The New Commandment

I have been silent too long.  Partially this has been because of illness.  Partially this has been because I still cannot understand the lack of civility expressed between the presidential candidates and the pundits that talk about them.  Partially this has been because so many others have responded so well to the publicized issues that I felt no desire to be redundant.  Regardless, some of you have requested to hear my thoughts and so I will share them with those of you who will choose to read these words.

My focus in these remarks is not about promises politicians make.  These promises are given to induce people to vote and often will receive only minimal attention during a term of office.  The United States government is a huge ship and any directional shift will take a long time.  Yes, a president has the hand on the rudder and therein has the power to shift course, but, the actual shifting will be a long time in the making.

As a pastor I must focus my attention on a spiritual component to what I hear going on.  Many in the United States of America have prided themselves over the Christian foundation upon which this nation was built.  However, I do not believe we are a “Christian Nation.”  I do not believe our founders designed or desired us to be such.  But, we did have a Christian foundation because of our religious heritage and because many of our forefathers and mothers were familiar with the Bible, the foundational document of the Christian faith.  Because of this foundation it may be more accurate to say that in our earliest years we were more a ‘nation of Christians with general Christian understanding’ than we experience within the pluralistic culture of today.

Most political candidates at some point in their campaign bow their knee to acknowledge our national religious heritage even while affirming the pluralism within our society.  In such acknowledgements often a candidate will affirm the religious affiliation within which they were raised and in some cases which they still practice.  For Donald Trump that affiliation was Presbyterian and for Hillary Clinton it was Methodist.

There is often a wide gap between the affiliation in which one was raised and the practice of one’s life, especially within the subcultures of politics, business, sports, Hollywood, etc.  Not everyone who claims to be a Presbyterian, Methodist, Catholic, Evangelical, etc. demonstrates the priority in their words and deeds of being a true follower of Jesus Christ.  If a person is a follower of Jesus Christ a denominational label should be of secondary or tertiary importance.  I believe it is of the greatest importance when wearing the label of Christian to embody in word and deed, in attitude and behavior the meaning of that title.

So, what is a Christian?  It is really quite simple.  A Christian is one who has accepted God’s offer of salvation through Jesus Christ (the one who rescues us from the consequences of brokenness with God) and choses to follow him as their Lord (the boss of your life).  To those who fit into this definition Jesus gave a new commandment [John 13:34,35]. He said

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Since this new commandment is based on Jesus’ behaviors and not just his words (love is a verb not only a noun) the critical question becomes ‘How did Jesus love us?’

On the positive side he loved us by providing a clear vision of a divine future.  Jesus came proclaiming that “The Kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe this good news” [Mark 1:15]. It was not to the Kingdom of humans that Jesus directed attention.  Jesus had a clear vision of something greater, something higher, something better that he worked to insert into the political, financial, social, religious world of his day and ours.  He loved us by revealing the power of God’s Kingdom over the evils and ills of this world.  He loved us by reminding us that we are to seek on earth the reality of God’s heavenly kingdom.  He loved us by challenging us to seek that kingdom first before all other things.  He loved us by showing that the following of this higher goal may not always be received well, it may lead to crucifixion.   He loved us enough to advance this clear vision and not demit to the lesser visions of his day.

How did Jesus love?  He loved by staying close to God.  It appears that he made the habit of rising early to walk and talk with God becoming focused on God’s will so that the rest of his day would be spent living the direction he had received [Mark 1:35-39].  Jesus loved us by keeping his priorities right and loving God first.  He said to those folks long ago,

“When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am [the one I claim to be] and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.”  John 8:28-29 (NIV)

From a more negative side I must ask, “Did he love us by shaming and defaming others?”  Well there may have been a bit of that in Luke 11 when Jesus spoke harshly (and directly) to the religious leaders of the day.  But, for the most part, he did not shame or defame.  His desire was to set people free from those earthly things that held them in bondage as the key verse of Mark’s Gospel reminds us:

For even the son of man did not come to be served, but, to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many [Mark 10:45].

