A better investment plan

Once upon a time I lived in Townsville, North Queensland. My wife and I were thinking about using our money better — we decided we needed an ‘investment plan’ to secure our wealth and our future. So we went to an investment information seminar with Storm Financial, a local company specialising in wealth creation strategies. We’d heard good things about them; and the sales pitch was phenomenal. They said too many Aussies settle for a comfortable retirement — with hopes set on, perhaps, a caravan and a car and years of road tripping… when we should be pursuing a luxurious retirement. Their advice seemed likely to make us lots of money; they wanted us to borrow against everything we owned to buy shares in a market they said would inevitably increase in value.

The market might trend upwards over time, but this advice came just before a crash that saw lenders ‘call in’ their loans to Storm Financial and its clients; it was a perfect storm — destructive and terrifying — many people lost their retirement plans overnight. The company’s collapse changed the way financial planners operate in Australia. We didn’t invest with Storm, but these losses demonstrated to me a problem with the investment plans offered by people focused on amassing the things of this world… Jesus had something to say about this too (and about the way our hearts chase money, and so lead us away from God and his ‘plan’ for our life)… 

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. — Jesus (Matthew 5:19-24)

His point is not only that money will also disappoint — but the stuff we buy with it will always, ultimately, break down and be destroyed. As soon as we buy a new house it starts falling apart and needing maintenance… as soon as we drive a new car out of the shop it loses value… the things of this dying world and the things we make… they die, they disappoint, they are poor substitutes for real wealth; but pursuing them is a matter of our ‘heart’ — what we love and value; and pursuing dying things rather than the living God will take us to death… where our treasure is, there our hearts will be. What we look at; invest our attention on; shapes how we live. If you live fixated on a luxurious retirement you won’t be able to be truly present here and now; if you live fixated on money, your time and relationships will be prioritised around that pursuit… if you live for the things of this world you’ll ignore God and his plan for life in the here and now, and in the future.  

A little later Jesus tells a story that explores how this ‘investment plan’ works — how if he is truly valuable and truly secures our future (eternally) we should respond to him. He talks about somebody who discovers a treasure of incredible value — such value that he’s willing not just to ‘borrow against all he owns’ but to sell all he owns to invest in this treasure. 

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. — Jesus (Matthew 13:44-46)

This isn’t financial advice; we’re not saying that to try Jesus means selling all your stuff to secure a luxurious ‘heavenly’ retirement — but it does mean thinking differently about what is valuable and where you are investing your life in order to secure your hopes and dreams (and it asks you to think about such dreams with a much longer perspective than just what you’ll do when you retire). 

The apostle Peter (sometimes called ‘Saint Peter’) was one of Jesus’ best mates, he wrote some bits of the Bible reflecting on what it meant to take up Jesus’ investment plan for his own life. Peter ended up being killed for his belief in Jesus, but that didn’t phase him because of his confidence in this plan, he talks about following Jesus producing a ‘living hope’ for life now, but also life after death. 

“In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you.” — Peter (1 Peter 1:3-4)

Evidence

Perhaps it’s the sense that there is overwhelming evidence for the truths at the centre of Christianity — and not necessarily the sort of evidence we’ve decided to accept as modern western thinkers. 

It’s hard to do science on historical events — but there is certainly incredible evidence about the historicity of the person of Jesus (claims that Jesus was a myth surface from time to time but aren’t taken seriously by academic historians. 

The Bible itself is a form of historical evidence about what people believed Jesus said and did, and ultimately it’s up to anybody investigating Jesus to decide whether or not to accept the historicity of Jesus and the truth of the claims it makes. 

The Bible makes some claims about miraculous events outside our expectations of the natural world, and even beyond the possibilities of science — especially the claim at the heart of the Christian story, that Jesus was raised from the dead. This claim has always been preposterous to people relying on purely natural observations of the world, it’s not like there was a more primitive set of beliefs that allowed Christianity to be plausible. When Paul rocked up in Athens (Acts 17) and proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus to a council called ‘the Areopagus’ he was laughed off stage. In Greek religious belief there was no resurrection. In fact, there’s an ancient play by the playwright Aeschylus called Eumenides which depicts the founding of the Areopagus; and right at the heart of the philosophical and religious beliefs of the Greek (and then Roman) world was this line from the play:

“Once a man dies and the earth drinks up his blood, there is no resurrection.”

Science does great things for us and scientific evidence is a great basis for decision making, particularly decisions about how to live in the natural world. It’s great for health policy, or environmental policy… but not so great at assessing supernatural or metaphysical claims — claims about the relationship between the natural world as we experience it and the supernatural… the sort of claims made by the Bible, and by Jesus himself. The Bible claims that the natural universe is created by God and exists in him, it describes a particular relationship between God and nature where the natural world reveals things about the nature of the supernatural God. 

