Part 2 in the “Christians, Unite” Series.
See part one for the Prologue: https://bible-street.com/2017/06/06/christians-unite/
Imagine with me for just a single moment.
I want to take you to your upcountry home for a minute. Your ‘upcountry’ may actually be ‘upcounty’ if your ‘shagz’ is actually Buru Buru* instead of Bungoma*. Some will argue that Limuru* is also the same, but let’s not get into that one.
(* Places in Kenya)
You arrive at your ancestral home for a large family celebration. Maybe it’s your grandpa’s 80th Birthday. Your aunt’s and uncle’s 40th anniversary. Maybe your daughter’s very first birthday. Maybe your own special day, even. If I should ask you, why are these grand parties so joyful? How do we keep going back to these memories of our past? Why do such times of unity remain so long with us?
Some say that a family can be united by many things – talent, ambition, passion, achievement… even greed. These things have been known to bring people together – weddings and funerals too. But certainly, they have never been known to sustain them. These same things that would seem to ‘unite’ also separate: talent breeds envy, and ambition breeds competition. Passion bears many selfish pursuits, achievement brings pride, and greed… we don’t need to start with that one.
No family could ever remain united on a diet of ambition and greed. Only one thing could ever sustain unity. I would leave that answer for the end of the post but I confess the title already betrays me. Can any family remain truly united without love?
John 13:34-35 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
If it seems so uncanny that love is the only thing that truly unites, let me be one to remind you that it is only by design: the design of the author of love, who is love – our Holy God. God began as love before anything existed. Love is a part of His core, so it must be the core of His family. That’s His purpose for us Christians.
This is also the core of our short passage, where in essence Jesus set love as the mark of the people who believe in Him. Those who do not yet believe in Jesus should take one look at God’s family, and what would they see? A loving home. They should see God’s amazing work that changes proud, selfish, hurtful people into kind, selfless, humble ones. Wherever true love is seen, God is seen – for God is love.
But let’s get into the meaning of this passage, shall we? Firstly, I don’t think any teaching in John 13 can begin without a reading of verse 1:
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
He loved them to the end. Chapter 13 begins the end of the life of Jesus Christ, who came into the world solely to save it. He did the selfless act of giving up his own glory to become what He Himself created. One might expect that this action would be well received, except that he was cast out and hung up on a cross like a painting (see Phil 2:5-8). But knowing all these things were to come, our Lord began His journey to this ‘end’ by leaving lasting instructions for His disciples, His ‘own who were in the world.’ This is what theologians call the ‘Upper Room Discourse’ (John 13-17).
As He did so many times, Jesus illustrated His teaching before He gave it. He would do a simple, odd or wondrous thing, then unload its meaning on a group of disciples who were almost always never ready. This time He began by breaking the code of superiority between Lord and servants, washing the feet of His own disciples (Verse 4-11). In doing so three things were achieved:
- Jesus showed what true love is – a verb. A thing whose true currency is submissive actions, not powerful words.
- Jesus showed what kind of Lord we serve – the kind that serves His people. Therefore because our Lord does it, so must we (John 13:13-15).
- Jesus showed how we must serve Him – by serving others in love (John 13:14).
This a great illustration of the ‘New Commandment’ Jesus would later give. First of all, how does it look like when you walk into a State meeting only to find the President ushering at the door and serving tea? How about if a King polishes the shoes of His subjects? How far out of the norm is that?
After Jesus had washed the feet of His followers and sent Judas out to ‘do quickly’ what he wanted to do (betray him), He announced His hour or glorification (verse 31-32). He began to prepare His disciples with what they needed to know.
“Little children,” He began, “yet a little while will I be with you.” This is the only time in the gospel of John that Jesus referred to His disciples as “children.” At the beginning of His ministry Jesus referred to Mary as “woman” (John 2:4) – that announced a transition to a new relationship from mother and son to Lord and… woman. Now at the end of His ministry He made a new distinction between Himself and the ‘children’ He was leaving behind.
For 3 years the disciples of Jesus followed Him everywhere. Not the way you might follow the career of Brad Pitt or the vlog of your favorite music artist, either. Everywhere – every café, hang out, home and city. Where Jesus was, His disciples were also. But they couldn’t go where He was about to go (verse 33). They may have thought Jesus had said only the Jewish leaders wouldn’t go where He was going, but them too. Jesus was leaving them. He was going to His Father for a purpose – to prepare an eternal Home for them (John 14:2). But he was also leaving them with work to do. The work of announcing Him to the world.
So the first instruction Jesus then gives the disciples is this: Love one another. He called this the ‘new commandment’ – a twist in the script of relationship between God and man. The Ten Commandments had been summarized to two Great commandments by Him (Mark 12:28-33). And now He was even adding another.
