Faith is a three-way street

June 23rd, 2017

The streets of downtown Boston can be a nightmare to navigate — and not just during rush hour.

Rather than the grid pattern that would eventually develop in other American cities, this colonial capital has a more... let’s call it “abstract” layout that may have functioned well in the days of the horse and carriage, but in the modern era is decidedly less efficient.

One of the great challenges that faces any new driver in downtown Boston is the plethora of one-way streets. Today, Google Maps is by our side to alert us not to turn the wrong way down a one-way street, but when I visited the city in middle school, personal GPS came in the form of a paper map you personally bought at a gas station.

So, you can only imagine the excitement my youth group and I felt when the driver of the tour bus we were riding didn’t look at his map, found himself momentarily lost, and in his haste to guesstimate his way back to where we needed to be, turned down a narrow road only to be greeted by oncoming traffic.

Thankfully, we all survived — including the guy on roller blades who may or may not but definitely did have a close encounter with the bus’ side-view mirror.

Two-way streets are not only a lot more accommodating to lost travellers, they lend themselves well to metaphor, particularly when it comes to personal relationships.

Marriage, we’re told, is a two-way street. It needs both partners communicating, working together, sacrificing together, dedicated together in order for the marriage to work. The same line of thinking goes for a whole host of other relationships.

The Christian faith often gets tossed into the two-way street pile as if Christianity were a two-way street between us and God. In a tradition like evangelicalism with its heavy emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus, the two-way street imagery seems particularly fitting.

Unfortunately for pastors looking for an easy metaphor this Sunday, our relationship with God isn’t a two-way street.

It’s a three-way street.

I know, I know. Three-way streets aren’t a real thing, but neither is Christianity that only exists in a relationship between us and God.

Authentic Christianity, that is to say the sort of Christianity that incarnates the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth is practiced in relationship with God and our neighbors.

Strange as it may sound, it’s simply impossible to faithfully follow Jesus in nothing more than a one-on-one, “personal” relationship. That’s not to say as Christians we don’t enjoy a personal relationship with our Creator. We do; but if it stops there, we’re left with a half-empty gospel and eventually we become nothing more than goats.

Let me explain.

There is exactly one place in the entirety of the gospels in which Jesus lays out exactly how he will decide our eternal fates and it’s in Matthew 25.

You know the story.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory he will gather the nations around him and separate the sheep from the goats based on a surprisingly simple (though perhaps deceptively simple, at least in practice) set of questions.

What’s surprising about this most important set of questions is they have nothing to do with official doctrine, nor are they concerned with a profession of faith, at least not in the sense we typically use that phrase.

Instead of standing at the pearly gates with a checklist of beliefs asking each of us if we affirm things like the Trinity or the virgin birth or the right atonement theory, and rather than barring the entrance to heaven to anyone who hasn’t prayed the Sinner’s Prayer, Jesus will turn to each of us and simply say, “I was hungry. Did you feed me? I was thirsty. Did you give me something to drink? I was a stranger. Did you invite me in? I was naked. Did you clothe me? I was sick and in prison. Did you come and visit me?”

It’s hard to overstate how much this verse should rock the foundations of the Church — regardless of tradition. For nearly 2,000 years — and especially for the last 500 years — we’ve made things like church membership, right belief, ritual, and the Sinner’s Prayer the keys to paradise. And yet, here is Jesus laying out exactly how he will determine who is a heavenly sheep and who is a not-so-heavenly goat; conspicuously absent are any of those things so many of us believe so fervently are so essential to salvation.

It’s almost as if Jesus was serious about everything hanging on the commandment to love God and neighbor with all that we are.

It’s almost as if Jesus led a life of radical love for and devotion to neighbor and enemy alike, then turned and said “Go and do likewise” and really meant it.

It’s almost as if loving and serving our neighbors is more important to Jesus than the things we profess, the songs that we sing, and the doctrines we affirm.

But if that’s true, then Christianity as it’s practiced in the 21st century, particular Christianity as it is practiced in the United States, needs to be fundamentally reexamined; not in regards to who we call Lord but in terms of the central importance we place on agreement to a particular lists of beliefs.

It’s not that having a particular list of beliefs is in any way bad or that expecting Christians to affirm traditional Christian beliefs is misplaced, but when intellectual assent replaces living like Christ as the foundation for Christianity, then we’ve replaced the gospel with dogmatism and creation changing good news with a get (eternally) rich quick scheme.

Our beliefs are important and a personal relationship with God is critically important, but so is our relationship with our neighbors. In fact, Jesus says it’s a matter of (eternal) life or death. Which is why the Christian faith is like a three-way street. Eternal life is found a relationship with God. However, that relationship is found not simply in privately praying and reading the Bible, but in loving and serving our neighbors wherever and whoever they may be. While praying and reading the Bible are important, we can’t have a personal and complete relationship with God without also being in personal relationship with those in whom the image of God dwells because to exclude them is to exclude part of God.

Therefore, it is in loving and serving our neighbors that our love for God lives and moves and has its being. It is in loving and serving our neighbors that we love and serve God. It is in loving and serving our neighbors that our personal relationship grows and strengthens. And it is in loving and serving our neighbors that the world will know we are his disciples.

But it goes the other way too.

We can speak with the tongues of angels and declare our faith to anybody that will listen, but if we have not love — not just as an abstract ideal in minds or an emotion in our hearts, but as an incarnated way living — then our relationship with God is nothing more than a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal, a battle cry in the culture wars that drowns out the voices of those in need, the least of these, strangers, neighbors and enemies alike whom God has called us to love and serve.

In Matthew 25, Jesus said whatever we do (or don’t do) for the least of these, we do (or don’t do) for him.

If that’s true, then imagining the Christian faith as a three-way street isn’t about reexamining our relationship with God and making room for others where that space didn’t already exist.

It’s about recognizing that to have a personal relationship with God, to be truly Christian is by definition to be in relationship with our neighbors as well, to love and serve them anywhere they are and in any way they need as if we are loving and serving God himself.

Because according to Jesus, that’s exactly what we’re doing.

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