Yet how often do we accept the exact opposite when it comes to someone who says they love God or Jesus?
How often do we accept as legitimate the faith of those who say they believe in God but give no evidence of love in their lives- love for God or for others?
We’re in the midst of our fall sermon series, Seven Truths that Changed the World: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas.
But why ideas? It’s common to reduce Christianity to a system of beliefs, but it hasn’t always and wasn’t originally so.
St Augustine of Hippo was a 5th century theologian and bishop of North Africa. In response to the fall of Rome, which many Romans blamed on Christianity and which was an almost inconceivable event at the time, Augustine wrote a long work of theology entitled The City of God.
In it, Augustine characterizes Rome’s fall as inevitable by drawing a contrast between the earthly city (Rome) and the heavenly city. Interestingly, according to Augustine, what distinguishes citizens of the two cities is not beliefs but love.
The earthly city is necessarily finite, even doomed, because its citizens’ love is directed towards finite ends whereas what distinguishes the citizens of the heavenly city is a love aimed towards God. For Augustine, and I would argue for the scriptures, our primordial orientation to the world as creatures is not knowledge or belief but love. We are not led in the world by our head. We instead feel our way in the world with our hands and our heart. As creatures we are not mere containers for ideas or beliefs. As creatures our lives are dynamic, aimed outward from ourselves to the world.
Another way of putting this is that humans are not primarily rational creatures we are intentional creatures; that is, we are aimed towards an object other than ourselves.
For Augustine, we are essentially and ultimately lovers. To be human is to love. And it’s what we love that defines who we are. Our ultimate love is what constitutes our identity. It’s not what I think that shapes me from the ground up; it’s what I love.
Look at the creation story in Genesis.
Jews and Christians have always taught that God created ex nihilo, out of nothing. In other words, God didn’t need to create. Father, Son and Spirit didn’t need us because God was incomplete without us or because God was lonely.
No, creation is grace all the way down. God makes us for no other reason but to share God’s love and life. Creation is the joy and love God has within God spilled over.
In Genesis we are made for no other reason but to love God.
Augustine’s way of putting this is that we are teleological creatures. ‘Telos’ means end. We are creatures directed towards an end: God and God’s Kindgom. That’s how we’re wired from the Day One of creation (and this is what Sin is: to have our loves directed towards something other than the Kingdom. Sin isn’t the absence of love it’s misdirected love).
We’re teleological, End-driven, creatures. We’re not pushed by beliefs; we are pulled by a desire. It’s not that we’re intellectually convinced and then we muster up the heart to follow Jesus. It’s that we’re attracted to a vision of the End that Christ gives us.
Look at the Sermon on the Mount, the crux of Jesus’ earthly teaching.
Standing on top of the mountain, preaching to the crowds but speaking to his disciples, Jesus uses not the language of belief or ideas. Jesus speaks in the language of desire: ‘Blessed are those who mourn for you will rejoice. Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake…’
It’s the language of want Jesus uses to form his people.
It’s possible to persuade me rationally. You may logically convince me. But until you’ve gotten me to want differently, until you’ve redirected my love and desire, you’ve not changed me.
And I am still far from being a disciple.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement in 18th century England, called such Christians ‘almost Christians.’ For Wesley, believing in Jesus was a pale imitation of what we were made for: having the love of God ‘shed abroad in our hearts.’
For Wesley, like St Augustine, since we are made to love God and be directed towards God, to be a disciple is not about having right ideas. Being a disciple is about becoming the kind of person who loves rightly- who desires God and loves neighbor and is directed beyond oneself towards the world in love.