A few years ago, there was a short “man on the street” video making the rounds on the internet, where someone walked around with a camera and asked two questions.
The first was, “What do you think of Jesus – what words come to mind when you hear ‘Jesus’?”
“Loving, bearded, kind, good”
“Pretty cool, I like him a lot”
“Good: I think of good”
“Loving, peaceful, sincere”
The second question was “what do you think of Christians – what words come to mind when you hear ‘Christian’?” Their responses:
“Out of touch”
“People who’re overboard, extreme”
“My uncle Bob: Conservative, white”
“People who wear white, kinda glow but freaky”
“Lots of stigmas”
“You don’t want to know; rigid in their doctrine”
“Oh…nothing too good…” (walks away)
Assuming those random interviewees were generally typical of attitudes in our overall culture, those of us who call ourselves Christians have got to wonder:
How did such a gap grow between our faith’s founder, and our faith’s followers?
In trying to answer that question, I recall what the Rev. Greg Jones says in commenting on Jesus’ “new commandment” (to love one another) in the Gospel of John:
“Jesus wanted to make it easy for us by having us focus on one thing. … He does not talk about the importance of Bible or a carefully constructed creed.
“The New Testament would not even be written until two generations after Jesus’ death, and the Nicene Creed would be hammered out by combative theologians over the next 350 years. The Bible and the Creed would become terribly important to human beings over the years, while the one thing most important to Jesus would get lost as Christians wrestled power and orthodoxy.
“‘Little children,’ he said, ‘I give you a new commandment: that you love one another.’”
Jesus’ commandment is not about what you believe; it is about how you live.
Unfortunately, we Christians have a tendency to make belief more important than practice.
It’s nothing new: Two thousand years or so ago, Jesus himself had run into the same dynamic again and again. In fact, in one of my favorite Bible stories, a religious scholar/lawyer tried to trap Jesus by asking him a seemingly innocent question:
“Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
(There are, after all, not just the Ten Commandments in the Torah, but more than 600 commandments…more than 240 positive ones (“you shall…”) and more than 360 negative commandments (“you shall not…”).
So, among all these commandments, Jesus is asked, how to sort? How to prioritize…which is the greatest?
And what was Jesus answer?
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
On these two commandments, Jesus says, hang – depend…rely – all the law and all the prophets.
In other words, Jesus – whom we Christians believe to be speaking on excellent authority because he was not just a prophet speaking for God, but was himself God, in the flesh – said that the whole Bible – certainly all of Christianity – can be summarized in eight words:
“Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Part of the reason I am proud to be an Episcopalian in general – and in particular, as of this September, part of the reason I am happy to be part of the Falls Church community in particular as the new Rector of the Falls Church Episcopal – is that for all our faults and quirkiness and inconsistencies, that is something we Episcopalians take seriously.
We believe that love of God and love of neighbor trumps everything else.
Now no one’s perfect, and when it comes to actually living out that sentiment, we will fall short. I know I do, on a daily basis.
But in our effort to put love of God and love of neighbor; in our effort to extend hospitality and welcome to absolutely everyone – conservative or liberal, Republican, Democrat, independent, Green or Tea (or Green Tea?) party, young or old, rich or poor, gay or straight, divorced, single, or happily or unhappily married – and in our effort to be good news to the Falls Church community, we hope to make some small progress in one area:
Bridging the gap between what people think of Jesus, and what they think of us Christians.
Reverend John Ohmer is the new Rector at The Falls Church Episcopal.