July 5, 2021

Vital Signs of Church Life: Love

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For the next three posts we’ll be in a short little series called “Vital Signs.” And the simple but important idea of the series is that just as people have vital signs that are key indicators of health – pulse, temperature, blood pressure, and so on – so also do churches. These vital signs are indicators of whether a church is healthy and vibrant, so they’re things that we need to pay close attention to.

And so we’re going to begin by thinking about love, specifically how we love one another, as in your fellow Christians, your brothers and sisters in Christ. Straightforward, right? 

Well, straightforward yes, but also vitally important. Because let’s face it, if we struggle to love one another here, what chance do you suppose we have of truly, and effectively, loving people out there?

And if that doesn’t convince you, maybe this will: In a recent study, Barna Research reported that 37% of non-churchgoing Americans – ~ 4 out of 10 – say they avoid churches because of negative past experiences in churches or with church people. While we can debate whether or not loving one another attracts people to churches, we can say with certainty that an inability to love one another keeps people away from churches.

Thankfully, Jesus has some things to teach us about loving one another, so let’s turn to scripture…

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.  John 13:34-35

It’s significant that no fewer than 3 times in the space of just 2 verses Jesus tells his disciples – and tells us, since we too are his disciples – to “love one another.” And that each of the 3 times Jesus says to “love one another,” he points to a unique aspect of loving one another. 

The first aspect Jesus points to is the significance of loving one another.

He makes clear that what he’s telling his disciples is not a suggestion but a command … which in itself is, well, significant. The second aspect Jesus points to is how we’re to love one another: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” As we’ll get into later, this is a game changer. And finally, Jesus points to the outcome of loving one another, that everyone will know we’re His disciples if we love one another. 

And so we’re going to explore each of these three aspects of loving one another, beginning with the significance of loving one another.

“A new command I give you: Love one another.” John 13:34a

We’ve already touched on the significance of Jesus making clear that loving one another is not a suggestion but a command. But what makes this even more significant is that Jesus is not reinforcing a prior command, He’s giving them an altogether new command. And clearly this new command is rather vital, given that Jesus conveys it three times in the space of two verses. 

But he doesn’t end there – fast forward a few chapters to John 15:12 and you’ll find Jesus saying, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” And then a few verses later, in John 15:17, Jesus says, “This is my command: Love each other.” Do you get the feeling that Jesus really, really wanted his disciples to grasp the significance of loving one another?

Pretty obvious, right?

But it begs a question: Why did Jesus wait until the very end of His life before commanding His disciples to love one another over and over and over (and over and over) again? 

I mean, Jesus had been with these guys for 3 years, and while he had told them to love the Lord their God with all of their heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love their neighbor as themselves, and even to love their enemies, for some reason he waited until the very end of his life before telling them to love each other. Why do you suppose that is?

Was it because Jesus knew His disciples were so good at loving one another that they didn’t really need to be told to love one another, at least not until the very end as a gentle reminder? Well, when you read through the gospels, you find that that isn’t the case at all. These guys argued about a lot of meaningless stuff! 

In fact, it’s during the Last Supper that Jesus gives his disciples the command to love one another. Then, right after the Last Supper, as Jesus and the disciples head to Gethsemane, we read in Luke 22:24 that “A dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest.” And so the theory that Jesus waited until the end of his life to command his disciples to love one another because they were already doing it so well just doesn’t hold water. 

Or how about this: Maybe Jesus waited because in a roundabout way he had already commanded His disciples to love one another when he gave them the Great Commandment, which concludes with “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 

Well … that theory doesn’t quite add up either. Because when Jesus says to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he’s quoting directly from Leviticus 19:18 – you’ll see the footnote in your bible – and what Leviticus 19:18 says in totality is,
“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”

Make no mistake, the Leviticus 19:18 represents a high, high bar. It makes clear that God’s people are not to seek revenge or hold a grudge when someone does something wrong to us, but instead we’re to love that person the way we ourselves want to be loved. 

But when Jesus says, As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” he’s raising the bar considerably. The Great Command calls us to love all people as we ourselves want to be loved, but Jesus commands His followers to love one another as He loves us.

Well, since I raised the question, it’s only fair that I give you my theory on why Jesus waited until the very end to command His disciples to love one another. I believe Jesus waited until the very end because he knew that for his disciples to even begin to love one another as he had loved them, they needed to be with him as long as possible. They were with Jesus for 3 years, and every hour, every minute, and every second that they were with Jesus mattered. And it matters for us too – if we’re not with Jesus daily through studying scripture, prayer, and connection with other believers, then we can’t possibly love one another the way Jesus commands us to.

And this brings us to the second aspect of loving one another, which is how we’re to love one another, as Jesus explains in the second part of vs. 34: 

“As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” John 13:34b

This aspect also begs a question: How exactly did Jesus love the disciples? And for that matter, how does Jesus love us? Because if we’re supposed to love one another as Jesus loves us, the starting point, it would seem, is to grasp how Jesus loves us. And to truly understand and appreciate how Jesus loves us, it seems to me that we need to name some of our own tendencies and contrast them with how Jesus loves us.

