Jesus’ Call to Love Our Neighbor
by Tom Berlin
Abingdon Press, 2019. 144 pages.
Reckless Love is written by the lead pastor of my new church, Floris United Methodist. I’ve been attending since July, and have been impressed by his consistent message that God loves everyone, and no matter how sinful, the image of God still shines in everyone. He challenges his listeners to love like Christ and stand with the marginalized.
I’ll admit it. This is the second time I read the book, and I wasn’t as impressed with it the first time, because it didn’t meet my specific expectations. (On the Newbery committee, we called that reviewing the book you want instead of the book you have.) But now that I’ve been sitting under Tom Berlin’s teaching and got a glimpse of his heart, I tried the book again, more ready to learn. The second time around, I was moved and challenged.
When I first read the book, I was attending a different church which was considering adopting a new “Christian Living Statement” that I didn’t agree with. You can read more about why I disagreed so strongly in the Transcending series I posted on my Sonderjourneys blog. I was thinking about visiting Floris United Methodist Church, so I read the pastor’s book. I was hoping that with a title Reckless Love there would be some mention of reaching out to LGBTQ folks. Then I’d be sure the church was as inclusive as I was looking for.
Well, LGBTQ folks are not mentioned in this book. But I visited the church anyway and learned they are mentioned at church. The pastor is leading the church to seek to take concrete steps toward being more inclusive of all ethnicities, all abilities, and all sexual orientations. He talks about standing with the marginalized as Jesus did. And he clearly means to apply toward LGBTQ people the challenges to love found in this book.
Taking the book together with his sermons, I’m freshly challenged to open my heart toward people in need, to be curious about people, and to work to see people. I work in a public library with many homeless customers, and it’s easy for me to overlook or dismiss some of the people I see every day. This book challenges me with the example of Jesus.
The six chapters are based on the acronym BE LOVE: Begin with Love, Expand the Circle, Lavish Love, Openhearted Love, Value the Vulnerable, and Emulate Christ.
Thinking about churches being more inclusive, I appreciated this section in the “Expand the Circle” chapter:
One look at the group Jesus first assembled as his followers tells us that something is lost when sameness is the defining characteristic of a church. Jesus’ example teaches us that something is wrong when we leave out people who differ from us and only feel at home when everyone is the same. His goal is not to make us more of what we are, but help us to become what we can be. That requires us to expand our understanding of what it means to love our neighbor. Christ shows us that the only way to learn the greatest commandment is to have people in our lives who we personally find so difficult to love that we have to get up every morning and pray to our Creator for a love we could not produce on our own. The first disciples had to ask God to expand their hearts so they could overlook the past sins of the tax collector, put up with the ideological torpedo the zealot launched at breakfast, ignore the angry brothers’ latest argument, or figure out if it was time to confront the group treasurer they were beginning to think was embezzling funds.
As I am thinking about how Jesus wants us to love rather than to judge, I was especially challenged by sections like this in the “Value the Vulnerable” chapter:
I would like to love other people enough to go to extraordinary measures to open the door and invite them in, rather than passively allow the door to close, go on my way and keep them out. Jesus said, “I am the gate. . . . All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them” (John 10:7).
Jesus encouraged his followers to become door openers rather than gatekeepers. He hoped that once people experienced the goodness of God, the love of God, and the grace of God, they would reside in it and be free to share it with others. This is why people who were sinners, outcasts, and poor loved Jesus and felt such joy in his presence. They were unaccustomed to being loved by someone who was talking about the ways of God. They knew that Jesus valued them, that he saw their worth, not one that they had earned or instilled within themselves. He saw their intrinsic value, the image of God that was imprinted upon their lives.
How does one become a door opener who leads others to the joy of Christ rather than a gatekeeper who judges others? Observing Jesus enables us to see how to value a vulnerable person.
This book can challenge you if you let it. I love the emphasis that God loves us and placed his image in us, and that’s why we can love. Here’s a section from the very end, challenging the reader to go out and apply what they’ve learned:
We must see this clearly, or we will miss the point of our life in Christ. Christ’s followers today receive the same calling and commission. If we miss this, it will have consequences. Rather than be witnesses to Christ in the way we love God, others, and ourselves, we will begin to think that Jesus came to make us nicer or a little more thoughtful, the kind of people who remember birthdays and select more personal Christmas gifts. Rather than tell others about God’s grace or offer mercy, we will believe that living a Christian life is about feeling forgiven of our sins. Rather than telling others about the habit-changing, bondage-breaking, turnaround-making power Jesus can have in our lives, we will cultivate a relationship with Christ that is so personal that we never share it with anyone else. Rather than speaking out and working for justice with those who hold position and power in our community and society, we will spend our time telling the already convinced how much better the world would be if it were not exactly as it is. Rather than offering acts of solace to those who grieve, comfort to the sick, or kindness of conversation with prisoners or returning citizens, we will simply offer thanks that we are not in such predicaments ourselves.
Jesus takes us on a journey so that he can deploy us on a mission. He offers his love to us so that we will share it with the world. He does this because he loves us. The first disciples knew they were beloved, not only because of what Jesus did for them, but because Jesus believed in them when he called them to go to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. He knew what they could do for him. Jesus believed in them more than they believed in themselves. He saw more potential in them than they ever thought possible in their lives. He forgave them for what they were not, just as he celebrated all that they were. All of this is what is at the heart of being beloved by another. When we are beloved, we gain the confidence another has in us and make it our own. That confidence transforms how we think of ourselves. It guides the journey that, in the end, leads to who we become. Such love, once extended, is what stirs up a new sense of possibility in our lives.
This is the love God has for you, and the belief God holds in you. We must have faith that God believes in us, in our ability to love our neighbor, to treat ourselves properly in this life, and to worship the Lord with our heart, mind, soul, and strength.
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