As you may have gathered from my choice of Scripture, I want to talk about Love. But first, I want us to eavesdrop on Eve.
You see, Eve's story can teach us something about crossing the line. Eve helps remind us of this rather commonplace idea: we can step out of bounds. We can stray into forbidden territory. The word Transgress literally means to step over. Eve's story is about crossing the line.
Here's what happens: the crafty Serpent comes to Eve and asks, "Did God really say, "You must not eat from any tree in the Garden?' Is that right? No trees at all?"" I very much doubt the Serpent is looking for information here! Instead, the Serpent is trying to confuse the border. This crafty Serpent is a crooked cartographer. He asks, "Is God's boundary line really around all those trees?" The Serpent draws a false line, baiting Eve.
Eve, of course, knows the Serpent is all wrong. And so she starts to correct him: "All this fruit is ours to eat. We can eat from the trees." And then she remembers there is a border she must respect, and so she adds, "But God did say, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the Garden.'"
And then Eve adds her own safety zone around what God has said. Thinking about that forbidden tree, Eve concludes, "You must not even touch it, or you will die."
In fact, God did not say anything about touching the fruit. God's instructions are found earlier in the chapter: And the Lord God commanded the human creature born of earth, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die."
Although I'm sure her motives are pure, Eve is putting her own words into the mouth of God. She presents her final point as if it were a direct quote from God: "You must not even touch it, or you will die." In trying to be extra safe, Eve fudges the line.
"You will not die," the Serpent answers. And because Eve has misplaced the line, the Serpent can speak truthfully. "Touching this fruit won't kill you." Eve has obscured the line, and by doing so she has created room for doubt. The Serpent is a treacherous counselor, but he builds his deception on something true: the line is not where Eve has placed it.
* * *
Sketched upon our hearts, we human beings draw lines to mark the borders of what we should think and what we should do and what we should feel.
Like Eve, we probably draw these lines with the best intentions.
* * *
Tony Tovar and I went to high school together. One day, he stopped by my house to tell me he had spoken with Judy Hallmark. This was newsworthy, because Tony had a crush on her at the time. Eager to hear more, I asked him, "So, what did you talk about?"
"Well," he explained, "I asked her what she wore to bed."
It's stuff like this that makes me love Tony. "What?" I demanded
"You know," he elaborated, "I asked her what she wore to bed -- whether she slept in pajamas, or a nightgown, or in the nude."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "Tony!" I screamed. "You can't do that! You can't walk up to a woman and ask her what she wears to bed!" But he had done the impossible. Tony Tovar, the Lord of Chaos had done the impossible. And so I couldn't help asking, "What did she say?"
"She sleeps in a nightgown," Tony reported. And then he continued, "I almost asked her what color -- but then I decided, nah, that would be too personal."
This is where Tony drew the line.
Often, the lines we draw seem arbitrary. We'll eat some animals, but not others. We feel compelled to cover some parts of our body, but not others. In polite company, we gravitate toward some topics of conversation while avoiding others. The lines we draw depend upon our culture.
I'm told that a traditional Chinese bestiary divides animals into the following categories: Embalmed ones, domesticated ones, those that tremble, those beyond number, those that look like flies from a distance.
Australian aborigines divide all known objects into four categories. One of these categories revolves around women. The sun is in this group, because it is considered female. A certain hairy grub is also in this category, because its sting feels like sunburn. To an aborigine, this connection would seem obvious.
In the West, we draw lines that connect animals by genus as species.
Whatever our culture, the lines we draw are a human invention. Because our human lines are so arbitrary, we should be careful not to confuse them with God's lines. Returning to Eve's example, we must be careful not to confuse a human prohibition against touching the fruit for God's prohibition against eating it.
So, what boundaries have we been given as followers of Christ Jesus? How do we distinguish between our human traditions and the mandate of God? Unless we figure this out, we risk putting all of our effort into something that doesn't really matter. Unless we figure this out, we risk becoming like Pharisees: straining out the gnat but swallowing the camel.
For three weeks now, I've been trying to identify those things that don"t really matter. In case your attention has wandered over the last month, here's my list:
First, there's nothing to be gained by focusing our attention on outward rules. No one was better than Saul at keeping the rules. As a Pharisee, he was faultless in matters of legalistic righteousness. But when he became a follower of Christ, this same man counted all of his outward achievements as rubbish. As a Christian, Paul wrote that true circumcision is inward, a matter of the heart. As Christians, our attention should not be focused on outward rules.
Second, our attention should not be on language. Rather than address God by some secret name, Jesus called God, "Daddy." There's no sacred formula for how we should talk to God, and our attention should not be on language.
Finally, our attention should not be on who goes to heaven or who goes to hell. Paul says this explicitly in Romans.
Not coincidentally, all of these relatively unimportant topics are well suited to mapping. We can draw lines between the people who keep rules and the people who don't. We can draw lines between good words and bad words. We can draw lines between the "saved" and the "lost." All of these extraneous topics recommend themselves to us because they are so conducive to lines.
As followers of Christ, we should be about something entirely different. Instead of marking the borders, our lines should be life lines.
This old poem gets at the sort of transformation that is possible.
He drew a circle that shut me out;
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout;
But, love and I had a wit to win.
We drew a circle that took him in.
This is the command Jesus has given us, that we love one another. In fact, Jesus tells us that people will know we are his disciples if we practice love for one another. This is the mark that should distinguish us from all others: we are the people who give ourselves in love.
Instead of speculating about life after death, instead of arguing about rules or language, we should be immersing ourselves in the Spirit of Christ. Spending time with Christ makes us more Christlike. Immersing ourselves in Christ gives us power to love.
One of my favorite early Quaker writers put it this way: "The sum and substance of true religion doth not stand in getting a notion of Christ's righteousness, but in feeling the power of the endless life, receiving the power, and being changed by the power. And where Christ is, there is his righteousness."
As followers of Christ Jesus, this should be our central concern.