”—the third-person “those people” becomes a second-person “you” as we engage them directly, and then even a first-person “one of us.” We break down the walls that divide us, we erase the high-stakes lines in the sand, we widen the circle, we extend the table and invite them in for Faspa. Whatever “those people” we’ve created, we open our arms and say, “Welcome here.”

And when we love like this, the different are celebrated. Love doesn’t erase our differences. We recognize that just as we’re all the same—humans together on the same planet hurtling through the galaxy around the same sun—so we recognize that we’re all different. Different abilities, different ideas, different interests, different dreams, different clothes, different shades of skin, different shapes and sizes, different names, different people. And we celebrate this: we welcome the Magi from the East just as we’ve welcomed the shepherds from the hill country, and just as God welcomes slave and free, Gentile and Jew, male and female, from every tribe and nation and people and language.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Cross-posted from © Michael W. Pahl.