A School for Neighbor Loving

In the Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul recounts for us the summary of the law, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is found in both the Jewish Torah[1] and in the sayings of Jesus, recorded in all three synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke.[2]

Paul is describing for the Romans the new life in Christ. He writes in the previous chapter that opens this section: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”[3] He concludes it with, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”[4]

When Paul said to “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires,” he wasn’t referring to sexual intimacy. He was saying that those of us who put on the Lord Jesus, meaning the baptized, are not to be conformed to the ways of the world – the ways of hatred, revenge, lust, violence, injustice, selfishness, greed.

To put on Christ, we baptized are to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” What good we desire for ourselves, we also desire for our neighbor. What good we do for ourselves, we also do for our neighbor.” 

But this is hard. We don’t just decide one day that we’re going to be unselfish. For too many years and in too many places we’ve been encouraged, taught, even brainwashed to look out for number one, to get ahead, to win at all costs. The media encourage us to cheat and to reward cheating. 

Football season is now upon us. Imagine a lineman called for a holding penalty, saying for everyone to hear, “You’re right ref. I was holding.” Or a receiver trapping a passed ball between himself and the ground, jumping up, handing the ball over and hanging his head. No. They protest. They argue. They wave their hands and stomp their feet. They insist that what they did was legal, even though the replays show the infractions clearly. Cheating or attempts at cheating are all part of the game.

Reconcilers are portrayed as weak while aggressors are celebrated. Violence and revenge are modeled for us on television, movies, videos – and we seem somehow shocked when it happens in our schools and neighborhoods and streets.

So it’s against that backdrop that we have the church as a school for Christians. It’s a school in which we both learn what it is to “put on the Lord Jesus” and to practice being transformed into neighbor lovers. Our Christian education and formation programs exist both to enlighten our minds and to encourage changed behavior.

Our children learn Bible stories so that they may live as children of the Good Shepherd, become Good Samaritans, welcome prodigal sons and daughters to the great feast. Our teens wrestle with the scriptures and try to discern how they might live them out at school or at Friday night’s football game.  Adults listen to, process, and discuss sermons. We read the Bible and pay attention to the news. 

The great 20th Century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr one famously said that a Christian should read the Bible every morning alongside the New York Times. What questions do the issues of the day raise for us? What does Scripture suggest about how we think about those issues? 

We worship with liturgies that form, inform, and shape us, and help us to reflect on how to live out our faith in the workplace, the neighborhood, the grocery store, the highway, and the voting booth.

The church engages in mission in the community, the nation, and the world both to reach out to others near and far and to school ourselves in the practice of neighbor love. 

We make offerings, not just to pay the bills, but to practice sacrificial giving.

Sister Joan Chittister, a Roman Catholic nun and scholar, recently spoke at the National Cathedral. She mentioned a major study at Brown University which identified the following values that drive contemporary society: power, personal comfort, exploitation, control, individualism and domination. Christian values include creative work, holy leisure, peace, stewardship, community, hospitality, humility, and love of neighbor.

To be part of the church, this school for Christians and about Christian living is to engage in subversive activity. It is subverting the values of the culture around us.

The church is a community where people can remember, affirm, and explore the spiritual life and values, refusing to allow the world to forget that there’s a living, breathing alternative to the death dealing ways of the culture.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”[5] “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”[6] Love your neighbor as yourself.

This is the Season of Creation, which we are observing from September 3 to October 4. As we observe this sacred time, it’s important to highlight the importance of our neighbors—both our contemporary neighbors as well as our future ones. 

In our parish newletter this week (the eLantern) is this story from the Babylonian Talmud.

While the sage, Honi, was walking along a road, he saw a man planting a carob tree.

Honi asked him, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”

“Seventy years,” replied the man.

Honi then asked, “Are you so healthy a man that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?”

The man answered, “I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise I am planting for my children.”[7] 

May we do likewise.


[1] Leviticus 19:18

[2] Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27, Matthew 22:39

[3] Romans 12:2

[4] Romans 13:14

[5] Romans 12:2

[6] Romans 13:14

[7] –A Reading from the Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 23a

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