So let’s consider three of these contrasts, starting with our tendency to be self-centered, in contrast with Jesus example of being selfless.

You and I have a gravitational pull toward ourselves. And if it’s any consolation, we’re no different from Jesus’ first disciples, who slept when Jesus asked them to keep watch for one hour at Gethsemane. 

And then there’s Peter, who swore that he would never forsake Jesus but a few hours later denied ever knowing him.

Or how about John & James, who somehow managed to convince their mother to ask Jesus if the two of them could sit at Jesus’ side when He comes in glory. 

All of these guys had a natural tendency to focus on themselves first, and so do we. It’s in us. But not so with Jesus, who always placed others ahead of himself. It starts with Jesus’ obedience to his Father, which never wavered. Even at the very end, as drops of sweat like blood flow, Jesus prays, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but your will be done.” 

And beyond the Father, Jesus always put the interests of other people ahead of his own. When Jesus said that he did not come to be served, but to serve others & give his life as a ransom for many, he meant it – he lived it, he died it.

In fact, do you know what Jesus was doing right before he commanded the disciples to love one another? He was washing their feet! All of them – even Judas, the betrayer. That’s what divine love looks like. That’s how Jesus loves us, and that’s how we’re to strive to love one another. 

And so the first contrast is between our tendency to be self-centered, and Jesus’ example of being selfless. The second is between our tendency to blame people, in contrast with Jesus being exceedingly patient with people. 

Our tendency to blame others goes back all the way to the Garden. I know you know the story, but as a quick refresher, remember that in the garden everything was great, we had fellowship with God, and God gave us all we needed and then some. And God gave one simple instruction: “Do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or it won’t go well” – and we failed. The serpent tempted Eve and she ate the fruit, then she gave some to Adam and he ate the fruit, and then they started playing the blame game …

Adam says to God, “The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Adam basically goes for broke by blaming Eve for giving him the fruit, and blaming God for putting her there with him. 

But think about this: 6 times in the creation story we find the phrase “it was good.” And after God creates Adam & Eve, God says it was “very good.” But there is one time in the creation story when God says it is “not good.” It takes place when God creates Adam, but had not yet created Eve, and God says “It is not good for the man to be alone.” 

God created us to be in relationship – with Himself, and with one another. And in one fell swoop Adam was ready to break fellowship with both by playing the blame game. 

Now Eve comes out a little better, but not much. She doesn’t blame God or Adam; she blames the devil: “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” I.E., the devil made me do it! Well, no he didn’t … the devil tempted you, but he didn’t make you do anything. And that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? 

That neither Adam nor Eve ever take responsibility for their own actions, or repent for their actions, or even extend grace to the other. Instead they play the blame game – and so do we. We play the blame game by being so quick to blame others and so slow to take responsibility for our own actions, and our own decisions. And if we’re honest about it, it’s because blaming others is so much more convenient than taking personal responsibility. 

And you know what the problem with blaming people is? It’s that blaming people prevents us from loving people. Which is why Jesus didn’t lay blame, but was instead exceedingly – and lovingly – patient with people.

How so? Well, I’ve already touched on Jesus waiting until the end of his life to command his disciples to love one another. And on some of what Jesus had to endure with his disciples – them falling asleep when Jesus needed them the most; Peter’s triple denial; silly arguments over who is the greatest. And believe me when I tell you there’s more where that came from! But suffice to say that we have a tendency to blame others when things don’t go our way. But if we’re to love one another as Jesus loves us, we need to be patient with one another.

This brings us to the third contrast, which is our tendency to gravitate toward “grace” without truth, or “truth” without grace, in contrast with Jesus, who always demonstrates both grace and truth.

Question: When is “grace” not really grace? When truth is absent. Out of a desire to be nice, to get along, to be welcoming, we can easily veer into a distorted, sort of pseudo grace where we’re nice to one another but not truthful with one another. And that’s when “grace” isn’t really grace.

Then again some of us are quick to hold up truth but slow to give grace. But truth without grace leads to empty, heartless religion – the sort of religion the Pharisees modeled and that Jesus warned His disciples about when he told them, “Don’t do as they do, for they tie up heavy loads that they themselves will not carry.” 

For Jesus, grace and truth were as two sides of the same coin, with no incompatibility whatsoever. For us, when we make grace and truth either-or rather than both-and, we are unable to love one another as Jesus loves us. Is this easy? Not hardly. But we are called to strive – with God’s help, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit – to be givers of grace AND tellers of truth.  

And this, friends, brings us to our final point this morning: the outcome of loving one another, which Jesus makes clear in verse 35:

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35

Friends, how we love one another matters greatly, so much so that it’s a vital sign for the church – an indicator of whether or not we’re healthy and vital.

And so let us, with God’s help, strive to love one another as Jesus loves us … with selflessness, with patience, and with both grace AND truth.

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