Can Christians practice what they preach?
With the rhetoric surrounding the current debate about the proposed marriage amendment in Minnesota this fall, the Christian community is uniquely positioned to ask itself if it is really willing to practice what it preaches about God’s love and Christ’s command to us to “love one another.” (John 15:12) If Lutheran Christians agree with Martin Luther’s first of 95 theses, they are challenged to ask some hard questions about the way they treat Christians with whom they disagree. His first thesis reads: “When our lord and master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matthew 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
The implication of this thesis is that we Christians begin with the admission that we are sinners who need what Christ alone provides us, forgiveness and eternal life. When embroiled in an argument, we always remember that we are flawed, fallible human beings. When we point out the sins and errors of others, we always do so, remembering what we were taught as children, “that three fingers are pointing back at you.”
The non-Christian world needs from Christians more than platitudes about the “unconditional love of God.” They need to see us practicing it.
If Lutheran Christians remember what their Confessions teach about repentance, they also remember that when they summon themselves or someone else to repentance, there are two important components. We do not just feel sorry that we have violated God’s holy will for us; we also trust that there is forgiveness for our sins through the sacrificial life and death of Christ. The humility of repentance embraces the confidence that God still loves us even though we have done wrong. In fact, God loves us even when we fail to acknowledge all the sins of which we are guilty. We therefore pray with David in Psalm 19:2, “Cleanse me from my secret faults.”
To be genuine followers of Christ, we will also invite others to true repentance, which includes not only feeling lousy about their sin, but trusting God is willing to forgive them for Christ’s sake.
If God is willing to forgive us even for the sins we do not remember committing and have not specifically confessed, are we not obligated to “forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven you?” (Colossians 3:14). Forgiving someone else does not imply failing to identify their sin any more than God ignores the sins that we fail to recognize. God confronts our legitimate guilt with his word by identifying it and rebuking it. He also does something else equally important. He keeps loving us even when we stubbornly ignore our guilt, blame it on others, or try to justify it. If we expect God to embrace us with such “unconditional love,” are we not obligated to offer the same to one another, even when we feel the “other” is dead wrong, stubborn, close minded, and bigoted? That is easier said than done!
What does Jesus say about enemies?
The current debate about what the Minnesota Constitution should say about who can be licensed to be married provides a prime example. Can a Christian who believes that marriage should be reserved as an institution designed by God for one man and one woman still love homosexuals? I know Christians who do. Can a Christian believe that marriage should be available to homosexual couples and also love Christians who oppose their efforts? I know Christians who do. If we are serious about following Christ when he commands us to “love your enemies,” then surely we are no less obligated to love our Christian brothers and sisters with whom we vigorously disagree.
If God is willing to forgive us even for the sins we do not remember committing and have not specifically confessed, are we not obligated to “forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven you?”
The non-Christian world needs more from Christians than platitudes about the “unconditional love of God.” They need to see us practicing it.
We don’t need to demonize Christians with whom we disagree or whose behavior we fear threatens values that we cherish. If we are truly willing to exemplify the love of Christ ourselves, we need to remember that he ate with hated tax collectors who represented the upper crust of Jewish society. He also ate with marginalized “sinners,” … in the homes of Pharisees and self-righteous religious elitists, … openly calling some of them “hypocrites”; but he did not refuse to engage them and converse with them and reach out to them across the differences.
Writing no one off
Contrary to the simplistic stereotype we sometimes hear about the love of Jesus, he did not just reach out to the “down and outers.” He also reached out to “up and outers.” Jesus was no bigot. He was attacked in his own day for eating with the wrong people, but I believe he would be strenuously denounced in our day, too, because he would have eaten not only with the homeless and the victims of foreclosures and abuse. He would have also dined in the mansions of the Wall Street bankers who cheated thousands of people out of their life savings.
Some of the mighty and the powerful in his day were unconvinced and they orchestrated his crucifixion. But two of them, Nicodemus (a Pharisee) and Joseph (the wealthy aristocrat) became disciples and risked everything to give him a proper burial. Had he “written them off” because of their previous history and associations, he would have deprived them of the chance to change.
When we are tempted to demonize those with whom we disagree, we refuse to listen to them and share our perspectives with them. Our refusal to engage them with the uncommon, no-strings-attached love of Christ then risks petrifying the very evils we abhor.
The Christian Church has a rare opportunity to serve as a living parable of the grace of Christ in the current controversy and in other emotionally charged issues we face. Can we each speak what we believe is the truth “in love,” as urged by Paul in Ephesians 4:15? Can we refuse to engage in glib accusations and character assassinations that are so common in public commentaries? Can we refuse to ape the hate and the vitriolic impugning of people’s motives simply because they disagree with us? Or do we have to honestly admit that we really only love people who agree with us?
If we live daily by Luther’s first thesis, we will be anchored in the truly unconditional love of God that equips us to wrestle with our own prejudices and frailties bathed in the grace of God. He will also equip us to confront others with whom we disagree, inside and outside of the Christian Church, in such a way that simultaneously displays the love of him “who gave his son as an atoning sacrifice not only for our sins but for sins of the whole world.” (I John 2:2)
Richard H. Stadler is senior pastor of St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church (independent), West St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the board president of Metro Lutheran.
Tags: Colossians 3:14, Confessions, Ephesians 4:15, forgiveness, John 15:12, married couples, Martin Luther, Matthew 4:17, Minnesota constitution, Psalm 19:2, repentance, St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church West St. Paul, stubborn, unconditional love