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
 Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.” — Psalm 19:1-2

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” — Romans 1:20

This idea that nature and the nature of the Gods were linked wasn’t exclusively Biblical — the Greek and Roman philosophers wrote lots exploring these links. But when it came to the Christian understanding of God, and the belief that God’s character can be revealed in the starry sky, in mathematics, and in music — that creation itself is like a book that reveals God to us as a beauty-loving, meticulous, artist —  meant that not only was scientific truth considered to be revealing something about the world, but that it reveals something about how God is at work in the natural realm. This belief actually gave birth to the scientific method as we know it in the west… miracles, then, are a divine intervention in the normal operation of things — which are a divine invention, but they become plausible if they are consistent with the character of God we observe in nature and in his interactions with the world through history (as recorded in his other book — the Bible). Whether or not the Bible actually represents God speaking through people isn’t so much a question of evidence but of the application of intuition from the evidence around us (stuff like ‘when I look at the world it makes me suspect a divine being at work, where would I find such a being(s) if I were to look for them)… There are good ways to test such claims — we can approach it rationally and dispassionately; ‘objectively’, or we can take on a more subjective approach and enter into the idea that it might be true, testing it from within, via our experience. 

But there’s other, perhaps more interesting, more intuitive evidence than questions of history and the scientific plausibility of miracles. Maybe we should think of the task of uncovering the truth about Jesus as something more like the task of a journalist (or historian) than the task of a scientist.

For a long time journalists were taught that the role of the investigating reporter was to pursue total objectivity; the world of reporting changed dramatically with the introduction of ‘gonzo journalism’ — where the journalist became part of the story and investigated ‘truth’ from within — Louis Theroux is a good modern ‘gonzo journalist’; John Safran has done a bit of this in the Australian context…

What if we took a ‘gonzo’ approach to investigating Christianity and actually embedded ourselves in its view of the world and its practices… what sort of evidence would that provide? That’s the challenge this website wants to leave you with. To try Jesus. Today. 

 

A better vision

For many people the decision to follow Jesus is that seeing life the way he teaches people to see life makes better sense of the world — and produces better people and better communities.

Christianity isn’t just a set of beliefs about facts (or fairy tales) that are disconnected from real life; it is a way of life that many feel is the ‘realest’ way to live.

It is a way of seeing the world. C.S Lewis famously said:

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

But it is more than that; it’s not just a way of seeing the world but being in the world. Early on in the life of the church being a follower of Jesus didn’t even get you the name ‘Christian’ it was more commonly described as ‘the way’ — and this ‘way’ is ‘the way of Jesus.’

Imagine for a moment that everybody — from our political leaders down — practiced a few of these ideas from Jesus. You might notice that some of these ideas have permeated our culture (like the ‘golden rule’) as ideals — but also that it seems like plenty of people still operate with ‘an eye for an eye’ as a principle, and treating people as they have treated us, rather than as we would have them treat us.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. — Matthew 5:38-45

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. — Matthew 7:12

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” — Matthew 16:24

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ — Matthew 22:37-39

The thing is, we don’t need to imagine what that would look like in theory, because it is what Jesus did in practice. Laying down his life, taking up his cross, to die at the hands of the political leaders of his day who weren’t interested in seeing the world his way but in power and domination… and so it continues with many of those in power till this day… but as people and communities take up the way of Jesus, captured by a better vision, that has been a significant force for change in the western world and it is still a significant force for change in the lives of real people, families, and communities today.

Following Jesus brings a new way of seeing and being in the world; one that makes a surprising difference on many fronts; but one that produces remarkably different, beautiful, acts of sacrificial love that bring healing, hope and life rather than destruction, despair and death.

Why not try Jesus. Today.

His story

Have you ever noticed that most ‘epic’ stories — from the ancient, to more recent super hero franchises — follow a predictable pattern?

Have you ever wondered why?

