by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill
Love needs a person to be real. I often say that, and I am sure I heard someone else say it somewhere. One can hear about love, read about love, talk about love, and from the beginning of time, these have been a favorite human preoccupation. Philosophers and theologians and poets can describe love, and we are thankful and enriched for their ruminations. But real love — godly love — is incarnational, embodied, enfleshed. Love needs a person to be real.
Now living into the final week of Advent, we feel the season pulling us into Christmas which is at least an invitation into deeper contemplation of divine love. Our Christian tradition and the Bible point to a God who will stop at nothing to show us how he regards us. And that leads to God setting down in history as a person, Jesus, the one whose birth we are about to celebrate again and whose life is perfect love that changes everything.
A few years ago, I was inspired to fresh thinking on the Incarnation through a meditation I read by Erwin McManus, lead pastor of a diverse congregation in Los Angeles called Mosaic. McManus had some rather innovative and interesting ideas about the church, and I particularly appreciated his sharing about a visit to the Middle East. He had been invited to speak to a group of Muslim men about Christianity. First, McManus acknowledged that the church was far from perfect, often failing to witness faithfully to the gospel. He also confessed in his own life too many inconsistencies between what he believed and what he practiced.
McManus wrote that the men in his audience related to each of these shortcomings from their own experience as Muslims. But what they really wanted to know was how Christianity was different. Why be a Christian in the first place? So, McManus began to explain:
He once met a girl named Kim. He fell in love. McManus pursued her with all the love he had and finally, he asked her to marry him. But she said “no.”McManus writes that as he told his story, he felt the empathy of all the Muslim men in the room. What man cannot sympathize with such a story?McManus continued sharing, recounting how in the face of his beloved’s “no,” he was nevertheless unrelenting. He came to her again and again, wooing her. He loved her more and more. And eventually … finally … she did say “yes!” And all men in the room appreciated that part of the story as well!
McManus ended his testimony by saying this: “I did not send my brother to tell this woman I loved her, nor did I send a friend. For in issues of love, you must go yourself. This is the story of Jesus. God has walked among us, and he pursues us with his love. He is familiar with rejection but is undeterred. And he is here even now, pursuing us with his love.”
McManus offered to these men a simple but powerful analogy from his personal life on the uniqueness of Christianity: that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us as a real person. I may use his example in a sermon! However, what also struck me in McManus’s testimony was how his own articulation of the faith was presumably sharpened by engagement with those outside the church, in this case, Muslim men in a foreign country and different cultural context.
The question I pose is this: might we consider how our intentional engagements with people outside the church — unbelievers, people of other faiths, fellow citizens, or neighbors from different backgrounds — might not only bless them but also ourselves by sharpening our own appreciation of the uniqueness of Christianity. McManus was blessed in having to figure out how to do two things at once: lovingly engage non-Christians while also contemplating again the mystery of the gospel in his own life that comes to us in Christ Jesus, a real person.
Put simply, Jesus’ call upon all believers “to go forth to all nations” as a continuation of his love for the whole world is not only a means by which we not only share the gospel with others. It is also a way the faith is deepened in ourselves. I invite you to consider that a Christmas resolution to be more intentional in the coming new year about missionary service to those beyond the life of St. John the Divine may be an important means by which you yourself will grow in faith. Indeed, I would love for our parish community to be more and more a test case that this is so. And I look forward to more and more conversation around this very question.
“If you live alone, whose feet will you wash?”
—St. Basil the Great (4th century), arguing against extreme ascetical individualism in some forms of early monasticism.
Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People edited by Charles E. Moore (Plough Publishing House, 2016)
Like many in this good place, I am intensely interested in helping cultivate a gathered church community of belonging for all who seek it, especially in light of the profound experiences of loneliness and isolation many have endured over the last two years. I have a great appreciation for this anthology of brief writings on the essentially social character of Christian living.
Properly understood, Christian fellowship is not merely one aspect of church membership. It is an inevitable property of the faith itself. The selections in this anthology come from across the Christian tradition, and I highly recommend it as a useful source for reflection on the social nature of salvation.