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February 7th, 2014

“BOTH/AND” CHRISTIANITY

Just Love

Angus Ritchie explains the vision behind an exciting new Lent book!

All too often, Christians pull apart the things that Scripture holds together.  For example, some Christians emphasise personal conversion to the exclusion of any challenge to the political and economic order. Others do precisely the opposite.  Some emphasise sexual morality.  Others focus their ethical teaching exclusively on social justice.  On each of these issues, the Biblical message is “both / and” not “either / or”.

Jesus’ ministry is “good news for the poor” (Luke 4).  His coming reverses this world’s hierarchies of power (Luke 1).  Before his Ascension, he calls his followers to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 25). In His words and deeds, social justice and personal conversion are held together.  Likewise, the Bible’s teaching on sexual fidelity stands alongside its call to justice for the poor.

What is the glue that binds these different aspects of the Biblical vision together? The answer is love – a deceptively simple word.  It is love which leads us to seek justice for our neighbours, and love which impels us to speak to them of our crucified and risen Lord.  Love is at the heart of Biblical teaching on both sexual and economic ethics. In every aspect of our lives, Scripture calls us to material relationships which embody faithfulness and self-giving rather than predatory self-indulgence.

We will only discover the unity of the Church’s mission – its personal and its social dimensions – when we focus on the nature of the love poured out by God in Jesus Christ. Unless our action flows from a deep experience of that love, one way or another, it will be unbalanced and shrill.

This is what motivated Paul Hackwood and me to write our new book – Just Love: Personal and social transformation in Christ.  While our new book was released in time for Lent, it is designed for individual and group study at any time of year.   Using six key passages from the Gospels (the readings set in the Church of England for the Sundays of Lent), we explore the nature of Christ-like love, and its implications for individuals and communities.  Each chapter seeks to capture something of “both/and” nature of God’s love: spiritual and physical, personal and universal, vulnerable and victorious.

Most of us find it easier to speak than to listen.  Yet (as we argue in the book), listening is an essential part of loving God and neighbour: listening to the nuances of what God has to say to us in Scripture; and to the subtle, patient ways he is at work in our lives.

It’s no accident that so much of Scripture takes the form of stories – whether history or parable.  The form of the Bible is part of its message.  God communicates to us, not only in propositional truths, but by becoming flesh – by entering into our material, social life. He becomes part of our story, so that our lives might find their destiny in his story. That’s why Just Love is full of stories – stories of the extraordinary things God is doing through Christians in some of England’s most deprived and diverse neighbourhoods.  It is by listening to those stories that we can discern and respond to God’s action in our midst.

Our book is published at a time when the word “politics” seems to provoke cynicism and derision. People find it hard to be hopeful about public life.  As the community theologian Ann Morisy has put it, our society is “bothered and bewildered.”  Just Love bears witness to the Christian hope – that personal and corporate renewal is possible, and is something we do by grace, not by our own efforts or virtues. As so often in the Bible, we find that the most exciting signs of such renewal are to be found on the margins of society, among those the ‘mainstream’ counts of little worth.

In our “bothered and bewildered” culture, many people have issued calls to action – manifestos for personal and social transformation.  Just Love is rather different.  It is written as a call to listen; to attend to the ways God’s love is poured out in the Gospels and in our daily lives.  For only then can our action participate in God’s action, and our churches’ mission become part of his great mission of love to the world.

Angus Ritchie is Director of the Contextual Theology Centre in east London (theology-centre.org). Just Love: Personal and Social Transformation in Christ  is published by Instant Apostle (£8.99 paperback, £5.15 Kindle) and can be ordered online now.

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