There’s a hero who is called to save the world, perhaps even born to save the world, they grow up and are trained to face this task (and probably an enemy). They face hardship, and perhaps in what appears to be the final showdown they die, or are defeated, only to be raised again — or sometimes to win by dying (then to be raised again, unless it’s a tragedy), to win the victory and change the world. Black Panther is the most recent version of this cycle. The story of Jesus follows this pattern — a structure that an academic named Joseph Campbell calls the ‘hero’s journey’ or ‘monomyth’; skeptics use this as a reason not to believe the story of Jesus; it’s so predictable and so like all other stories that are ultimately projections of human fantasy or desire for a changed world and for virtuous heroes to imitate… 

But what if instead of being a reason not to believe, this is actually a reason to believe the Christian story, and to see all these other stories as echoes that come from somewhere deep inside our collective human experience and our shared desires? What if our ultimate desire is for something very much like the story of Jesus to be true — for someone to come into this world with a promise to secure us a future free from the problems of evil and suffering? What if it is true? What if it answers the longings of our hearts because God put those longings there — or rather our disconnection from God is what creates those longings in all of us?

There are two pretty amazing things about how the story of the Bible reflects the stories human cultures have been telling for as long as stories have been recorded about our longings and desires. One is the way the story of the Bible is put together with layer upon layer of complexity and links backwards and forwards between events; the other is that it claims to be history, and if this is true, then it means observing how human history unfolded up to the life and death of Jesus and the incredible changes Jesus brought into the world is observing the work of a master story-teller. People close to the events took the story as real and historical; so, for example, Jesus’ life was so significant in reshaping the Roman empire that we count the years from the birth of Jesus even though Caesar Augustus had the calendar restarted to count the years from the year he was born (there’s an inscription announcing this change, as Caesar tried to author his own heroic ‘story’). 

There’s some more going on beneath the surface here… If the Bible really does describe God’s interactions with the world and his plans, then there are a couple of bits that should make us sit up and take note a bit when it comes to the events of Jesus’ life, and especially his death. In Revelation, John (one of Jesus’ disciples) says that Jesus is ‘the lamb slain before the foundation of the world’ — this is an epic claim that God orchestrated all of human history to bring about his death and resurrection. 

What if God is the master story-teller — orchestrating all things, both in human history and in the text of the Bible — to centre on the life, death, resurrection and ultimate victory of King Jesus? It was these questions that led the famous story-tellers C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien to believe the story of Jesus was the most profound and true ‘fairy story’…

C.S Lewis said:

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. … God is more than god, not less: Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about “parallels” and “pagan Christs”: they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome.  — CS Lewis, God In The Dock

Tolkien, in his essay on the power of fairy stories (On Fairy Stories) described a particular effect fairy stories, or myths, have in producing joy. He said this relies on a thing he called the ‘eucatastrophe’ (the good catastrophe), a sudden joyful turn. He says these stories, these moments, cause us to ponder what ‘good news’ or joyful turns might look like in the real world, and that the quality of joy produced by the story of Jesus is a good reason to see it as the greatest story, and the goodness of this story, for him, was proof of its truth. 

“If by grace what I say has in any respect any validity, it is, of course, only one facet of a truth incalculably rich: finite only because the capacity of Man for whom this was done is finite. I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature.

The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.”

 

Abundant Life

Philosophers love pondering the question of the ‘flourishing’ human life; what it means to be ‘truly human’ and to live the good life.

We want this. We crave it. It’s as natural as breathing. It’s a desire that’s in our bones; that shapes what we love and how we live.

One of the most famous passages in the Bible, Psalm 23, is a poem about this desire; it is famous, even with people who don’t read the Bible much, because it taps into something everyone wants. Have you come across it?

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
  He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
  he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
    forever. — Psalm 23

Jesus said the answer to the good life is found in him! He even said he is the good shepherd this Psalm is about!

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”— John 10:10-11

The Bible is the story of God making us to live fruitfully in his world — its first instructions to humans are to ‘be fruitful and multiply’; but it’s also the story of paradise lost because we turned our back on him and pursued fruitfulness on our own terms. 

The Bible talks about us being made in the image of God, and suggests ‘flourishing’ comes from living lives that reflect the character of God — who from the start is a God of hospitality, making a world that is ‘abundantly’ fruitful, putting humans in a lush garden and telling them to eat and enjoy… things go badly for us when we reject that hospitality — and the story of the Old Testament is about people enjoying fruitfulness when they trust God, and miserable conditions when they don’t. The Bible’s answer to that philosophical question is ‘be in relationship with God. The final pages of the Bible picture a return to the ‘garden’; a return to paradise; and a return to enjoying God’s hospitality… it paints a picture of a new world that is also a feast; a banquet; with God as the host…

The way to enjoy this is through Jesus. Jesus is the human example of a life following God’s way (the Bible says ‘he is the image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15), but because he also claims to be God in the flesh, Jesus is God’s invitation home; he’s our ticket to the party. All we have to do to score the invite is trust in him rather than trying to flourish on our own steam. He is the good shepherd. In a famous story he even fed a bunch of people by water with overflowing baskets full of bread (John 6). 

