December 17, 2017

Wisdom for Ordinary Time: Eugene Peterson on Leviticus 19:18

Love. Photo by Susanne Nilsson

During Ordinary Time this year, I am reading and meditating on Eugene Peterson’s new book, As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God. This book captures sermons from Peterson’s twenty-nine years as a pastor in Bel Air, Maryland.

Today, Peterson’s sermon focuses on Leviticus 19:18 — “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” — and the Apostle John’s exposition of it in the letter of 1 John. Here is an excerpt.

• • •

Love is the most context-specific act in the entire spectrum of human behavior. There is no other single human act more dependent on and immersed in immediate context. A dictionary is worthless in understanding and practicing love. Acts of love cannot be canned and then used off the shelf. Every act of love requires creative and personal giving, responding, and serving appropriate to — context-specific to — both the person doing the loving and the person being loved. Because of the totally personal, particular, and uniquely contextual community dimensions and inescapably local conditions — there is a sense in which we cannot tell a person how to love, and so our Scriptures for the most part don’t even try.

Instead of explanations or definitions or generalizations, John settles for a name and the story that goes with it: Jesus. “We know love by this, that he [Jesus] laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16, NRSV). Then he lets us find the particular but always personal and relational way to do it in the Jesus way: “We love because he first loved us” (4:19, NRSV).

Friends, we are immersed in great and marvelous realities. Creation! Salvation! Resurrection! But when we come up dripping out of the waters of baptism and look around, we discover to our surprise that the community of the baptized is made up of people just like us: unfinished, immature, neurotic, stumbling, singing out of tune much of the time, forgetful, and boorish. Is it credible that God would put all these matters of eternal significance into the hands of such as we are? Many, having taken a good look at what they see, shake their heads and think not. But this is the perpetual difficulty of living a life of love in the community of the beloved. We had better get used to it.

…Every sentence in this elaborate pastoral exposition of the five-word command in Leviticus comes out more or less the same: God loves you. Christ shows you how love works. Now you love. Love, love, love, love. Just do it.

Amen.

• • •

Photo by Susanne Nilsson at Flickr. Creative Commons License

Comments

  1. Susan Dumbrell says:

    An action of unconditional love, many questions,.
    I have a huge problem with unconditional love.
    Is espousing it in the life lived and gesture the only way to salvation?
    Is it the only gateway to the Kingdom? If so I am forever doomed.
    When I regularly visit my husband in the nursing home there is no unconditional love. He has no response to my visit.No response at all..
    l drop off clothes or supplies but I have no feelings of ‘love’ for him. and am not sure what degree of ‘love’ I express or he returns. The Greeks would have a word for my version of ‘love’..
    The way to peace with God and others requires some sense of reconciliation and compromise.
    I think on both parties. My husband has no concept of returning any sort of love to anyone,.

    I hope God can be not so black and white with me. I stray off the path so quickly.

    Last Friday I was following a car at sunset along a two lane road in your district. The sun caught his eye and I saw him crashed into the ditch. Two other young men stopped and rendered assistance. All was good. The driver was not injured. Car was wrecked.
    But where was our unconditional love? Were the guys who stopped acting in the grace of God or just out of basic concern for their fellow brother?
    There will be give and take on both sides. I know this for a fact as that is what Aussies do. We care for each other. Simple, maybe, it seems God is not involved in such love.
    I ask again what is unconditional love? Christ gave himself in love, I have difficulty following His example.

    “I think I have missed the boat”.

    Susan

    • Morning Susan.
      I don’t know how we can define unconditional love and I don’t know if any of us will ever actually fully achieve it but your comment reminds me of that saying that ‘love is a verb, not a noun’. I find your description of visiting your husband very moving because, regardless of what you are feeling, when you visit you are ‘doing’ love and this is a precious (I suppose even a sacred) thing. In fact significantly more wonderful because you’re not ‘feeling’ love and you’re not sensing love coming back (because, after all, it’s not hard to do things for someone when you are ‘feeling’ love but it is very hard to do if you’re not feeling it). Peterson says in the passage that acts of love are specific to the situation and the people involved, and I think your examples demonstrate that – I think they all show people, in different contexts and different ways, ‘doing love’. Is it ‘unconditional’ love? I’m not sure. But I don’t think you’ve missed the boat at all.

      • Robert F says:

        I think this is a good observation and insight into how God’s unconditional love works changes in our imperfect motivations and hearts.

