Deconstruct:Reconstruct – The Summum Bonum
When Ben and I first drove up to Milwaukee from West Virginia six years ago, we missed one tiny split on the highway around Chicago – it was one small lane change. Unfamiliar with the landscape of the midwest, we drove for an hour before we realized we were getting deeper and deeper into rural Illinois and were nowhere near Wisconsin.
We’ve all gotten off track before, right? A little lost when we’re trying to go somewhere new?
As Christians, our whole tradition is the practice of striking out in a new direction:
God called Abraham to leave his home and family to go to a new land.
God led the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt to a new land.
John the Baptist took his rabbinical teachings out of the Temple where his father served and into the desert.
Jesus took his teachings to the outcasts of society – the tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes and Samaritans – breaking with the tradition and the holiness laws.
Paul took his teachings to the gentiles and to the people whom he would have long assumed completely outside of God’s capacity to work in and through.
And so on and so forth.
Our tradition is to set out for the unknown, going to the “ends of the earth,” so as we’re on this journey it’s prudent to stop and ask ourselves honestly, in our own lives and contexts:
Are we on track?
And perhaps we exercise the discipline of looking within ourselves, rather than taking the much-frequented route of pointing fingers and plucking splinters out of others. Let us look deeply into the mirror and search for the planks in our own eyes which blind us.
I, for one, lost the plot somewhere along the line. You know, the plot we read and study and preach and meditate on and honor in art pieces and such?
God creates the world and humanity.
Humanity chooses a path that tears apart and destroys the world and other humans.
God patiently and painstakingly draws humanity to Godself, and to a love for God and other humans.
Humanity doesn’t get it, so God becomes human to help us understand.
And when God-in-flesh is asked what is most essential rule of #alltherules,
he says this:
“Love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Could it really be that simple?
A couple weeks ago my friend Tim was talking about the philosophical concept of summum bonum – or “the greatest good.”
Tim explained it this way: the summum bonum defines the whole system for a given philosophy. It is the goal, but it also defines the means by which you get to the goal. It is the most essential thing, and if at any point you lose the summum bonum the whole system is for naught.
Different philosophers throughout the ages have identified different summum bonum. For some the greatest good is beauty, for others law and order. Utilitarians would say the summum bonum is productivity, and rational deontologists would say it is duty.
For those of us who identify a Christians, our summum bonum seems to be love.
We look to the accounts of Jesus’ life to inform our definition of what love is:
Love goes to the outskirts, to those discredited for their lack of social capital and to those despised for their unjust gain in the system.
Love goes to weep with and heal broken and the sick, and love interrupts the life as usual of those who are well and at the top of their game.
Love feeds the masses in the field, and love accepts the invitation to the exclusive dinner with the elite.
The thing I find most beautiful (and annoying) about the love demonstrated by Christ is that it was a spacious, generous love. A love that insisted on and instead of either.
When the community in Corinth was wrestling with how to live a life of love, Paul described it like this:
Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
(1 Corinthians 13, The Message)
But when I look at my life, can I say those things about myself?
Is the defining characteristic of my life and practice of the things I say I believe on target?
I never give up.
I care more for others than I do for myself.
I don’t want what I don’t have.
I don’t strut.
I don’t have a swelled head.
I don’t force myself on others.
I don’t demand to be first.
I don’t fly off the handle.
I don’t keep score of the sins of others.
I don’t revel when others grovel.
I take pleasure when truth flowers.
I put up with anything.
I trust God always.
I always look for the best.
I never look back, but keep going till the end.
We live lives inspired by the God who became Flesh and Bone to demonstrate this love, and empowered by the Spirit of God – nothing is impossible – yet we settle for so much less.
We look for evidences of God at work in miraculous, unexpected healing; in large arenas with smoke and lights and loud music.
We look for God in the interruptions, the breaks from life as usual, all the while claiming to follow God Emmanuel – God Who is With Us.
Paul starts off his statement on love with this reflection:
If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.
If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.
If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
There must be love. Above and below and overarching everything else: love.
All of the law and the prophets are summed up in this- the summum bonum of our tradition. Love.
While we look for bigger crowds, brighter lights, and more astonishing signs, consider this:
In this fractured and hemorrhaging world, what could be more miraculous than love?
As much discipline and energy that we invest in studying the Word, pursuing justice, crafting apologetics, planning services, writing songs, baking casseroles and however we work out our faith – should we not also invest so much more in cultivating and experiencing the one thing that remains before and behind and beneath it all?
So the brilliant theologians will one day stop writing,
the inspiring preachers will fall silent,
the worship leaders with their lights and guitars will be stilled and this will remain: