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  • cmcsullivan

What is love anyway?

Is inclusivity a tacit endorsement of “sinful” behavior? Does Jesus’ command to “love one another, as I have loved you” include within the definition of love the application of particular, timeless moral judgments?

These are not simple questions, though they are often presented by Christians as though they are. With the implication that these ideas are authoritatively and unquestionably true, church leaders and teachers tell us that to love means, sometimes to judge and to exclude.

I don’t buy it.

I’ve tried.

I would rather not admit it, but I have tried to accept this line of reasoning as it presents itself – that is, as the inevitable conclusion of rational argumentation. I could follow the line of thought: Certain actions are inherently “sinful.” One cannot condone “sin” as a good Christian. Therefore the “loving” thing to do is to condemn those actions regardless of the harm that such condemnation might cause the person whose actions they are. Q.E.D.

It’s the latter bit that I could never live with, that caused me, again and again, to wonder where the argument went off the rails, because, if its “truth” includes the sort of deep soul-harm that I have seen it cause, it isn’t the Truth. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him,” says John 3:17.

What I have come to discover is that it is the premises of the argument that are wrong. That is, it’s a case that’s misguided its core.

What is sin anyway? This is not as straightforward as Christian teachers make it sound. We who have been churched have been given laundry lists of behaviors – some taken from passages in the Bible, others from later sources – that, if engaged in, make us “sinners.” But is that how the people who wrote the Bible, how Jesus from within his Jewish tradition, understood sin?

Sinners in the world of Jesus were those who were or who had become estranged from the nation of Israel. That meant all gentiles and any Jew who had, by violating the law in some way, been excluded from the larger community. Good Jews were only to associate with other good Jews.

Jesus challenged all that. It’s on every page of the gospels. He touches lepers. He eats with tax collectors. He gathers around himself the rejected and excluded, including women, children, and a fellow named Simon who, in meeting Jesus, exclaims, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” This is the same guy whom Jesus will later call his rock.

We never see Jesus imposing a set of moral guidelines for people to follow before he includes them in his embrace of love. Quite the opposite. Instead, Jesus creates a new “Israel” that is open to everyone who wants to belong, who wants to be welcomed and included and loved. Paul affirms this too: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28).

I may not be a Bible scholar nor a bishop, but I know this – there’s no way that I am more loving than God. As Jesus himself says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” We Christians claim that the greatest gift of all is the love of God in Christ. Who has a right to claim on that love as her own? Who gets to decide?

Invitation to practice

Be honest. This is only for your own awareness: Who are the people in our world who you think of as “sinners” or who you would exclude from community? Consider the possibility that God wants to include everyone. How do you feel about that?

Do you ever feel yourself condemned as a “sinner”? How would you want to be loved into wholeness as part of a universal human community? What would you need in order to receive that kind of love?

What do you think it would mean for you to extend love to “sinners” – maybe including yourself?

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