    • Robert F says:

      Susan, God makes up the difference in our imperfection and self-centeredness, for our lack of unconditional love. If not, then I and many others are doomed with you, so you won’t be alone. The few saints capable of unconditional love, on the other hand, will find themselves very lonely in the Kingdom of God, with lots of space between themselves and the few others, and not many to practice their unconditional love on. Peace, Susan, Jesus is for us.

      • Susan Dumbrell says:

        JennyT and Robert,
        I didn’t expect such a supporting replies.
        I fact I wasn’t expecting anyone to hear me.
        A day spent just thinking about my situation while going about daily chores.
        I am OK, as they say, just mulling away at my thoughts.
        Your messages to me express what we have been talking about.
        On to tomorrow.
        Blessings.
        Susan

      • Rick Ro. says:

        (Not sure where this fits in, but I think it best fits here as a complement to this Robert F comment.)

        I taught a lesson yesterday out of Galatians 5:16-26. In this particular section, Paul talks a lot about the conflict between our sinful nature and the new Spirit we have with Christ. At times, Paul seems to suggest that a person with the Spirit will no longer live out their sinful nature (v16, end of v21, v24).

        But he also seems to suggest that it’s a process (end of v17, especially v25 “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit”, v26).

        The class then discussed the implications of v24: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” I said, “Well, it sure doesn’t seem like that was a one-and-done deal. I still have flesh that is filled with passions and desires, and not all of them honorable and righteous.”

        This gets to what Robert F said: “God makes up the difference in our imperfection and self-centeredness, for our lack of unconditional love.” We ended up concluding that THAT was what Paul meant in v24, that Jesus Christ CRUCIFIED makes up for our flesh and its wants and desires. Otherwise, it’s as Robert F then goes on to say: “If not, then I and many others are doomed with you, so you won’t be alone.” And if it WAS a one-and-done deal, then I don’t think Paul would have said, in the very next line, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”

        He knew it would be a life-long process. All we can try to do is keep in step with the Spirit as much as possible, and then let Christ’s crucifixion cover the rest of it (and rest assured that his crucifixion DOES cover it).

        Peace to you all.

        • Dana Ames says:

          Dear Rick,

          I beg you to consider that there is nowhere in the Greek NT that says we have a “sin nature.” The “nature” of a thing is no more or less than that about a creature which makes it what it is. A dog has a doggie nature, a cow has a cow nature, etc. We experience those natures through unique examples of them: my dog, a cow in a field who comes up to the fence to watch us, and each human being. When God created, he pronounced everything good, including the natures he gave. I haven’t found anywhere in Scripture where that changed.

          Some translations render the word “flesh” as “sin nature.” THIS IS WRONG, WRONG, WRONG! (The magnitude of the problematic nature of this is worth yelling about!) St Paul, particularly, uses the word “flesh” to indicate one of two things: it is either simply the stuff of which our body is made, or it stands for that which is capable of decay and dissolution. The point he’s making is not about us having a “sin nature”; it’s that apart from God’s life, in the throes of the fear of death from which we act ***against our nature*** (Heb 2.8b-16), decay and dissolution is exactly where we’re headed. Yes, our innards are darkened and diseased, BUT God has made a way for that to be healed – for our truly human self to emerge, so we don’t have to hold on to some kind of false self.

          The freedom St Paul talks about, just before the Galatians passage that was the subject of your lesson, is precisely the freedom to love, and to CRUCIFY all that is un-love. Don’t forget that “works of the law” is all about the things that separated Jew and Gentile, not a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps moral regimen. God has taken us past that separatist stuff when he poured out the Spirit “on all flesh” (definitely not a “sin nature” – or else how could God be given to it? And how could Christ have united himself with it?).

          Do please think about this.

          Dana

          • Rick Ro. says:

            Good stuff, Dana. Thanks! Yes, when one reads the letter to the Galatians as a whole, clearly Paul is telling them (and us) that Christ is sufficient, we no longer need to be slaves to ANYTHING, the Law or “the flesh” (whatever that might be).

          • StuartB says:

            +1!

    • Heather Angus says:

      Susan, I’m with you,

      “I have a huge problem with unconditional love.
      Is espousing it in the life lived and gesture the only way to salvation?
      Is it the only gateway to the Kingdom? If so I am forever doomed.”

      I used to feel more strongly that way than I do now. Used to say, Well, Paul says that it’s pure love that counts; Jesus says it’s what you *do* that counts. I’m hoping Jesus is right.

