'Love your neighbour as yourself… And who is my neighbour?' (Luke 10:27-28)
The word 'neighbour' implies someone who lives beside us. But in this fast-paced age, are we tempted to overlook the person who is right next door?
Increased access to private transportation and communication technologies has trivialised place. Does physical geography or local proximity really matter anymore? Not only is place being redefined these days, so is the nature of our relationships. When I can interact with almost anyone, anywhere, through social media like Facebook and Twitter, who exactly is my neighbour?
Jesus taught the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) in response to that question: 'Who is my neighbour?' The lesson of that parable leads us to another question: 'What does it mean to be a neighbour?'—which causes us to add 'What does it mean to be a neighbour where I live?' This was not an abstract question for Jesus. His incarnation (God entering our world in the person of Jesus) highlights the importance of placed relationships.
The Christian gospel is about fullness of life, which is the restoration and celebration of relationships. As people, we find our identity, and therefore our purpose, in those among whom we live—relationships are essential to our life. Relationship is also the central goal God strives towards throughout the story of the Bible. God is seeking to restore a broken fellowship with humanity. He does that initially through the nation of Israel and then, ultimately and comprehensively, in Jesus. But this restoration is not only about the reconciliation of humanity to God; it is also about reconciling humanity to each other.
This was often misunderstood by Israel, who persistently saw themselves as the goal of reconciliation, and not as the means of it. They were God's chosen people. But they forgot that they were chosen by God for the world!
And this is where we who are Christians can also become trapped. The Gospel is not primarily about us, but about a love that is others-centred. Jesus gave his very life for the sake of others so that our relationship with God might be restored.
As Christians, therefore, we are not about self-preservation, but self-giving service to others in the world. We are called to live the reality of the resurrection: that in Christ, God has made (and is making) all things new. We are reconciled to each other, and must witness to this reality through our lives. As Lesslie Newbigin says in The Household of God, 'A gospel of reconciliation can only be communicated by a reconciled fellowship.'
The reconciled life inextricably includes physical creation—or place. Place is an important part of God's redemptive work. Throughout the biblical story, place is vital. Humanity is placed in the Garden, the Israelites pursue and dwell in the place of the Promised Land (and are later punished by exile to Babylon), the early Christian Church is placed in the Roman Empire, and John's vision of a renewed heaven and earth is recorded as the mysterious destination of all things.
Place is important because we are physical beings. We have been made to occupy time and space—this is our plane of reality, our context for life. Therefore, any 'salvation' that is limited to an other-worldly, non-physical place is really no salvation at all! Our world is our home—this is the place of redemption.
The incarnation of Jesus makes this clear. God did not deal with us remotely. God did not commute. As Eugene Peterson translates, 'The Word [God in the person of Jesus] became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood' (John 1:14).
The Hebrew word Emmanuel means 'God [is] with us.' God entered our plane of reality, clothed himself in skin and bones, and became physical. This is the ultimate expression of love. God came to live beside us.
New technologies will never replace physical presence. They may be able to create new, non-physical planes for relationship, but these will always remain superficial. Facebook, for instance, does not require depth in relationship, and therefore easily dispenses with the grace that sustains and enriches relationships. If someone cannot convincingly 'sell themselves', they are easily disposed of in the world of online social networks. Of course, the person over the fence is harder to brush aside, but are we even looking over the fence beyond our computer screen?
As Christians, we must answer Christ's call to be somewhere—we must practice the discipline of presence. And this begins with those who live right next door: our neighbours.
Love is never abstract. It is always particular. It is centred in a place and expressed in relationship. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than Christ on the cross—the universal hope of creation was located in that specific person who hung outside the walls of Jerusalem all those years ago. Love is never abstract, and it can begin just over the fence in your backyard.
God Next Door: Spirituality and Mission in the Neighbourhood by Simon Carey Holt (Acorn Press)
What if God lived next door? Would it make any difference to your neighbourhood? Would it make any difference to your role as a neighbour? Go to www.simoncareyholt.com