"Approval Cannot Equal Love"#89-05
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on October 3, 2021
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2021 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: 1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1
Outside the windows of the school commander's office, everything was dark. Wes had been at military school just four days and he'd already tried to run away four times. Tonight was his fifth attempt. They caught him and brought him back to the school grounds, and the commanding officer said that he could make one phone call, and he better make it quick. So, he called his mother, even though it was her fault that he was here.
Wes' father died when he was only three years old, and his mother had done her best to raise him and his sisters, to provide for them, to give them a good education. But Wes' grades had been failing; he was skipping class; he was hanging out with a drug dealer; he was getting in trouble with the law, and she didn't know what to do. That night in the kitchen when they had argued, he towered over her with his jaws clenched and his hands balled up into fists.
Wes knew that he never would have hit his mother. But in that moment, she wasn't so sure. There was this military school that a friend had recommended, and so she saved all that she had and her parents took out an equity loan on their home to help pay for the first year's tuition. Wes, of course, didn't know anything about this. And even if he had it wouldn't have made much difference at the time. He was so wrapped up in himself. And all he knew is that he didn't like anyone telling him what to do and he wanted to run away.
So when the school commander handed him the phone, he called his mother and he launched into his five-minute campaign speech to come home. She cut him off. She said, "Wes, you're not going anywhere until you give this place a try. Too many people have sacrificed in order for you to be there. I love you. I'm proud of you and Wes, it's time to stop running." Author Wes Moore tells that story in a coming-of-age memoir titled, The Other Wes Moore. And I share it with you because I'd like for us to keep it in mind as we consider a question. It's a question that's been at the heart of these last four messages on this program. The question is "How are Christians called to relate to their neighbors, their neighbors who don't follow Christ?" Of course, there's a simple answer to that question, right? Love. Love is how Christians are called to relate, love your neighbor as yourself, even your neighbor who doesn't follow Christ. But you and I both know that people use the word love in many different ways.
And so there are different answers to this question, "How are Christians called to relate to their neighbors who don't follow Christ?" So let's talk through some of these answers. One answer to the question might go like this. Christians are called to love by showing disapproval and distancing ourselves from non-Christians. Now, when I hear that answer, it doesn't sound like love to me, distance and disapproval. And I think many Christians hearing that answer, wouldn't be satisfied with it.
But if you put it in the right context, it could really be a loving response. For example, consider Wes' mother, whom I mentioned earlier. If you read Wes' memoir and you hear him go on and on about how much he appreciates his mother as a grown man now and you see the glowing way that he talks about her—in that context I think you would agree that she was in fact truly loving him through that season of his life. She did what she did. She disapproved of his behavior. She even put distance between them because she loved him.
Her love compelled her to do what she did even though it would bring her personal pain and cost. Even though it would meet with his teenage disapproval, she did everything in her power to help turn her son around because in that moment, that's what he needed. And this is the context that we need to imagine if we want to understand the Christian view of the world, the biblical view of the world. And even if you're not a Christian, you might find this helpful in understanding your Christian friend or your Christian neighbor.
Now it's not that Christians see themselves as the collective parent for the rest of humanity. It's not that Christians are somehow in charge of reforming the behavior of the unbelieving world. Although granted, sometimes we act that way. But that's not what the Bible teaches. The Bible teaches that God is the parent. God is the adopting Father of all humanity. And we're all like Wes, wrapped up in ourselves, rebellious, wayward, teenage children. We're running from God. We're caught up in a self-destructive spiritual rebellion against our Creator. But God has sent His Son, His eternal Son, Jesus, to save us from this.
And He saves us in a strange way: in a way that we as children cannot fully appreciate. With crucifixion and resurrection, with suffering and death and new life. And in that dark night of our rebellion, Jesus is our phone call from God. He says to each of us, "I love you. I'm proud of you, but it's time to stop running." So it's true. For Christians, loving our unbelieving neighbors means distancing ourselves from their rebellion against God. And sometimes Christians are called to express God's disapproval.
But remember the context. It's not the disapproval of political rhetoric. It's not the disapproval of culture wars. It's not the disapproval of moral superiority. It's disapproval ever hopeful of a reunion with the Father. Remember the father from Jesus' story about the prodigal son, the rebellious son, the one who ran away. Jesus uses that story to show us the father's heart. The father in that story, he doesn't celebrate when the son runs away; he's not happy that the troublemaker's finally out of the house. The father mourns the distance and it brings him deep pain.
But even in that pain, he anticipates and then celebrates the reunion. This truth about God's heart shows that Christians are not called to make a policy of permanent disapproval of our unbelieving neighbors. Disapproval and distance are temporary emergency measures, not a long-term plan. You see the Christians call to love the neighbor isn't so simple. And Christians, followers of Jesus Christ, the Jewish Messiah, have been living in this tension from the beginning. After Jesus rose from the dead, just before He ascended to God in heaven, He sent His followers to fulfill the mission of God's people. Jesus' followers are to be an ongoing echo of God's call, calling to every human being, saying both to Jews and to the Gentile nations, "I love you. I'm proud of you, and it's time to stop running."
