I love the vision of First Love. It takes us back not just to basics, but to the very heartbeat of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. There is so much talk in the Church today about how we can become more relevant, more missional, more effective, more postmodern, more pre-modern, more big, more small, more deep, more wide, more de-centralised, more radical, more Kingdom.
And yet the essence of Christianity has always depended on something beneath all this: a simple relationship of loving trust between the believer and our astonishing God. Every single time the Church has witnessed unprecedented growth and impact comes down to this abiding truth: all things can only be done through Him who gives us strength.
There’s a story in the New Testament, that many who are familiar with the Bible will know. It’s a story about a young man, who is phenomenally wealthy. He’s also an upright guy – he has a high regard for doing the right thing, and obeying the Jewish Law. Successful, rich, educated, and has integrity. In other words, he’s exceptionally eligible. One day he comes to Jesus, and asks Him a question:
“Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”
The question itself is interesting. He assumes that there is something that he can do, something so holy and good and pure, that it will result in gaining eternal life. He assumes that eternal life is attained through doing, and that if he does the right stuff, and avoids the wrong stuff, eternal life will be his.
But there is something else, hidden in the language in which the New Testament was written, that we often overlook when we read it in English. We normally assume the guy is asking about getting to heaven when he dies – and living forever. But the nuances of the words give a different idea.
The phrase that this young guy uses is “zoe aionios”. Zoe means “life”, and we generally translate aionios as “eternal”. But the meaning of aionios goes further than this. It implies something that comes from a different age (or aeon), something somehow removed from this age of the earth in which we live. When the guy stands in front of Jesus, then, and asks about having eternal life, he is actually asking how the life of the eternal age can infiltrate and animate his life, right now. How can the stuff of eternity come into my life, today?
It’s an incredibly good question.
Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. The young man says that he has kept the commandments (at least the ones Jesus mentions). And then he says something else, something that bears his heart: “What do I still lack?” Maybe the most extraordinary thing about this man is that he knows he still lacks something. He’s kept these commandments, and he is wealthy. But there’s a lack, and he knows it. And it takes us to the crux of the matter.
Jesus responds: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
The young man’s face falls. He’s a wealthy man – probably because his parents were wealthy before him. Jesus has asked too much of him. He leaves, keeping his wealth but failing to attain the thing he asked Jesus for in the first place. Jesus asked him to choose: “Your money or Me.” He choses his money, and in doing so walks away from the life of eternity, or (in other words) entry into the Kingdom. Jesus has exposed his first love.
I believe Jesus always invites us to this place. It’s a hard place – sometimes it’s a wildly uncomfortable place. It is the place where he confronts us with all else that we hold dear, and holds it in contrast to attaining nothing else but, well, Him. And He brings us here for a purpose, because this is where Christianity finds its real roots and comes alive. This is where the promises of the prophets find their fulfilment, and the very meaning of the Law becomes complete. This is where humans are invited back into their primary vocation: to be loved by God and to love God. Not in an abstract way, but in a real, experienced, day-by-day-by-day life of dialogue and trust and risk and adventure and interdependence.
I am convinced that the Church in this nation will never become fruitful in the ways and standards of the Kingdom until we recall the centrality of intimacy with God. We will never attain to the life of eternal quality today, until we get our hearts focused on the One that they beat for. Like the young man, we will be familiar with lack. We may look successful (by the world’s standards anyway) if we put on relevant and high-quality worship services, do great community action, fast-paced apologetics, humorous and challenging preaching, messy kids work and so on and so on. None of these are bad things, and they can (and do) grow churches. And yet, without the backdrop of intimacy behind all that is done, they are vacuous and worldly. God primarily invites His people to relationship, to the freedom of love and being loved and simply of being – not doing. Doing in Christianity only comes out of being. Being loved. Be loved. Beloved.
And the crazy thing is this. From this place of intimacy – a relationship of trust and rest and freedom from the need to do, the Spirit starts to show us what to do and how to do it. He inspires our dreams, makes them impossible, and then invites us into the adventures of partnering Him to see them become impossible realities. It is beautiful and it is free and it is oh so powerful. Call it sonship, daughtership, intimacy, or call it first love. It is the Way of Jesus and the Way the Church was always called to walk in. It is the key to freedom, the key to joy, and the purpose of creation.
So come and worship. Come and be loved. Come and love. Leeds is waiting – groaning – for the Church to rediscover why we do all this church stuff anyway. There is only one place to start.