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Call from Jesus to love thy neighbour should still be the 'main thing' for all Christians

By The Rev Allen Sleith

Published 08/10/2016

It's a commonplace nowadays to observe or celebrate the anniversary of certain key events. Some are of such monumental significance that they rightly command national or international recognition.

Others, however, tend to be less well-known, operate with a lower profile and thus have not such an extensive appeal in wider culture. But their comparative neglect could easily leave us the poorer. So here's a modest proposal for appreciating a sixtieth anniversary.

In 1956, H Richard Niebuhr, the then Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics in Yale, was appointed the director of a research project into the education of clergy in preparation for their future ministries.

Niebuhr's three-year project visited over 90 seminaries in North America culminating in his book 'The Purpose of the Church and its Ministry'. Sixty years on, much, of course, has changed but nonetheless there's enduring wisdom in its pages, marked by Niebuhr's evocative and economical style.

Niebuhr poses the question about the purpose of the church, arguing that unless or until some clear answer can be given which will command the allegiance of its various traditions or communities, then its mission will be undermined.

His proposal is based on the 'simple language of Jesus Christ himself' in that the goal we are commanded to pursue is 'the increase of the love of God and neighbour'.

But Niebuhr's radical nuance is that my neighbour is 'all that participates in being' - not simply those people close to me in affection, affiliation or geography but all entities, human and extra-human in God's beloved but beleaguered creation.

Another gem is his observation that often we 'confuse proximate with ultimate goals' especially the central purpose stated above.

In doing so we waste enormous energy working at cross-purposes, deflecting from the most urgent issues, fraying the very fabric of what we hold in common and sending mixed or muddled signals to the world we seek to address.

The ministry can strike many as a 'perplexed profession' in a confused church amidst a contested world if we don't pursue Christ's simple but unsentimental call to love both God and neighbour.

As the saying goes 'the main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing'.

Belfast Telegraph

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