I'll be perfectly frank. My spiritual house, what there was of it, no longer exists. I'd erected an elaborate but stark structure, peaks and angles of intricate, flawless, or so it seemed, doctrine. I first began to notice something was wrong when my mother died. My house was cold - so cold. I looked around and realized for the first time that it had no walls and no fire in the hearth could remain lit for long with the winds that kept blowing through. I shivered. I realized what had been missing all along was love. That was the only thing which could keep my heart warm, but it seemed my doctrinal structure, though lovely to look at could not withstand the weight or heat of love. When all the rest followed over the months which ensued, that structure in which I'd taken such pride crumbled right down to its foundation. But that foundation remained, apparently impervious, and that foundation is Jesus Christ. He remains, the One who loves me and atoned for my sin; but now it remains to rebuild. And this time I want to be oh so careful. I must take the scattered remnants and identify which ones were sound, which ones weak, which ones deserve key positions and are strong enough to support the rest of the structure and which are not. As I look at what is left of my house I can see that I used good materials but in wrong ways leaving it all unstable, unsound. I'm an inexperienced builder and I'm suffering the effects of my whimsy and my pride.*
Next to Paul, I sat weeping on the love seat one morning. "I want to see Jesus. I want to know Him. I want to know how He is, what kind of person He is, to hear the sound, and the tone of His voice. I want to experience his demeanor. Is he gentle to the weak and hurting? Is He tender to the doubting? When he tells His people to fear not, is it a barked command, or a word of compassion and comfort? Is He angry? Is He really the Clint Eastwood of gods that so many so gleefully represent Him to be? Or is it true that "a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench,until he brings justice to victory"? My dear mother was a bruised reed, so was the daughter of my friends, and so am I. Does he demean and disregard my pain because I'm a woman, as so many Christians do? How can I know Him? Where do I find Him? And what does it mean to "follow Him"?
So, yet again, I turned to the one place where though I cannot hear His voice, I can at least read His words. I turned to the Gospels. I've been doing my best to make out His tone of voice, trying to forget the tone which I've heard countless others give to His words over the years, asking Him over and over to show me what He's really like.
Last Sunday, during worship, this passage of Scripture was read:
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name? And then will I declare to them, I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'" Matthew 7:21-23This is one of those generally terrifying passages so often used to terrify people into...well...into something, whatever thing. It's a very versatile verse likely not least because most of us are pretty vague as to the meaning of "lawlessness". Come on quick. I'll give you ten seconds to define lawlessness..........(Now, if you were a practicing Orthodox Jew, this would likely be easy. But for the Christian it's another matter altogether. After all, we've been told that "all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, 'Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law and do them.' Now if is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for 'The righteous shall live by faith. But the Law is not of faith..." [Gal. 3:10-12a])
In fact, the Law never could be fulfilled by not committing a List of Ten prohibited actions, or any others deeds we may in our zeal add to the list. "If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 'Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch' (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh." (Col. 2:20-23) No, regulations and laws are not what the faithful live by. The faithful live by faith; and "faith worketh by love.....For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
In short, those who do the will of the Father in Heaven are those who love. Lawlessness equals lovelessness.
Last Sunday when I heard that verse read my mind did not do the thing it usually does with it. This time my thoughts flew to a different "Judgment Day" passage:
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'And this brings me back to my original quest, my prayer, my deep desire to know Jesus. We've all heard the verse, and we all, believers and unbelievers alike know to the core of our beings that "Faith without works is dead," that "talk is cheap," that "actions speak louder than words". The truth is, no matter how "doctrinally sound" or "Bible-believing" we claim to be, we don't know Jesus by hearing His words, even by listening avidly and voraciously to them, even by studying them and preaching (or prophecying) them any more than we know a celebrity by looking at pictures and reading magazines. No, we know Jesus when do His words: when we follow in His steps and do as He does. More particularly, we know Him when we love who He loves. Until we begin to love our neighbors and our enemies in the most practical of ways we will not know or love Jesus.
"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?' Then he will answer them, saying, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." Matthew 25:31-46
"...love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful." Luke 6:35-36And so it seems clear, if I want to see Jesus - to really know Him, if I want to be a daughter of God, I will look to serve Him in the needs of others. If I really want to show my love to Him, I will love Him through His creatures made in His image - my fellow humans.
I read His words in the Book then I look for His face in the streets.
And off I go. Seeking His face. I'm not sure how to find him in my little town where even the poorest receive regular meals and free clothing. But I can start in my heart, thinking kind thoughts of those He loves (which is every living soul), and letting those kind thoughts spill over into kind words and deeds. I can stop looking down on those who are weak and devastated by the curse of the world's sin or their own. I can stop categorizing people with the words "them" and "those" and begin thinking of "them" as people, sinful, hurting, weak, people just like me and more than that, "Those people" are my only chance to love Jesus in this life. I must stop mentally belittling and victimizing people with caricatures, slurs, stereotyping, inward sneers and mockery. Then perhaps when I meet Christ face to face in the hurt or physical need of another I will really love Him, and them. Perhaps Then, when I finally meet Him it won't be with words of boasting of wondrous words and works of the Law, but with humble surprise..."When did I help you Jesus?....All I did was love them. Considering all you've done for me, how could I do any less?"
May God grant me grace for my sojourn.
*The final three sentences of this paragraph were added at a later date, for the sake of clarity.