The surprising thing is that this good shepherd doesn’t just ‘walk through the valley of death’ beside us, to comfort us in tough times — he laid down his life for ‘his sheep’. This helps us understand times we might describe as ‘being in the valley’ and his resurrection and the promise of eternal life feasting with him helps us understand ‘the abundant life’ as being something we do enjoy now, and also as something more that is yet to come. The abundant or flourishing part now is connected to living knowing our purpose, and living a life that has meaning, in relationship with the God who made the cosmos. It’s better to experience times ‘in the valley’ with these things than not; but it also means the good times are a result of God ‘shepherding’ us; we can enjoy good things now with a different sense of perspective rather than trying to find meaning in things that are fleeting. 

Here are some of the things Jesus is recorded as saying about the abundant life during his life. He talks about himself as what satisfies; but he’s describing the sort of overflowing cup described in Psalm 23. In John 10 (quoted above) where he talks about ‘having life to the full’ Jesus connects this idea to the good shepherd laying down his life for his sheep — those who follow him — and the Bible connects this to his pouring out the Holy Spirit and bringing eternal life in the new creation with God (described in chapters quoted from the book of Revelation below):

Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” — Jesus (John 4:14)

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty — Jesus (John 6:35)

“It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. — John, (Revelation 21:6-7)

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.” — Revelation 22:1-3

Hope

Is it hope? The hope of life beyond death? The promise of immortality? The discovery of real life? Abundant life? The ‘flourishing’ life we were made for? Life that stretches beyond death and into eternity?

This sounds crazy but it is exactly what Jesus promises — he talks about this promise as a gift of water that quenches our thirst and bread that satisfies our hunger — and about this being an overflowing or abundant life — and his promises didn’t come out of a vacuum.

These promises point right back to the start of the Bible’s story, where people lived with God and enjoyed the life he gave them through the tree of life, in the paradise the Bible calls ‘Eden’, and point forward to the final picture the Bible paints of this new life in a new world, where God makes ‘All things new’ — including us!

It’s all these things. And more. It’s that as people experience things that are good, true, and beautiful these experiences — and so our lives — become richer and more satisfying when connected to this story; God’s story; the story of Jesus. It’s also that as we experience things that are ugly, broken, and evil we have the story of a God who does not stand apart from the suffering of the world, but offers a solution, and an invitation to come into his family forever.

Good v Evil

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” — G.K Chesterton

Have you ever pondered why so many of our stories — fictional, historical, and in the news — are framed as a battle of good v evil; with the eternal question ‘which will triumph’? In the news most weeks (certainly as this page was written) there are global conflicts; debates about gun laws in the United States; questions about the morality and suitability for office of politicians around the world. Even our financial stories and sports stories adopt this framework (stories about tax policies, or welfare fraud, or the ‘good news’ stories about generosity).

It’s obvious that evil exists in the world as some sort of thing we can point at and say ‘wrong’. It’s obvious that some people seem to embrace evil more readily than others and that the world is sometimes a dark place, and sometimes a light place, and the question is always ‘will light triumph’? Will dark deeds be exposed? Will investigations bring truth into the light?

We turn to our fictional stories to help us see the world a little more optimistically; to explore new ways forward; to face evil, and now, with the rise of the ‘anti-hero’ like Breaking Bad’s Walter White, if we’re honest, we start to face the evil that lurks somewhere within us. The Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spent some time in a Soviet gulag as a prisoner, and wrote a famous multi-volume history of those awful prisons called The Gulag Archipelago, he said:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts.  

The Bible says he’s right. Evil isn’t just a weird force in the environment, bubbling below the surface of the earth waiting to hijack our brains to force ‘naturally good’ humans to do bad things; it’s a part of our default wiring towards self-interest. It’s the fruit of a life lived with the view that other people are objects or opponents. Some famous big-brains in the Christian world talk about our capacity for evil (or sin) as the result of our ‘hearts curving in on themselves’ instead of extending out towards others in pure generosity even our ‘good deeds’ — our love, or generosity — are tainted by this self interest (think about why so many charities now allow us to publish that we’ve participated in the ‘good deed’ of supporting their work). 

