A litmus test of love

by Donna Ahlberg

TEXT: Exodus 19

In our text from Exodus, we hear the Lord God say to Moses, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” This is a reference to God’s mighty power in inflicting the twelve plagues on the Egyptians so that they would “let my people go.” I hope that sounds familiar to you. It is foundational in a Christian child’s upbringing, also in a Jewish child’s faith life. God’s crushing power rescues the Israelites from four hundred years of slavery in Egypt. In the Old Testament, we learn of God’s love for his chosen people, the Israelites.

God continues, saying that “if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.” Exodus is the second of thirty-nine books of the Old Testament, which collectively recounts story after story of how this “treasured possession” of a people failed time after time to obey God and keep the covenant, the agreement with God. The covenant is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and is part of a sacred prayer called the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Loving the one true God is pivotal in the establishment of the Judaism in which Jesus was birthed, and is thus foundational to the followers of Jesus.

And why did Jesus come? Jesus came to earth to reveal Godself to human beings, and that is the narrative contained in the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. He came in the flesh, incarnate, so as to be like us in form. The formlessness of God thus took on form in the person of Jesus. He didn’t come specifically to start a new religion. He came born as a Jew and grew up embedded in Judaism. He came to offer salvation to all people, not just the Jews but also the Gentiles; that is to say, every human being. His mission was one of inclusion. He came to show humans “the Way and the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). He came to show us how to live as God intended us to live—to live in a right relationship with the one true God who created all things. When Jesus was asked by a Jewish scribe, “Which commandment is the first of all,” he responded with the Shema, “The first is, ‘Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:28-31).

Jesus did not come to Earth in a fiery display of power to smash evil like a caped crusader. Nor did he come to force himself upon us like a conventional king or emperor uses their brute power. Jesus’s power is in his love, humility, and compassion, and in his identity as the suffering servant who walks alongside humankind. Jesus treated the marginalized with love and respect. He spoke to racism against the Samaritans and identified them as neighbors. And he admonished leaders who bent laws to favor themselves while others suffered. Jesus revealed how this apathy leads to ignorance and injustice.

Now, in these wild chaotic days of 2020, it has been very hard for us to follow Jesus. We all have singular opinions and we want to be right about our views of the world. We argue a lot, so much in fact, that merely having an opinion becomes tantamount to an argument. Community life has become, for some, a battlefield of conflict. We each have our own unique perspective on the world that formulates how we think the world should be. As a people, we have become resistant in any empathetic understanding of what other perspectives are like. Thanks to the immediacy of social media, we’ve regressed from being ignorant of these other viewpoints to vilely trashing people of different beliefs and experiences. We proudly walk in our own shoes while discrediting the people we disagree with. Not just their ideas and opinions, but we seemed to have moved on to aggressive attacks of those people with whom we disagree. We engage in the “othering” of people. There is always injustice in othering, the presumptive labeling and lumping of human beings into us-versus-them categories.

Jesus, by contrast, loves them all, loves us all. We are asked to do the same. Following the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus is not an easy journey. Something has to change inside of me to do it. What am I willing to let go of in order to do that? Where have I blocked the flow of love toward my neighbor?

In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for God’s will to be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. Have you ever wondered what God’s will is for you? What’s the plan? It’s actually the same plan for anyone and everyone. Only the form will differ as we find ourselves in different vocations and locations. God’s plan for you is to love God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might, that’s the first part. And, the second part of your personal plan is to love your neighbor as yourself. That’s it. That’s God’s will to be done on Earth. It’s not difficult to see it but, admittedly, it is difficult to do. We will make mistakes. We will need forgiveness, but we must keep trying to allow God’s love to be our guiding light toward our neighbors, God’s treasured possessions.

We are challenged to look for the face of Christ, the face of God, in the face of every person we encounter. When you do this, it changes everything. You can never be the same. There will be a reconciliation of sorts between us and God when we focus on the image of God in our neighbor. There is an opportunity here to truly live in what it means to be the image of God, when we stop othering.

A friend recently told me she was praying for our national leaders. It’s always a good thing to lift up in prayer those in positions of leadership. She added her belief that if a person is in a certain position of power, like elected officials are, that it must be God’s will. She noted that even when she didn’t understand how that could possibly be, it must be God’s will because earthly realities must be reflective of God’s will. As a Lutheran, I disagree. God’s will and our collective will as the human race can differ markedly and often they do! For example, can we actually believe that Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1933 was because of God’s will? I cannot. Yes, God was there in the suffering, just as a Trinitarian God is present in all human joy and suffering. But it was human decisions that allowed Hitler to assume power and maintain it through the Holocaust until his death in 1945. As human beings, we need to take credit for the injustices that we perpetuate here on earth; it is not all God’s will. It is not so cut and dried, so crystal clear.

For centuries Christianity has been weaponized, nationalized, and co-opted to justify human agendas. That happened during Germany’s Third Reich, and it has also played a huge part in America’s ugly history of slavery and its aftermath. People who regarded themselves individually as Christians have collectively committed injustices in the world. Can this be God’s will? The gospel’s litmus test is this: if there’s no love of neighbor in it, it’s not God’s plan.

We are not always comfortable with the great mystery of God: Christ has come, Christ has died, Christ will come again. It is murky. Saint Paul writes, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12). We want answers we cannot find. We lament the nature of God—why doesn’t God just correct injustice here? If God is omnipotent, all-powerful, then why doesn’t God just fix even our humanly created problems? Though God may be powerful, God’s nature is not to unleash miraculous displays of power. Instead, God allows. And God works change through us, his disciples.

A pastor I listened to online recently described God’s power like that of a parent who is challenged by his seven-year-old son to race back to the house. The boy takes off with feet flying as fast as he can crank those little legs. He wants to win! He wants to beat Dad! He’s laughing and the expression on his face is simply priceless. The father momentarily takes the lead which only encourages the kid to run harder. But, in the last few seconds, Dad, with his eye on his son, slows up, allowing Junior to surge ahead as the winner. God’s power is like that: it could have dominated and defeated the child he loves, but it didn’t. God allows, because God loves.

God changes things through us, his disciples. In light of America’s share of injustices, the question is not why does God permit evil, but why do we?

O God, seek to guide our understanding of those who walk in different shoes. Guide our leaders to rule with humility and compassion. Forgive us for weaponizing our relationships and institutions, for being loveless and blind to the pain and suffering of others, your treasured possessions. Turn our self-righteous swords into God-righteous plowshares, sowing seeds of grace in our world, our country, and our community. For the sake of Jesus Christ who died for us. Amen.