In this final post of the series I will explore the meaning of how Methodists train to love their neighbors as themselves. I’ll begin with why loving the neighbor is necessary to Christian discipleship. Then I’ll look at the neighbor Christians are commanded to love. Finally I’ll explore the nature of the love Jesus teaches us to practice.
Why love neighbors? The writer of 1 John is very direct:
“Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The command we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4:20-21).
It’s really quite simple. If you say you love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, then it logically follows that you must love what God loves; which means loving those whom God loves. Scripture is clear: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” If God loves the world, which I’m guessing means everyone in the world, then all who profess to love God must necessarily love the world that God loves.
Jesus is very clear about who and how his followers are to love.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:43-48).
Active love of God and those whom God loves is the way of perfection. Here to be “perfect” means to be complete and whole. It means to be fully the person God created you to be, in the image of Christ. When we love people who do not love us we imitate God. The more we imitate God we become more like Jesus. The way of love is the way of holiness and wholeness.
Jesus is unambiguous when describing how his followers are to love their neighbors in Matthew 25:31-46. He tells us to give food and drink to the hungry and thirsty, welcome the strangers, give clothing to people who are naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoners. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Jesus identifies himself with the people who are hungry, alone, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned. They are the neighbors Christians are commanded to love. When we are with them we are in the physical presence of Jesus. When we love the people Jesus loves, we become more like Jesus; which means we become more genuinely the persons God created us to be.
The Scriptures cited above clearly tell us that the “neighbors” Jesus commands his followers to love cannot be limited to the people who live next door or in the neighborhood. The neighbor is anyone, anywhere in the world who is in need. Jesus answers the question “And who is my neighbor” with the parable of the “Good Samaritan” in Luke 10:29-37. John Wesley helps us understand the meaning of “who is my neighbor?” in General Rule #2:
It is expected of all who continue in these societies that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation,
Secondly: By doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men: To their bodies, of the ability which God giveth, by giving food to the hungry, by clothing the naked, by visiting or helping them that are sick or in prison.
To their souls, by instructing, reproving, or exhorting all we have any intercourse with; trampling under foot that enthusiastic doctrine that “we are not to do good unless our hearts be free to it.”
By doing good, especially to them that are of the household of faith or groaning so to be; employing them preferably to others; buying one of another, helping each other in business, and so much the more because the world will love its own and them only.
By all possible diligence and frugality, that the gospel be not blamed.
By running with patience the race which is set before them, denying themselves, and taking up their cross daily; submitting to bear the reproach of Christ, to be as the filth and offscouring of the world; and looking that men should say all manner of evil of them falsely, for the Lord’s sake.
Here, in the words of Jesus and John Wesley, we see that the neighbor Christians are commanded to love include both the people we know and love, people who are strangers near and far, all people who are suffering and living in want, and even those who hate and persecute us. When we love people who do not love us we imitate Christ Jesus who loves even the people who hate him. Practicing such selfless, self-giving love leads to transformation of the heart and life such that we become more and more fully the persons God created us to be, in the image of Christ.
Finally, how can love be commanded? What kind of love are we called to practice? The love Jesus commands is very different from the love that is commonly spoken of in the culture, and even in the church. The common concept of love emphasizes feelings. When we say we “love” something or someone we mean that we have strong feelings of affection and attraction for the thing or person. The culture convinces us that feelings cannot be commanded. They must emerge naturally and spontaneously. This is why the idea of commanding us to love is such a foreign concept today.
Jesus is teaches a different kind of love. It has much more to do with behavior than with feelings. For Jesus, and John Wesley, love is a way of life. This is why Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to the question “And who is my neighbor?”. Rather than tell his audience to think kind thoughts about their neighbors, he tells a story about what a Samaritan did when he encountered a Jewish traveler bloody and beaten on the side of the road. He didn’t feel loving thoughts toward the man lying face down in the dust. Rather, Jesus tells how the Samaritan stopped to help the man, even though he was from a different tribe, and likely had little natural sympathy for him. Nevertheless, because he loved God, the Samaritan stopped to tend to the man’s wounds, put him on his donkey and took him to an inn where he instructed the innkeeper to care for him and left money to cover any costs.
Jesus teaches that his way of loving the neighbor is a practice that must be taught and learned until it becomes a habit. This way of love is the very heart of what it means to be a Methodist. The class meeting was the place where Methodists learned the discipline of love. John Wesley called them “works of mercy.” They are described above in the second part of the General Rules. Today we summarize the practices of love as “acts of compassion” and “acts of justice.” Compassion is the act of kindness toward the person who is grieving, hurt, hungry, sick, lonely, or imprisoned. Justice is the act of Christians joined together to ask why people are suffering and acting to change the systems that cause the suffering.
When Christians habitually practice Jesus’ way of love they become Jesus imitators. Imitation ultimately leads to people whose character and behavior are reflections of the Master. This is the goal of Christian discipleship. God supplies the grace and the means (Christian community and the practices known as “means of grace”) we need to become the people he created us to be. As Christians learn and practice the discipline of love the are equipped to participate with Christ in his mission of preparing this world for the coming reign of God on earth as it is in heaven.