When we were on holiday last month, I was looking through the social media stuff and read something like:
what most divides Christians is the way they read the Bible
This rather worried me: sometimes we Christians can be very good at shooting ourselves in the foot! Rifts are rarely constructive. It took me no time at all to find strident examples in social media. I thought about how extreme divisions can get, as in the human carnage caused by the truck being driven down the promenade in Nice in 2016. Amidst some of the expressions of grief and support strewn around a bandstand and along the promenade, a cross was there, standing alongside the pain.
How different was the Presidential address given at start of the current Methodist Conference, as Michaela Youngston discussed sharing understanding with members of the other Abrahamic faiths:
learning in common to look to those things that we shared
Through scriptural reasoning from the texts precious to each faith, she found that a deeper understanding could be developed.
In Mark, Jesus is asked by a teacher, or scholar of the Law, what is the greatest commandment. It’s not that the scholar needed to know. The scribes were the Google or Wikipedia of their day. This was a test of Jesus’ core values. What was his manifesto? What was his strap line? Jesus does not give one commandment, but couples two – from different books of the Law. One is from Deuteronomy:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.
Deuteronomy 6:5 (NIV)
The second is from Leviticus:
Love your neighbour as yourself.
Leviticus 19:18 (NIV)
In both cases, the Greek word used by the writer of Mark for love is agape – selfless, active love. The scribe, scholar, teacher confirms that Jesus has chosen wisely from all of the Jewish Laws, he too using the word agape. The scholar who met Jesus also knew the importance of these commandments relative to some paraphernalia of worship:
To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.
Mark 12:33 (NIV)
We are not to be put into divisions by the precision of our rote memory or by our abstract adherence to one liturgy. We are definitely not called to insult fellow Christians who see things from a different angle, nor indeed to behave in that way to those of another faith. Rather, we should be aware of the mystery and grace of God, which are beyond words.
And we should do so with humility, as builders of bridges.
A humble, bridge-building approach to divergent understandings is explained movingly in the hymn by Michael Forster:
Let love be real, with no manipulation,
No secret wish to harness or control;
Let us accept each other’s incompleteness,
And share the joy of learning to be whole.