“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” – Matthew 22:37-39
Jesus makes it very clear that the essence of Life is to be found in loving God and loving others. It is an incredibly simple concept, but one that experience teaches us is much more difficult to live out. For one thing, when Jesus uses the word “love,” he’s talking about actions, and not about feelings. It’s not about what we think or feel about God or the people around us, but about what our behavior expresses about our level of concern. Many people say they believe in God, but those beliefs don’t always reflect much love for God – they don’t pray; they don’t spend time immersing themselves in scripture; they don’t attend worship; they don’t talk about God’s presence in their lives. They may be good, moral, socially-responsible citizens who work tirelessly for worthwhile causes, but nothing about their behavior points to any sort of relationship to God.
On the other hand, there are also those who spend so much time in prayer, bible study, and cultivating their inner spiritual life that they never get around to serving anyone else. They may have a rich personal prayer life, but keep it carefully hidden behind closed doors. Their love for God is never in doubt, but their love for others may not be evident. In fact, they can sometimes come across as so self-righteous, judgmental, and holier-than-thou that they drive others away!
Depending on our past experiences and current circumstances, most of us probably tend to lean toward one extreme or the other. We see the dangers of both, and choose to embrace whichever seems to be the lesser of two evils. As a result, we find ourselves with churches that cultivate piety without social responsibility, or churches who cultivate social engagement without any spiritual witness.
But Jesus doesn’t settle for an either/or approach – he wants our faith to be a both/and experience. He calls us to cultivate a spiritual life that connects us simultaneously to God and to others (both friends and strangers alike). He doesn’t call us to love God and then love others, or love others and then love God, but to show our love for God as we show our love others.
For churches like ours, this means learning to dissolve the artificial line between Christian education and mission. It means integrating service with spiritual development, and making our witness to Jesus an integral part of our effort to alleviate injustice and relieve human suffering. Strengthening our faith and offering practical assistance to others should be two sides of the same coin. When people get involved in our church’s life (whether they’re members yet or not), they should be able to find immediate opportunities to deepen their relationship to God even as they roll up their sleeves to help others.
The Church is not a social-service agency. Our job is not primarily to solve social problems, but to introduce people to a Higher Power that is at work in us and in the world, healing the brokenness of our lives and relationships, and empowering us to accomplish more than we ever thought possible. We can only do that effectively when our love for God and love for others are both visible simultaneously. Jesus’ life showed us how our humanity and God’s divinity can be indistinguishable. Our ministry as a church should be that way too.