The Bible also says evil isn’t just part of being human, but part of a cosmic battle that it expresses as a fight between God’s champion, Jesus, and the serpent-dragon Satan. This is a battle that begins in the first chapters of the Bible and ends in the last ones; though that last book makes a pretty stunning claim that the ultimate triumph over evil and Satan is what sometimes gets called ‘the victory of Jesus’ — his death and resurrection. If it really happened; if the Bible is true; then somehow what Jesus did was win a battle against death and evil that looks a whole lot like slaying a dragon. It’s little wonder so many of our stories feature a hero (in the Jesus role) who goes face to face with some embodiment of evil (and often you’ll see the hero die and experience resurrection too, for example, Black Panther)

Almost every story we humans create to entertain ourselves with grapples with the question of evil and leaves us hoping it might be overcome; the Bible shows us the unexpected way Jesus overcomes it — his loving, sacrificial, death; the opposite of the ‘curved in’ or self-seeking heart… and he invites us to break the cycle that perpetuates evil in this world by having our hearts changed to be like his.

Forgiveness and Mercy

Is it forgiveness and mercy?

Is it that if there’s a God who orchestrated this life we live in this universe; who spread out the heavens and established the earth (Job 9); whose hands flung stars into space (Psalm 8); who unrolled the sky and its features ‘like a blanket’ (Psalm 104); who is also the very definition of goodness and purity — whose absolute (infinite) standards leave all of us feeling worthless not worthy, ashamed not glorious — and so aware of our failings and limits… the idea that this God would reach out to us so that we might find him (Acts 17), but more than that, to call us his children — no matter how messy our lives are or how much we know we stuff things up… is it that?

The idea that those hands — the hands that hold the universe together (Colossians 1) — would surrender themselves to being pierced by horrid spikes; made to destroy life, that they would be hung above that head to drag the last breath from that body; a body beaten and stripped naked… an innocent tortured to death in our place… is it the idea that somehow in that event, this God-man, the word that made the world in the flesh (John 1), this man Jesus died in our place to take whatever justice looks like for the times we know we’ve failed. Is it that in this event — in that symbol of the Cross — we understand not just sacrifice and love, but also experience mercy and forgiveness from the God who made the universe?

Sacrificial Love

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. — Jesus (John 15:12-13)

Love isn’t a feeling — at least it’s not just a romantic feeling; it’s also a decision, and an orientation of one’s will; it’s a decision to make a sacrifice of yourself for the people you love. Our approach to love in the west (apart from the more recent ‘sex=love’ phenomenon) is profoundly shaped by the image of Jesus laying down his life and calling people to do the same… what is incredible about Jesus’ death at the hands of the powerful Roman Empire and the religious establishment who hated him because he called them out for hypocrisy is that his death is not a picture simply of sacrificial love for those who love him — a reciprocal relationship — but of sacrificial love for one’s enemies in order to reconcile. That sort of love reshapes all the relationships built on it; and how one orients themselves towards life in this world. 

Jesus said:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? — Jesus, Matthew 5:43-46

To love our enemies, sacrificially, is to echo the love of the God who made us, and to somehow be more in step with a fundamental part of reality; imagine a world where everybody practised this! Later, when Jesus was nailed to the cross in the ultimate act of hatred from the world, but the ultimate act of love from God. When Luke, who wrote ‘Luke’s Gospel’ — a biography of Jesus — described this moment he paints a picture of Jesus surrounded by hateful enemies, offering nothing but love. 

When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” — Luke 23:33-35

Love is what we see on display at the Cross of Jesus; and so this cross has become the world’s most recognisable symbol — it hasn’t always been used as a symbol of love — sometimes it has been a picture of hate, like the cross carried into battle by soldiers in some dark periods in human history, but it is also worn on the battlefield by medics who brave crossfire to care for the wounded from both sides of a conflict, or used to mark hospitals that care for the sick without favouring the wealthy or those likely to be cured — hospitals that emerged from history because people took the life of Jesus and his interactions with the sick, the socially marginalised, and the poor seriously…

The powerful symbolism of the cross as a picture of love and reconciliation is part of the appeal of following Jesus, but at an even deeper level this symbol represents God’s love for us, that the God who makes all things seeks reconciliation for our betrayal of him — our sin — our rejection of his rightful place in our lives and the cosmos. Sin makes us God’s enemies, God’s love for us in Jesus makes us God’s friends — more than that, his family. 

Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. — The Apostle Paul (Romans 5:7-8)

The Apostle Paul is, like Jesus, responsible for the shape of the western world. His description of the love of God here wasn’t abstracted from his own life or experience. In the book of Acts (the fifth book in the New Testament), we meet Paul as a young man from the religious establishment responsible for hounding the church and killing Christians; he experiences the love and forgiveness of God and becomes the man who writes most of the rest of the New Testament. The love he talks about in that quote becomes vivid and real in the context of his life — he was clearly an enemy of God, a sinner (though he believed he was being ‘righteous’ and became part of God’s plans for the world.