The Christian message has always been twofold: disapproval of rebellion against God and open-armed welcome back into God's family. Love alone can hold those two together. Christians in every generation have had to learn to walk in God's love when relating to their unbelieving neighbors. And with this comes two temptations: isolation and accommodation, both of which are a failure to love.
Two thousand years ago, a wise Jewish Christian man named Paul wrote a letter to the followers of Jesus in the Roman colony of Corinth. In many ways, the theme of Paul's letter is love. In one part of the letter, Paul coaches his fellow Christians specifically on how to relate to their unbelieving neighbors with love. Now, Paul is familiar with their situation. He knows how they're being tempted. Tempted either to isolate themselves from or accommodate themselves to their unbelieving neighbors. Now some of the Christ followers in Corinth would prefer to isolate.
And for good reason, Corinth was a hotbed of pagan religion. Corinthian culture glorified desire and power, and those dark forces came together in the pagan sacrificial system. To gain approval in Corinth, you had to go to the pagan temple. You had to pander to the powerful, patronize the temple prostitutes, and partake in the sacrificed meat. Some converts to Christ in Corinth had come out of that dark life and rightfully wanted nothing more to do with it.
And they were so scrupulous in their disapproval that they stopped eating meat out of concern that the meat might be associated with some distant pagan sacrifice. They wouldn't even go to a barbecue at their pagan neighbor's home. They were tempted to isolation. Now other Christ followers in Corinth were tempted to accommodation. They knew that the pagan gods weren't real and they figured that they could acclimate themselves to Corinthian culture and enjoy the approval of their neighbors who didn't follow the crucified Christ. And they had these sayings that they would often repeat, sayings like, "All things are permissible for me," sayings like. "Food is for the belly and the belly is for food." And they would repeat these sayings to justify their accommodation to the culture.
Listen though how Paul corrects them both. He explains how both accommodation and isolation are a failure to love. Here's how he says it at the end of first Corinthians 10. "All things are permissible you say, but not all things are beneficial. "All things are permissible you say," but not everything builds up. No one should seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Eat whatever meat is sold in the market without raising questions of conscience, because the earth is the Lord's and everything in it. If one of the unbelievers invites you all over to dinner and you want to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says, "This has been offered in sacrifice," don't eat it. Both for the sake of the person who told you and for conscience' sake. I don't mean your conscience, but I mean the conscience of the other person. Why should my freedom be judged by someone else's conscience? And if I take part in the meal with thanksgiving, why am I being slandered for what I give thanks to God for? So, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews or Gentiles or the church of God. Even as I try to please everybody in every way, as I try to take into account the interests of everyone, because I am not seeking my own advantage, but the advantage of many that they may be saved. Follow my example in this as I follow the example of Christ.
Did you hear? Jesus calls His followers not to isolation but to love. But I think a lot of people today assume that love means accommodation. When they answer this question, "How should Christians relate to neighbors who don't follow Christ?" they might say Christians should love by giving their approval. Now, when I hear people talk this way, I sense it coming from a deep respect for the God-given dignity and value of every human being. And this resonates with much of what Paul says in his letters—that God wants to save everyone, that each person is infinitely valued by God, that Jesus died to save everyone. That's how great God's love is. But it's also why approval cannot equal love. Approval on its own says, "All things are permissible." Approval on its own says, "Live and let live." Approval on its own says, "I won't bother you, and you don't bother me."
But Jesus cares more about the person than He does about gaining or giving approval. He bothers us when we're running from God and He let our sins bother Him, trouble Him, and bring Him great cost, suffering them on the cross. That's how Jesus loves. And He rose from the dead to transform us with His love. It's like a mother who endures the rebellion of her beloved son; Jesus keeps on loving—with or without our approval. Approval cannot equal love. But love, when its work is complete, can inspire not just approval, but imitation. The story of the rebellious teenage boy I mentioned earlier is an example of this. Wes Moore the author is a graduate from Valley Forge Military College, a graduate from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He's a combat decorated army officer. He was a White House Fellow to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. And he's a Christian, a follower of Jesus. His book highlights how dangerous and turbulent the journey into mature adulthood is.
And Wes dedicated his bestseller book to his mom, along with others. He says, "My mom remains the rock of our family." This is Wes' way of saying not only I approve of my mom, but I want to be like my mom. So what's the point of this analogy? I'm not saying that we should all send our kids to military school. I'm not saying that Christian should act like drill sergeants to whip the unbelieving world into shape. I'm saying that parents often give up their own comfort and advantage and make sacrifices that their children do not fully appreciate, and that they do it not for their children's immediately approval, but for their ultimate good. And Jesus in obedience to God His father did even more. And Christians are called to do likewise for their neighbors.
