Monday, August 1, 2016

The greatest commandment(s)

I just (as in today) finished a book by Miroslav Volf called Allah: A Christian Response. This is the first book I've read by this theologian, but it will certainly not be the last. The book is intended to argue that the God of Christianity and Allah of Islam are the same God. But Volf doesn't leave it at that; he elucidates implications for this belief.

I engaged with the book because it is assigned reading for my systematic theology class at Calvin Theological Seminary (CTS). I will say that I went into this book already agreeing with Volf's conclusion: that the God of Christianity and Allah of Islam are the same. I had different reasons, and a much simpler argument, than what Volf presents. What he wrote still blows me away, though. His description of the Trinity presented here is descriptive and beautiful, as is his treatment of the Incarnation.

A thought occurred to me as I was reading the book. I'm sure it was triggered by the subject in the chapter I was reading at the time, but it struck me nonetheless. I was thinking about that time when Jesus had someone test him (which gets me every time. I love these parts of the Gospels). And, in typical Jesus fashion, he answers with two greatest commandments instead of one.

Matthew 22:35-40
And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test [Jesus]: "Teacher, which commandment is greatest in the law?" So [Jesus] said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and with your whole soul, and with your whole mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. But the second is like it: love your neighbor as you love yourself. On these two commandments the whole law hangs, as well as the prophets."

Strictly speaking, these aren't found in the big 10 (commandments). But, as Jesus says, these are the foundation, the hook, the (insert metaphor here) for all of the other commandments. Every single other commandment, even everything the prophets were prophesying about, can be summed up as dealing with either love of God, or love of neighbor.

What followed on the heels of my brief internal reflection of these two commandments was the stark realization that something was missing. I didn't read "believe in me for salvation" or "invite me into your heart" or "make me the Lord of your life."

"But that's really what the first commandment means!" I hear someone, who has mysteriously become my interlocutor, say. Or perhaps this person says, "Well, you have to believe what Jesus says to believe that these are the two greatest commandments." But these reactions miss the point, which is that the greatest things a person can do is love God, and love neighbor. It's my belief that these two commands are intrinsically linked to one another; if you're loving God, you'll love your neighbor, and vice versa. Others might take issue with the "vice versa," but let me speak (write?) to that here.

The reason I add "vice versa" is because it is my belief that God is pleased when anyone loves his or her neighbor as himself or herself. God wants us to relate to God in specific ways, yes. But Amos 5 gives us another picture of God, one of a God who demands justice more than religion, love more than "worship" as the term is used today. Proper relationship with God, both in Amos and in the great commandments, looks like justice flowing like a river, and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. Loving neighbors is loving God.

"That's all well and good, but it doesn't really deal with belief in Jesus." You're right. But I'll point out again that belief in Jesus, the kind of belief that many evangelicals would say "saves us" isn't mentioned here as one of the two greatest commandments. It might be a part of "love God" but it isn't expressly mentioned. My point is that regardless of what you belief, when you love your neighbor as yourself, you are in fact loving God, whether you know God or not.

I certainly don't believe that faith in Jesus is of no consequence. On the contrary, faith in Jesus is paramount to following these commandments fully. But the key word here is "fully." People of all faiths and all walks of life perform acts, and shape lives, in neighbor-loving (and therefore God loving) ways all the time. This is great, please keep doing that. I love that.

Putting faith in Jesus is what allows us to obey these two commandments completely. The ability to live a life in perfect harmony is impossible without the Holy Spirit inside of us, and that only comes through belief in Jesus, who He is and what He did. So belief, in this conversation (and maybe in others), is the means to living a life in complete accordance with the two greatest commandments. Trusting Jesus in some sense gets us to listen what He has to say. But fully trusting Jesus allows the Spirit to change you into a fully loving person, one capable not only of loving our friends and relatives, but even loving so far as our "enemies."

These are the ideas behind the last half of the I talked about at the beginning of this post. Volf thoroughly explores what it looks like to fully love our neighbors, specifically our Muslim neighbors. How does this commandment impact us on an individual level, a communal level, a national level, and a global level? How might understanding that both Muslims and Christians hold sufficiently similar views on God, to the point that we can say they worship the same God, alter our relationship with the more than 1 billion people following this religion? Does our understanding of God, in this way, affect whether or not Christians and Muslims can peacefully coexist? Volf gives a resounding "Yes, and here's how." A hearty two-thumbs-up to this book.

May the God of Peace bless us all with love like His.

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