In human history, many people seemed to live with the basic assumption that religion taught you how to behave for a deity. One of the amazing innovations of Israel’s worship of God was that God had strongly-held expectations about how humans treated one another. This idea spread out and now forms the basis of every major religion world-wide.
In an age of individualism and self-reliance, we can loose sight of this idea. We may not think we have, but listening to many Christians speaking, you might get the picture that their faith is really about what’s happening between them and God. Sure, they don’t think they should treat others badly, but neither do they think their actions towards others are as important as the aforementioned relationship with God.
But according to scripture, our relationship with God and with people are tangled together in messy ways that make it impossible to clearly separate the two. In Matthew 22:36-40 we read:
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt 22:36-40 NIV)
Jesus gives us two greatest commands not because he can’t stop counting at one, but because loving God without loving our neighbour is impossible. God refuses to accept worship that isn’t accompanied by righteous living towards others.
This isn’t an innovation that Jesus creates. It’s clearly seen in the Old Testament. In Micah we read,
With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:6-8)
In this passage, God wasn’t interested in receiving ceremonial worship when people were mistreating each other. In other words, to be reconciled to God necessarily means working towards reconciliation with others.
In the book of Ephesians, we read:
“[God’s] purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two [Jews & Gentiles], thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit” (Eph. 2:15b-18).
In this passage we see the inseparable nature of reconciliation to God and with each other. The act of being reconciled with God pulls the believer into a community of others who have been reconciled. The reconciliation overflows from our relationship with God into the relationship with the other. In Paul’s day, it was between Jews and Gentiles, two groups that weren’t on the best of terms. To put this principle in our own context, it means that in Christ, we’re made into one body with the others. That “other” may be the poor, those from different cultures or ethnicities, or any other people I’d like to keep out of my group for the sake of my own comfort.
God wasn’t interested in the what was comfortable for the church (if you read Galatians, you’ll see a church that is profoundly uncomfortable in working out the implications of faith by grace rather than works). Instead, he is interested in seeing the church act as an extension of Jesus’ work of reconciliation bringing the far off near to God.
When I try to reduce our faith to a transaction between God and myself, I’m showing that I’m happy to receive God’s reconciliation, but I’m not happy to pass it along. If I believe I’m called to become more Christ-like in my character and actions, but I refuse to engage in the ministry of reconciliation — which Ephesians says stands at the centre of what Jesus was doing — then I’m not really serious about become like Jesus. I need to seek out the other, and open the doors of relationship with them, even if it’s uncomfortable — especially if it’s uncomfortable. To love God will always mean to strive to accept the other. It can’t stop with God and I, reconciliation refuses to stay in the place we’ve made for it. It goes everywhere and gets on everything like a toddler and chocolate cake. God wouldn’t have it any other way.