      I’ve stopped worrying so much about it, but I still see that difference between the emphasis of Jesus and the emphasis of Paul. And I’m still betting on Jesus. I can *do* good and godly things that I don’t want to do and don’t care about, but I can’t always feel love doing them. If I have to *feel* love all the time, I’ll take my place with the doomed for sure.

      Certainly Jenny is right in saying “I find your description of visiting your husband very moving because, regardless of what you are feeling, when you visit you are ‘doing’ love and this is a precious (I suppose even a sacred) thing. In fact significantly more wonderful because you’re not ‘feeling’ love and you’re not sensing love coming back (because, after all, it’s not hard to do things for someone when you are ‘feeling’ love but it is very hard to do if you’re not feeling it).”

      I don’t know if I could do what you’re doing. You’re way ahead of me when it comes to true and unconditional love. May God bless you.

  2. Rick Ro. says:

    I was reflecting on the liberal “tolerance” movement this weekend, at how the “tolerant” are often less tolerant than they believe they are. This has become even more the case as I hear news reports of liberals now turning on each other because of some offense (Evergreen College here in Washington state, for one). I believe this movement has, in some ways, become the secular liberal’s “religion.” And as I thought about tolerance as a religion, these two thoughts ran through my mind:

    Tolerance without love is just empty kindness.
    Tolerance without love is easily swayed by offense and disagreement.

    That’s what I’m seeing and hearing more of now, tolerance without love. Tolerance has begun to morph into intolerance by becoming a religion of the secular liberal, and those who claim they’re tolerant have become prone to the hypocrisy they see in us Christians.

    Which brings me to the main point of today’s post: secular liberals do not know Christ. They don’t know of God’s love, or of Christ’s love, to the extent that they will ever figure out how to do “Tolerance with love.” It will always be “tolerance up to the point when you cross some nebulous line that offends me.”

    The onus on us Christians, then, is to show LOVE above and beyond how the secular world shows love. If we truly know of God’s love for us, and of Christ’s love for us, then we better darn show it.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I was reflecting on the liberal “tolerance” movement this weekend, at how the “tolerant” are often less tolerant than they believe they are. This has become even more the case as I hear news reports of liberals now turning on each other because of some offense (Evergreen College here in Washington state, for one). I believe this movement has, in some ways, become the secular liberal’s “religion.”

      “New England Puritans, distilled down seven times to eliminate any hint of God, leaving only the Righteousness and Moral Fury.”
      — Mule Chewing Briars (from memory)

      “Tolerance: The amount of abuse a system can take before it breaks down completely.”
      — button sold at SF cons years ago

      Which brings me to the main point of today’s post: secular liberals do not know Christ. They don’t know of God’s love, or of Christ’s love, to the extent that they will ever figure out how to do “Tolerance with love.” It will always be “tolerance up to the point when you cross some nebulous line that offends me.”

      Rick, a LOT of Christians also “will never figure out how to do Tolerance with Love”. Just look at the stuff that gets reported here and at Wartburg Watch. And the reputation Christians have outside of their bubble (it isn’t good).

      • Rick Ro. says:

        –> “And the reputation Christians have outside of their bubble (it isn’t good).”

        I was saying the same thing to a friend at church yesterday. That’s perhaps the most troubling point, and maybe the main reason we must go overboard on GRACE. If we Christians had had years and years and years and (centuries) of getting it right, then secular criticism of Christians would be dishonest. Unfortunately, we have turned out to be not much different than the Pharisees that Jesus pounds into the ground in Matthew 23.

        • SottoVoce says:

          Which is why we benighted, loveless liberals are leaving. We don’t claim to get everything right, but we think it’s reasonable to conclude that 2,000 years of failed promises is a clear sign that Christianity’s claims are false. If you’re still happy with your faith, that’s fine. But please stop claiming our love is inferior and other similarly dehumanizing nonsense because we chose to act on Christianity’s blatant hypocrisy.

          • Rick Ro. says:

            –> “But please stop claiming our love is inferior and other similarly dehumanizing nonsense because we chose to act on Christianity’s blatant hypocrisy.”

            The flip-side is true, too: please stop claiming your stances on tolerance are superior to what Christianity has to offer. Liberal tolerance is as hypocritical religion as you claim Christianity is.

            If we can agree on that, let’s go meet for a brew some time!

            • SottoVoce says:

              Of course I think my stance on tolerance is superior to yours; if I didn’t, I’d still be a Christian and have a much easier life. 🙂 But I’m sure we could cheerfully swap many a story of the universality of human hypocrisy regardless of creed (preferably over Guinness for me).

