“Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world; red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight; Jesus loves the little children of the world.” This is the first song I remember singing as a little child. I am fortunate that I was taught the stories of Jesus and his love from the moment I was born, which means that my personal relationship with Jesus has always been more important than anything else. My life has been a continuous series of “born again” experiences in which my relationship with my Lord and Savior has deepened and stretched my capacity to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
I was raised in a church that was fairly homogeneous, but I also knew that not everyone believed the same way. My mother and father did not agree on everything, but they were of one mind about this: that God’s grace empowered them to live lives that were directed outward in service to others. To my mom and dad, being in relationship with others was always more important than having the same theological convictions.
Because my own relationship with Jesus predates any knowledge of theological nuances; because my personal encounters with Jesus through others continue to enlarge my vision of what it means to follow him; and because of the biblical witness to a love that surpasses the law, I am convinced that relationships are more important than theological convictions.
I first made that statement last September when I was asked to share my vision of the church in the year 2032 at a Church of the Resurrection leadership event. These are the three key elements of the vision:
#1: Relationships will be more important than theological convictions.
#2: Innovation, creativity, and imagination will be more important than stagnation, rigidity, sacred cows, and the status quo.
#3: Our primary focus will be on the Great Commission and the Great Commandment: to go out into the world and make disciples of Jesus Christ and to love God and our neighbor in all that we do.
I have received more than one response over the past six months from individuals who have questioned my first assertion that relationships trump theology. Some have said, “How can you possibly claim that what we believe doesn’t matter? The Bible says that homosexuality is a sin, period. Relationships have nothing to do with it.” Others have said, “Our theology is embodied by the teachings of Jesus to love God and neighbor. Seeing all people as having sacred worth is a deeply theological conviction and is not merely relational.”
The dialogue has been rich because the reality is that our beliefs do matter. Relationship theology lies at the core of our faith and practice and is affirmed by the many teachings of Jesus around loving our neighbor and seeing all people as children of God. Right belief is hollow if there is no love.
I’d like to share several thoughts about relationships and theological convictions. First, if I reject a brother or a sister who believes differently than me on a certain issue, then woe is me. If I refuse to be in relationship with another because their stance on a theological doctrine is not the same as mine, then woe is me. If I am not willing to believe that God loves my neighbor just as much as God loves me (because, after all, I am right and they are wrong), then woe is me. Christianity is a religion of relationships. Jesus desires nothing more than for you and me to be in relationship with him and with each other, even if you and I do not agree.
Second, love is what fulfills the law. If the law or “right doctrine” trumps love, then surely Jesus would have encouraged the crowd to stone the woman caught in adultery. After all, that was the right doctrine. If “right doctrine” is more important than love of God and neighbor, then Jesus would have kept himself “ritually clean” and most definitely wouldn’t have hung out with the prostitutes, sinners, and other lowlifes that the establishment despised. If theological convictions are the highest good, certainly Jesus wouldn’t have healed anyone on the sabbath. The people of Jesus’ day were tangled up in their law and doctrine. With divine genius, Jesus cut through it by going back to the source: the commandment to love God with everything we’ve got and, equally, our neighbor as ourselves.
Consider the apostle Paul. In Romans 13:8-14 (CEB), Paul says, “Don’t be in debt to anyone, except for the obligation to love each other. Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law. The commandments, Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t desire what others have, and any other commandments, are all summed up in one word: You must love your neighbor as yourself. Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the Law.”
Paul was a law-demanding crazy man, putting people to death for violating “right doctrine,” but then he was converted and wised up. Paul said that we can preach like an angel, but without love, it’s just empty words. We can have the clearest theological teaching, understanding all mysteries, and have faith to move mountains, but we are nothing without love. We can be superlatively virtuous, giving everything we possess to the poor, but without love we are the poorest of all.
Third, relationships are more important than theological convictions because of our call to be witnesses to the world, united in making a difference by bringing in God’s reign of peace, mercy, justice, and joy. The devastating tornadoes last week in the Middle Tennessee area have cut us to the core. At least 24 lives were lost in the second most deadly tornado event in Tennessee history. The city of Nashville, which houses many of our United Methodist denominational boards and agencies, experienced significant damage, including East End United Methodist Church.
What warmed my heart was the heroic way in which people selflessly helped one other when the storm hit. Have you noticed? When tornadoes rip through homes and floods or flames devastate towns, no one ever asks the person standing on the roof of their flooded house, or trying to escape a wildfire, or seeking shelter from a tornado, all desperate for help, “What’s your political party? What’s your theology of the cross? What’s your ethnic identity? Are you an illegal immigrant?” None of that matters. Why? Because we are one human family. Our neighbor is anyone in need.
John Wesley’s sermon, A Catholic Spirit, offers timely wisdom for today as we wrestle with relationships and theological convictions. For Wesley, it’s ultimately about the heart rather than opinions.
“But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.” [i]
Jesus yearns for nothing more than to be in relationship with you and me and for us to embody his radical, transformative, life-giving love in all that we say and do. It’s also a love that led Jesus to the cross. Perhaps what is ultimately most important for The United Methodist Church today is not agreement on the nuances of theology and details of separation agreements but John Wesley’s simple offer to you and your neighbor, “If your heart is right as my heart, if you love God and all people, then give me your hand.”[ii]