Dr. Daniel Vestal: A Passion for the Great Commandment

In 2007 a group of Muslim scholars issued a remarkable statement entitled, "A Common Word Between Us and You." The essence of the statement, which was an appeal to Christians for tolerance and understanding, is that the command to love God and to love neighbor is at the heart of all three Abrahamic faiths. In 2009 the Baptist World Alliance issued a response, an equally remarkable statement, which in many ways has become a foundational document for many Baptists in interfaith dialogue. Early in the BWA statement is the following: "At the very beginning of our reply, we want to affirm that you are right in identifying the double command to love God and neighbor as being at the heart of the message of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Gospels."

Essential to Christian discipleship and identity is obedience to this ancient biblical command. What distinguishes the Christian distinctive element in our understanding of love to God and neighbor is a conviction that our love of God and neighbor is a response to and reflection of the Triune God. We love God because God first loved us. But even more than that, we love because God is love.

Within Father, Son and Holy Spirit is an eternal, interactive relationship of mutual giving and receiving. Within the nature of the one God, who is Source, Word and Spirit, is a communion and community of love. From this love comes creation. From this love comes redemption. From this love comes all the promise and hope that we call the Gospel. And from this love comes both the command and capacity for us to return love to God and give love to neighbor.

Thomas Merton says it beautifully: "The One God who exists only in three persons is a circle of relations in which His infinite reality, love, is ever identical and ever renewed, always perfect and always total, always beginning and never ending, absolute, everlasting and full ... Therefore in God there can be no selfishness, because the three selves of God are three subsistent relations of selflessness, overflowing and superabounding in joy in the gift of their one life."

What blessed me in the recently popular novel, "The Shack" was how vividly it portrayed a sacred love and delight between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I realize it wasn't a sophisticated theological or philosophical treatise, and that it was using metaphor and symbol to speak of the unspeakable. But I believe one reason it had such a wide readership is that it captured and conveyed the sheer joy and wonder within the nature and character of the Triune God who is love. 

Love is the "supreme good" because love is most like God. And because love's origin is in God our capacity to love is determined by our capacity to receive love from God. When we are awakened to the triune God, we not only discover the source of love, but we partake of and participate in a kind of divine-human relationship that makes us most like God. This enables us to live with neighbor in mutual giving and receiving, seeking community and communion with others. And when we do so, God is pleased.

For the Christian who wants to participate in the "missio dei" the very first lesson to be learned is this one. For the church that wants to be a part of what God is doing in the world the very first discovery to be made is this one. God is love. God desires our love. Our love to God is in proportion to our ability to receive God's love. And our love of God is inextricably bound to our love of neighbor. Whatever else we may believe, think or do is futile if we do not begin here.

The Great Commandment is foundational to prayer and worship, to mission and ministry, to relationships, to ethical decision making. Jesus said that all the law and prophets hang on it. This means that we practice kindness and seek justice because of a passion for this command. We work to build human community because of a passion for this command. We offer charity and empathy because of a passion for this command. We seek reconciliation and peace because of a passion for this command.

Those who inspire us are the ones who exhibit this passion. They love extravagantly, selflessly, sacrificially. In 1995 I met Mother Teresa and had a brief visit with her. As you can imagine it was an unforgettable experience. Amidst the squalor and suffering of Calcutta, she exhibited a grace that has inspired millions. She inspired me. But through the years I have met others, many of whom are in Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, whose passion to love has inspired and encouraged me. And I am grateful.

As we approach our 20th year celebration in Tampa, I ask you to join me in praying for a fresh passion to love God and to love neighbor. Together let's ask for a new discernment and discovery of God as love. Let's seek a fresh empowering to love even as God loves. Come to Tampa as a kind of pilgrimage or quest to be renewed and to be awakened. 

Daniel Vestal is executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, serving since 1996.

[Taken with permission from "Words from the Executive Coordinator," April 1, 2011. Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.]