Approval on its own cannot inspire imitation, but love can. So you, you who know the love of Jesus, don't just tell, show your neighbors. With your words and your actions, show them how good God is. Show them how much He's given them, show them how He loves them. And one day, God willing, they'll say with us, "I want to love like Jesus, too."
Would you pray with me? Dear Father, whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, let us do all for Your glory and for the good of our neighbor through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Reflections for October 3, 2021
Title: Approval Cannot Equal Love
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. Once again, here's our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: I'm here again with Jennifer Prophet. She directs our community programming with Lutheran Hour Ministries. Welcome back, Jennifer.
Jennifer Prophete: Thank you so much.
Mike Zeigler: And also Don Everts. Again, he's a writer with Lutheran Hour Ministries, the author of the book, The Hopeful Neighborhood and the co-author of the book, The Hopeful Neighborhood Field Guide. Welcome back, Don.
Don Everts: Great to be with both of you.
Mike Zeigler: Don and Jennifer, we have been talking about how Christians can partner together with others to work for the common good, and how Lutheran Hour Ministries has these resources to help people do that. But when I put my local church leader hat on, I'm on the church council at my congregation, and I have to find volunteers to do stuff to do ministry at church, and we're always short on volunteers. And so I'm wondering how much would a neighborhood project like this cut down on the people that I have available for my church ministries? How would you answer that?
Don Everts: So the statistics say that your fear is unfounded. The reality is that just doesn't happen. So 94 percent of all practicing Christians explicitly say that when I'm doing work in the neighborhood or somewhere else, it does not diminish or lessen the amount of time or effort or energy I'm laboring at in my church.
Jennifer Prophete: 94 percent. 94 percent. That's basically everybody.
Mike Zeigler: Now that you say that, I picture the people in my congregation who are the most active in the church ministries. They also do a lot of stuff outside of church. And so it does kind of experientially, it does make a little sense when you put it that way. Okay, Jennifer, I'll put this question to you: Why would you say that's still worth the risk for church leaders?
Jennifer Prophete: Our research both this year and in the past has shown that relationships are how people meet Jesus and how people come into the church. Release your people to go and build those relationships. Also, findings show that non-Christians tend to think that the church is somewhat irrelevant for social good. And so beyond the relationships, just the reputation of not just your church, but Christians in general, who will do things for the good of their neighbor without any kind of noticeable return, makes them scratch their head a little bit, because that's different than what their assumption is about the church or what their past understanding is about the church.
Mike Zeigler: I know that both of you hope that in this work through The Hopeful Neighborhood Project, it would help Christians gain a better reputation in our neighborhoods. But at the same time, I'm guessing that you would encourage us to do this anyway even if this doesn't help our reputation. Why is that?
Jennifer Prophete: One of the approaches that we took with The Hopeful Neighborhood Project is what we call kind of a "First Article approach" or "creation approach." And that is, we believe that God created this world, created us in it with gifts and that He created us as caretakers for the world. God has given us our houses, our yards, our parks, our world, to take care of. It's what He's asked us to do.
Don Everts: You think of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus said, "Let your light shine before others so that they will see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." Jesus did see a connection between us shining our lights, doing good. And other people seeing that. He said, if you do that in a way that other people see your good works, they will give glory to your Father in heaven.
What's the connection that there's something about our faithfulness to our creation mandate that gains us a hearing, because how are people going to glorify our Father unless they find out about Him and they ask Him about, well, "Why do you live the way you do?" "Why are you uncommonly kind?" "Why are you going out of your way to help others?" And so when we do good works, when the Holy Spirit moves, it can provide an opportunity for sharing about Jesus and people ultimately giving glory to the Father in heaven. So that is also true. That is also a good, but it's not like we do the good things, just so that we will gain a hearing, but it happens to be that when we are faithful to our creation mandate, we do gain hearing. And so I think that's why it's especially exciting that rediscovering the call to love our neighbors, love our neighborhood, pursue the wellbeing-it's especially exciting to understand that that will help us gain a hearing for the good news.
Jennifer Prophete: So it can be a unifying thing just by simply living out what God asked us to do.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you for listening with us. We want to share these resources with you. We've got this book would probably be a good place to start that Don Everts has written. It's called The Hopeful Neighborhood. There's lots of information there about other resources we offer.
Jennifer Prophete: We have stories, blog posts that are stories that could help inspire you to think about your neighborhood in different ways or give you an idea. So those are all resources that are available. You can find the links and that information lhm.org/together. So you can find everything there. That'll even link you to The Hopeful Neighborhood Project page if you really want to do a deep dive into what the project is all about and find stories there, and even connect with a neighborhood project coach who could help you or your congregation kind of think through what can I do in my neighborhood, and how could I go from idea to discover the gifts, to imagine the possibilities to actually pursuing the common good and doing something in my neighborhood.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you for the work that you're doing in this area and for being with us today,
Jennifer Prophete: It's humbling and a pleasure. Thank you.
Mike Zeigler: Thanks for being with us, Don.
Don Everts: Thank you.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Our Father, by Whose Name" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)