              • Stbndct says:

                Sotto, If you are not a Christian or one who Is looking for answers why do you post
                On this blog? Just asking

                • SottoVoce says:

                  Because I’ve been posting on it for ten years and until one year ago, I was a Christian. Do you have a problem with reading viewpoints you disagree with? Just asking.

                  • Robert F says:

                    I’m glad you post here, SottoVoce. I don’t see any reason why you or anyone else who wants to shouldn’t post at iMonk, or why you should be questioned about your reasons for doing so.

                    • Stbndct says:

                      Robert, I was only asking a question You can get off your high horse. Can someone not ask a question ?

                    • Robert F says:

                      They obviously can.

                      Never been on a horse.

                    • Rick Ro. says:

                      I’ve ridden a horse that was high. Not sure how many hands, but it was half Arabian. And I indeed fell off it once. It hurt. Knocked the wind out of me, actually, and I do believe I suffered a concussion.

              • Rick Ro. says:

                Fair enough, Sotto. Obviously similar to you, I feel like my take on Christ is better than most people’s, and if the world just saw things the way I see them then the world would be a better place.

                Have you ever read Donald Miller’s “Blue Like Jazz”? His story and testimony – a struggle with Christian hypocrisy – might resonate with you. Look it up, see if it might interest you.

                I’m not a Guinness fan, but I’d certainly buy one for ya. I like reds, ambers, an occasional pale ale, and pilsners on really hot days after mowing the lawn. Hefeweisens, too.

          • Rick Ro. says:

            –> “…2,000 years of failed promises is a clear sign that Christianity’s claims are false. If you’re still happy with your faith, that’s fine.”

            Good point, and I will not deny that at times Christianity has been damaging to people and unhealthy to those within and outside its walls. My honest rebuttal is that I’ve learned to NOT put ANY faith in Christianity, and instead put ALL my faith in Jesus Christ. The subtle nuance in the difference between those two may not resonate with you, but it’s something I honestly believe in and believe to be true.

            I also believe and am pretty sure it’s true: I’m a better person when I put all my faith in Jesus Christ than if I either: 1) had not begun following Him, and/or 2) put my faith in Christianity (the religion).

          • I don’t know if we should let you get away with “2,000 years of failed promises”, that’s a bit too much of a broad brush.

            I’m not doubting anyone’s negative experiences of church, but I want to speak up for positive experiences of community in church. Of places where people with wildly different backgrounds and personalities manage to coalesce into a ‘something’ which includes caring, sharing, mending-after-falling-out. And clearly with a ‘something extra’ from on high which transcends human ‘trying to be nice’.

            I can well believe that it’s not something that everyone gets to see, but I have witnessed it, and thus feel that my aspiration to see it in my current community is not totally unrealistic…

            Look up the Bruderhof, they are radically Christian communitarian.

            Hacking on G.K. Chesterton: “Christian love has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > I believe this movement has, in some ways, become the secular liberal’s “religion.”

      Campus Liberalism is very much to Liberalism as Evangelicalism is to Christianity. Grand ideals and narratives placed into the hands of those much too ignorant to do anything good with them.

      • Rick Ro. says:

        –> “Campus Liberalism is very much to Liberalism as Evangelicalism is to Christianity. Grand ideals and narratives placed into the hands of those much too ignorant to do anything good with them.”

        YES! And these people get offended just as easily and readily as Evangelicals do!!

        • Rick Ro. says:

          And the problem with Campus Liberals is that they think they know it all! (Sound like some Evangelical camps we know, right?)

          • Adam Tauno Williams says:

            Yep. The phrase “pot kettle much?” comes to mind often between these two categories of fools.

            > think they know it all!

            I am not sure Campus Liberals think they know it all – they believe they are Righteous.

            Another similarity to Evangelicals: push them a little bit and you discover the thinnest patina of knowledge.

            It is rhetorical Gold Leaf On A Turd in both cases.

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Are those geese in the photo up top?

    • I took them to be domestic ducks, but could be wrong. Their necks look a bit short for geese. I was walking my back woods recently when what looked like an alligator swimming across the swamp appeared about a hundred yards away, this in Michigan. Eye sticking up, bumps down the neck and shoulders, body submerged and narrowing down to the tail, maybe six foot long. Turned out to be Mama Duck with her babies behind her, cutting a path thru the duckweed which was closing in again behind them. Would be a pretty hard place to make a living for an alligator.

    • Ugly ducklings? 🙂