But was the commandment so ‘new’? The apostle John later wrote to assert that it wasn’t new at all, for God commanded that the Israelites must ‘love one another’ (Leviticus 19:18). But something was in fact new – the standard of this love. Previously the God who gave the command resided in Holiness in heaven. Now the God who gave the command was among them. The Son of God had become the Son of Man, one about to die for mankind. The command was no longer just a command. It was also a standard and example.
What does all this mean? In giving this command, Jesus’ love has become the measure of love. If we claim to be the children of God, we must love one another exactly the way Jesus loved us. The love of Christ is what we must display daily, from sunrise to bedtime, to every Christian that we know or meet.
Sounds difficult? Wait till you hear this. John later wrote that whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love (1 John 4:8). Nobody can love God if they do not love His people (1 John 4:20).
No sermon or video or post preaching true love could possibly be an easy one. It is easier to ask anybody to observe the Ten Commandments – even all the laws of the Old Testament – than to ask them to love just one person truly. The commandment to love is the hardest of commands. Right now you might be thinking of a great number of Christians whom you legit do not love. Like, at all. You regret the day you met them. You wonder how such a person could really be saved. You fantasize about the day they won’t be in your life.
This, my dear sibling in Christ, is the reason why the church of Christ is not united. It’s not the devil’s fault. It’s not the differences in how we understand the bible. It’s not the fault of rogue pastors. It’s just your fault and mine. We don’t love with a reckless love. We don’t give ourselves and our hearts fully to one another. Let’s be honest: we’re probably not willing to do it. How could we? Only to be crushed when that love is not returned? Surely, there’s no chance of Returns on that kind of investment.
But what if we take that chance? What if we took a risk and put our love – and lives – on the line? God’s assurance is this: A Christ-like love among us Christians would change the world. Be sure, as the word of Jesus is pure truth: everyone who does not believe would take one look at Christians, and they would see Jesus. They would come to see the relationship between Christians and the one they are named after.
Have you ever taken time to listen to the problems people have with Christianity? People don’t seem to have an issue with Jesus Christ, by the way. Their beef is with His people. Rude, legalistic, hypocritical people. There are many reasons for this, but one clear one is that we continue to fall short of Jesus’ command to show the kind of love that Jesus is known for – reaching out to the downcast, embracing those who have sinned, speaking the truth in love, forgiving again and again and again and again. And then doing it all over again.
“But surely, how can it be possible for all Christians to love one another…? It’s never even happened.” One might give this manner of excuse. Even if this were acceptable before a perfect God, history would tell us we’re wrong.
Witness, for example, how Paul wrote about when he wrote praises of the kindness of the Macedonians towards him and needy Christians elsewhere. He Himself wrote again and again about his anxiety to know the welfare of the disciples in the churches, praying daily for them, giving up safety for their sake. Then the early church father Tertullian appealed to the love of the Christians as a defense of the faith during those dark years when Christians were mercilessly killed by the Romans. He wrote what Pagans might say of Christians:
“Look . . . how they love one another (for they themselves [pagans] hate one another); and how they are ready to die for each other (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).”
Can we do the same?
In a darkened world of hatred, conceit, pride, ambition and greed, this is what light looks like. It looks like a Christian forgiving their brother who borrowed money but refuses to pay it back. It looks like a husband driving long distances to pick up his wife and children from school and work. It looks like a believer foregoing comfort to give food to those who are hungry. Even their clothes for the naked. Even their own house, for the homeless.
Jesus did not begin by asking us to love one another – he begun by showing us love. Uttermost love. We wish day in and out that the world would see Jesus Christ – yet they will not see Jesus Christ in us if we don’t display Him to the world. And the way to do this is to love one another. This will remain true for as long as life exists.
This is what I need to want for my life. This needs to be what you aspire to. It needs to be what we try to do, for we are not short of opportunities to do so. It needs to be the thing we pray ceaselessly about – for in it is not only our well-being but the basis of Christian ministry. We must dare to try this – and in trying, succeed by God’s own strength.
Now let’s circle back to the beginning. Remember that picture we painted of a loving family party? Maybe that’s your own family – or one that you know. Everyone likes them. People might even wish to themselves that this was the place they go to when they go home. But nobody ever looks at a home full of fighting, murder and deceit and says to themselves, “Wow, my kind of place… I wish I could live here!”
The war in the church has never and will never make Christianity an attractive family. But if we make the sacrifice of giving up our place for the sake of another Christian, that might just begin to change.
I will readily concede to the truth that this passage about love need not necessarily be a passage about unity. But without a doubt, love is the glue of togetherness. We know that we Christians are not perfect, and that we will continue to fail one another just as we have failed our gracious God. But from love comes all good things: it rejoices in truth, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
True unity is bred in true love between God’s people.
[Apologies, I’ll try not to write a whole book next week…!]