Sunday, February 03, 2013

The Christian Creed v. the American Creed

Among the reasons that, for all the lip service given to faith in our public life, Christianity isn't entirely at home in the United States is that the value most highly prized by Americans isn't the highest value commended by God.

If you ask the average American what the ultimate value is, the one thing for which they would be likeliest to fight to the death, I think the answer would be freedom.

On the other hand, though the Christian gospel--the good news of forgiveness and new life for all who believe in Jesus Christ--brings the ultimate freedom to people, setting them free to be the people God made them to be and not what sin, their own or others', dictates, freedom is not the ultimate value of Christian faith.

The ultimate value of Christian faith is love.

Christian love is self-giving love. It willingly divests itself of what the world knows as freedom in order to love others.

This is the love that Jesus gives.

The Christian gospel tells us that Jesus divested Himself of the freedom of being God in order to take on humanity and undertake love's greatest deed: God, unblemished by sin, submitting to death without resistance for His beloved, the human race, then rising to take an eternal kingdom, not for Himself, but for the benefit of all who believe in Him.

Christians are then called to live out the same sort of self-giving love. Paul writes in the New Testament book of Philippians:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:4-11)
Jesus has the Name above all names not because He lived and died for freedom, but because He lived and died and rose for love.

And He calls us to give His kind of love the ultimate place in our lives. 1 Corinthians 13:13 says: "And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love."

When freedom is your ultimate value, you can become a monster: self-centered, ego-driven, materialistic. Make freedom your ultimate value and you will ultimately be enslaved by the things you chase as an expression of your freedom. You will be separated by a self-constructed wall from God, grace, and other people.

If freedom is your ultimate value, you might love, after a fashion.

But if God's love is your ultimate value, you also will be truly free.

And this brings up another reason Christianity doesn't entirely fit with our American culture. Americans are taught to believe in self-sufficiency, the notion that we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and that, if we decide to be loving, or free, or decisive, or whatever, we can make it happen.

But no Christian is taught to believe that she or he can resolve to be loving or anything else. Christians know that resolutions and good intentions won't change us. Only Christ can do that. That's why the apostle Paul writes in Romans: "I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate" (Romans 7:15). And later, "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:24-25) Only the love of God, given in Christ, can set us free to be our best selves.

This applies especially to the ultimate value of love. We may learn over time to be loving by letting ourselves be loved by the God we see in Jesus, by submitting ourselves to no master but Jesus.

We open our wills to Jesus and let Him make us over into His image, including taking His love as the ultimate good in this life and the next. We cling to the words of John:
In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 1:10)
There have been Christians imprisoned for their faith in Christ who were infinitely more free than the jailers who held them and had the freedom to go wherever they wanted. That's because freedom is, in the end, not about getting to do what you want to do, it's about getting to be the person the God of love sets you free to be through Jesus.

I love my country. But I'll take "faith, hope, and love" over "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." That's because in Christ, happiness has already pursued me. So has love. I don't have to go looking for it. I simply let Jesus Christ in. And that, by the by, brings freedom!

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