Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
May 3, 2013
I have been rummaging again in the Friends Journal archive. Access to back issues is a terrific benefit of a subscription. In the June 15, 1968 issue (page 296) I found this gem, “‘Amo’ or ‘Credo’?” by L. Willard Reynolds, then a pastor in Nebraska Yearly Meeting (FUM). His piece–could have been written today–follows.
Robert Frost, in an exquisite little poem, pictures two roads meeting in a wood. He chose the less traveled one, he says “and that has made all the difference.”
This is only another version of the “wide gate” and the “narrow gate” of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said it was the less-traveled way that leads to life; he also said that the choice makes all the difference.
What is this “less traveled road”? And what is its wide but tragic alternative?
Jesus’s great word was “love.” The great word of the church has been “believe.” As two roads may diverge by imperceptible degrees, so it has been with the chosen path of the church. It may seem incredible to suggest that the church has from the beginning taken a wrong turn. But this can be seen, I believe, when we look at two similar incidents in the Biblical records of Jesus and Paul.
In Luke 10, a lawyer tests Jesus with the question “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” In Acts 16, the Philippian jailer asks Paul the same question in only slightly different words: “What must I do to be saved?” Note the contrasting answers of Jesus and of Paul.
Jesus draws the reply from the lawyer’s own lips n the words of the great commandments, the love of God and neighbor. Love God with all your being, he says, and your neighbor as yourself. Do this and you will live. To make his meaning crystal clear, he gives us the magnificent story of the Good Samaritan. It is made unmistakably plain that to love God in terms of loving service to one’s neighbor is the way that leads to life. The key word is love.
Turn now to Paul’s answer: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” The key word here is believe. Here the church has chosen to follow Paul rather than Jesus. And this has made a world of difference.
Endlessly the church has repeated, “Believe in Jesus! Believe in Christ!” This would not have diverged from the way of Jesus if the church had spelled out its meaning in terms of love. But it has not been made clear that to “believe in Jesus” means to believe in the way of love. Instead it has meant innumerable other things: vicarious atonement, the virgin birth, miracle-worker, transubstantiation, second Person of the Trinity, second advent, avenging warrior on the white horse, the Apostles’ Creed, orthodoxy, Biblicism, and so forth. This road has led us into the jungle of so-=called “faiths,” where all too often love is almost forgotten and, as Tennyson says,
Christian love in Christian churches/ Looked the twin of heathen hate.
Some of the most warlike nations in the world today are those where belief in Christ has been most widely professed. It was “Christian” America that developed the atomic bomb and used it in war. Believers in Christ line up with the “hawks” as well as the “doves”—possibly in greater numbers.
Of course the church has not rejected the law of love. It includes it in its gospel. Multitudes of its members have walked in the way of love. In spite of the misplaced emphasis of the church, the gospel story itself has steadily borne witness that God is love and that he who would love God must love his neighbor also. But all too often this has not been the major emphasis of the church.
Currents of change are stirring throughout the religious world. People are concerned for the renewal of the church. They are calling for the gospel to be made relevant to life. A good place to begin would be with the commandment to love. Preach love. Teach love. Study love. Talk love. Honor Christ by practicing love. He will not be dishonored by saying less of “Lord! Lord!” if we are more concerned to do what he says. And this is his commandment “that you love one another.”
L. Willard Reynolds of Grinnell, Iowa, a member of Nebraska Yearly Meeting, has been a pastor in a number of Friends churches within Friends United Meeting. He has remained actively connected with the work of the American Friends Service Committee ever since he served that organization in France in 1919-20.
Also posted on River View Friend.