So, what are the ethics of this community called the Kingdom of God? What are the virtues that Christ finds so necessary for the citizens of his Kingdom? The apostle Paul conveniently gives us a list of these virtues. We find it in Galatians 5:22-23. We call them the Fruit of the Spirit. “Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Generosity, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-control”: these, according to Paul, are the virtues of a Christian life. It is this fruit which define our citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven. If the Kingdom had police cars this might be what you saw printed on the back fender.
Paul himself took his cue from Jesus who provided his own definition of an ethical person in a passage we call the Beatitudes. Those who are “the blessed” are those whose lives represent the values of the Kingdom. Meekness, contrition, humility, purity of heart and spirit, a hungering for peace and righteousness; and above all, faithfulness to the vision of Christ in the face of all sorts of persecutions.
Now we have quite a list of virtues for our community called Christian, brief as it may be. This is our list but what do they all mean? Let us take a look at a few key virtues.
Love, we tend to lump too many things under this one word. By it we refer to everything from sex to soccer. A man might tell a woman, “I love you” one moment and then profess his undying love for his favorite sports team the next. Obviously there is a difference. We just lack the specificity in language our ancestors had.
When Paul speaks of love in his list of virtues he uses the Greek word αγαπη. You see it written in English as agape. Agape, like the numerous other words the ancient Greeks used to define love, has a specific meaning. Dr. Sondra Wheeler, author of What We Were Made for: Christian Reflections on Love, offers us a definition of agape.
“It means the love that is to be offered to all persons just because they are persons, and it explicitly includes strangers and even enemies. It is the form of human love that most directly and fully imitates the love of God.” (Wheeler, 83)
Sounds simple right? Not really. As Wheeler points out, this kind of love is understood as the highest form of love of which a Christian is capable. It is the love which we Methodists lift up as the objective of our Christian lives. Love of neighbor is the purpose for which we are saved and the end of our perfection in Christ.
Being perfected in love is directly related to another of our virtues; joy. Paul tells us that χαρα (chara) or “joy” is one aspect of the fruit which the Holy Spirit brings out in our lives. “It is everywhere a culmination of existence: joy, beauteous spark divine.” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vl. 9, 359) As Paul uses the word, joy is a defining action of the believer. We are, in other words, joyous, another way of expressing this would be to say that we are ever and in all circumstances rejoicing in Christ. “Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4)
Peace and Peace making are where we begin to see the first two virtues take flight. Peace, or ειρηνη, encompasses all of creation. Like agape, peace is not just about us. True peace is something we receive for ourselves from Christ but it is a virtue we are expected to cultivate for others as well. Once again, as a virtue it is something which defines who we are in Christ and it is something which we value for others simply because they are neighbor.
To have peace is to be in relationship with God and others. To be a peace maker is to have the peace of Christ define how we relate to others. The song which comes to mind is, “Let there be Peace on Earth” (United Methodist Hymnal, 431) It is most often sung at Christmas time but interestingly enough, it is listed in the hymnal under the heading “Sanctification”. This is fitting because the peace which we as Christians lift up as a virtue is one which demands our life long commitment to participate in the greater work of God. As the songs says, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me; let there be peace on earth, the peace that was meant to be.”
Of course, it is easy to speak of peace but it is another thing to live it out. Part of this is because, well, people are difficult. We can be short tempered, arrogant and stiff-necked people. Keep in mind this is not just me saying this. God has said these things about us throughout scripture. This aspect of human nature is where the virtue of patience comes into play.
Patience, μακροθυμια, is what the biblical writers called longsuffering. (TDNT vl.9, 374-382) This patience is more than just “putting up” with things. Longsuffering, in the sense of Christian virtue, is the ability to offer loving kindness to those who need correction. It is, once again, a fruit grown of the Holy Spirit’s presence in us. It is a way of practicing love of neighbor for others for their sake and not necessarily ours. It is not just turning a blind eye to the problem. Longsuffering patience is a direct expression of the agape we have received from God in and through Christ.
If you have not already noticed a trend in our little list of virtues yet, you should have. Our list began with love and within each virtue that love of neighbor comes up again. It is as if everything a Christian must be depends on it. Even then there is a very real sense that our ability to love is utterly dependent upon the love that, as I have said, we have received from God through Christ.
This is a completely biblical concept. It is the focus of John’s Gospel when Jesus speaks of the believers relationship to him, the one true vine. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5, NRSV) It is a view of human potential and existence which is quite different from the self sufficient model which our individualistic society lifts up.
But that is the nature of love – true love – is it not? Love, in the manner of God, is a love which comes out of a community we call Trinity and invites all those who encounter it to be in a relationship with it. It is the defining good of the Trinity and thus the defining ethic of our community in Christ. It is the key practice of our lives as Christians. In other words, “It’s what we do.”
Simple enough right? Wrong. There is a reason we call it Christian practice – we are not good at it. Being a Christian means embarking upon a lifetime of doing, making mistakes, repenting and trying again. It means entering into a conversation which never ends. To be a Christian means realizing the decisions you make and the way you live your life impacts others. You do not live out your faith in a vacuum.
Perhaps this is why our call to live as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven so often comes into conflict with the demands which other allegiances place on us. It may be that the virtues of a Christian life, specifically Love of Neighbor, do not give us the luxury of exclusiveness that nationalistic values might. While it is true that a nation might lift up the virtues of life, liberty and happiness as its guiding ethic, that ethic is by default biased; biased in favor of that nation’s members. Our own national history has shown us that a nation may even be willing to exclude certain of its own citizens. Certainly, a people may lift up those virtues to other nations, especially to allies, but when push comes to shove these ideals can and will be put aside.
You and I, however, as citizens of the Kingdom in Christ do not have that luxury. We are called to organize our lives by these virtues we have just discussed. These virtues are in turn defined by this thing we call love. That love was in turn defined by Christ and he not only loved those who were “in” but he managed to love those who were “out” as well. Therefore, our ethic, the rule by which we live our lives as Christians, is one necessarily interested in the well being of all –come push or shove.