How did Jesus love?  By filling people with fear and hatred so they would rise up and attack a perceived enemy?  The Apostle Paul would write to those who would claim the title ‘Christian’ that

God has not given us a spirit of fear but of love, power, and self-control [2 Timothy 1:7].

The Apostle John, the one who would be remembered as the Apostle of Love, would write:

There is no fear in love.  But, perfect love casts our fear, because fear has to do with punishment.  The one who fears is not made perfect in love [1 John 4:18].

And Jesus, as he was preparing his disciples for his crucifixion in but a few hours said to them:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid [John 14:27].

How did Jesus love?  By seeing people as objects?  By demeaning people through course talk, locker room talk, especially women, or through private e-mails categorizing people into ‘types.’  No, Jesus stood against the culture of his day by allowing women to touch him, to anoint him, to travel with him, to financially support him out of their own wealth, and to defend their dignity as human beings, i.e., the woman who would have been stoned because she had been ‘caught in the act of adultery (where was the man?) [John 8:3] or Mary who wanted to sit at Jesus’ feet as a disciple and not as a cook in the kitchen [Luke 10:38ff].  He accepted the Samaritans and the Romans for who they were, created in God’s image even when they pursued a different religious path.

How did Jesus love?  By manipulating the political system of the day to gain selfish advantage?  By engaging in political double talk or enlisting the voice of a Roman centurion or by playing the people of power off the people without.  Jesus knew the systems of the Kingdom of men and women but chose to live within the Kingdom of God.  Jesus spoke the truth in love, confronted the people who were abusing the power they possessed, and was willing to allow evil to reveal itself knowing full well that when there was a death there would also be a resurrection.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Christians, regardless of political parties or participation within a political process, Christians, regardless of an office for which they may be running, Christians, regardless of their professional expertise, Christians should commit to living the new commandment of Jesus to love through both words and in deeds.

So, am I saying that the candidates for president are not Christian?  I am not in a position to judge an individual’s response to God’s gracious offer.  Am I saying that some of the behaviors leading up to their candidacy and their behaviors during their campaigns are not Christian?  Yes, I am.  Furthermore, I find it tragic to see Christian women and men who are so devoted to their candidate that they appear to justify what is un-Christian behavior by all standards of the faith we profess.

So, within a political process that sets on center stage flawed candidates (All four are flawed.  Yes, the 17 before them were flawed.  To say otherwise would be to set a person to a standard that will certainly lead to their destruction) what are we to do?

First, let’s not deify a political candidate.  They are not going to be our savior politically and certainly not religiously.  A political candidate is not a Messiah regardless of how opposed they are to the old order of things nor by how ‘vision-casting’ they are as an ambassador of hope nor by how much they happen to agree with one’s own political perspective.  There is only one Messiah and he is the one who gave his life to set people free. If we go down the road of candidate deification, we only have to read the prophets of the Old Testament to see the course we are setting for our own history.

Second, Let’s get a grip.  People who run for political office, especially the highest office in the most powerful nation on earth, have huge egos.  In many ways I would not want a leader who doubted their capacity to do the job for which they are running.  That having been said we need to be aware that large egos can lead to placing self-service above public service and we the people need to hold all leadership accountable to those who have voted them into office.  This leads to my next thought.

Third, let’s remember that whomever we elect, locally, statewide, or nationally at all levels, those officials work for us.  As a good employer, we must keep them informed concerning the job we expect them to do as well as to how we see them performing as they do the job.  We need to communicate with them and not simply listen to their verbage.  Political leadership should be dialogue not monologue.

Finally, let’s pray and pray not only for the election process but for whomever it is that wins the election.  Scripture directs to pray for those in government (1 Timothy 2:1-5) and the leader in the passage was Emperor Nero.  The familiar passage oft quoted during political campaigns as well as national crisis,’  “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray…then I will hear…” (2 Chron. 7:14) is not a scriptural reference as to how I can guarantee that my candidate can be assured of winning an election.  It is God’s way of reminding us that God is God and a President of the United States is not.  It is reminding us that our spiritual lives ought to be of primary importance not simply a tool we might use as we seek to put our candidate into power.

Those are my thoughts as of today.  Thanks for listening.  Pastor Paul