Known by your love

A while ago this question came to me: “If people were to judge my faith based on my actions – what would they say I believe?”  It is certainly a question worth considering, because “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).  And this question is even more relevant today since the number one accusation against the contemporary church is that of hypocrisy[1] – that Christians profess one thing but live differently. According to outsiders, our intentions and actions do not correlate.

mask_off3
‘Hypocrite’ means actor, pretender or ‘masked one’.

In stark contrast, Jesus said his followers would be known for their love, and he even gave the world the right to judge their authenticity based on this!

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. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

Before considering the life example of Jesus a few aspects in this incredible text are worth noting.  Firstly, Francis Schaeffer called this love “the mark of the Christians”[2] since this love which distinguishes Christians as followers of Jesus is not primarily a feeling, but a relational dynamic which is visible from the outside. Jesus-followers are known by their love because this love is seen in actions which are not normative in the world.  Secondly, by saying ‘as I have loved’ Jesus said the disciples should copy his loving behavior – his relationship to them modeled these loving actions. Thirdly, note that Jesus did not say our love to unbelievers characterize us as Christians, but rather love for insiders, for “one another”.  This is important, because doing one loving act for a passer-by is easy, by living in constant love with people around you is quite another thing. Lastly, note that Jesus gave it as a command to love, implying a decision to comply, and thus not a love primarily lead by feelings.  Thus it is our choice to do loving actions towards fellow Christians which mark us as Jesus-followers, or not.

Considering this command of Jesus, how can we follow his example so that his love is made visible in our actions?  Or more simply put, what does his love look like?

  1. Radical acceptance

unconditional_acceptance_racial

Jesus instructed his disciples to love as he loved them, thus to emulate his loving actions towards them (and this was before his crucifixion).  They have walked with him for about three years so they would have had ample reference for what he meant.  Looking at the twelve to whom he gave this command, we immediately see the first aspect of this love: it is radically inclusive.

Jesus disciples were diverse in every aspect.  Firstly they were culturally and racially diverse: Peter, Andrew, Bartholomew were Galileans while Simon was a Canaanite – people who did not normally associate by choice.   Secondly, we know that they were politically on opposite sides: Thaddeus and Simon were Zealots, a Jewish extremists party aiming to liberate Israel from Roman oppression by means of military force[3]. On the opposite political spectrum Matthew was a chief tax collector, a liberalist Jew who lived as the Romans and made a living oppressing his fellow Jews financially in service of the Roman oppressors.  There certainly would have been political conflict between these two groups! Thirdly, the Gospels make it clear that there were personality clashes within this group: the brothers James and John were called “sons of thunder” because of their impulsive and aggressive tendencies, while Thomas was the doubtful and more reserved.  Peter was an initiator and natural leader while on the other hand Phillip was recorded as pessimistic, perhaps even cynical.  John’s gospel reveals that he and Peter did not get along, even indicating some competition between the two.  Yet Jesus chose each one of these individuals alike and was patient with them.  And by doing so he demonstrated his love by accepting their racial and cultural, political and personality differences, giving the disciples an example to follow.

These first apostles, who themselves experienced this radical acceptance from Jesus, put this principle in writing to the first congregations. James wrote to the church in Jerusalem about this love in practice, to treat rich and poor alike and not to tolerate “distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts”, labelling it the sin of partiality (James 2:2-9).   Paul likewise wrote to the churches in Galatia that they make no distinction among themselves based on ethnicity, social class or gender since all have died to the flesh and have “put on Christ” in baptism (Galatians 3:27-28; cf 1 Corinthians 12:13 and 2 Corinthians 5:16-17).  Regarding this new identity, Peter wrote Christians should regard themselves as “a new generation… a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:8-9) thus one new ethnicity in which they find identification rather than distinction.

In practice, Jesus’ love shown among his followers means a radical acceptance and equal treatment of each other based on their acceptance by Christ.

  1. Sharing life

harvest table1

Secondly, the disciples who first heard this New Commandment of love knew how Jesus shared his life with them – every day, everything.  They lived together from one purse, with one purpose.  They knew that before they had a “mission” of preaching and healing, Jesus called them “to be with him” (Mark 3:14) – to share life together.

This communal living was modeled and imitated in the early church who “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).  Simply put, they came together for learning together, sharing together, serving together, eating together and praying together.  They met for fellowship and teaching “every day, in the temple and from house to house” (Acts 5:42).  They were aptly named “church” (Greek ekklesia) which means “called out ones” – thus people were heard the call of God and gathered together.  Church means being together, living together, coming together to meet with God.  And that’s where the love is shared and felt.

Our contemporary society values privacy and individualism. We strive for self-sufficiency, autonomy and independence.  With that mindset we come into the church.  However, being part of the Church means being “immersed into one body of Christ” by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13), implying a shared life of interdependence. We must then exchange our self-centeredness for communal life. The words the New Testament writers use to explain this concept is “fellowship” (variations of the Greek words metocos and koinonia roughly meaning “to have in common”), with four primary implications, ala Keathley[4].  Firstly this fellowship is an objective relationship, since together we share in the Gospel (Ephesians 3:6) and thus share in Christ himself (Ephesians 3:9) and are “coheirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17). Secondly this fellowship is companionship, the acts of sharing in Christ together (1 John 1:7) through the Spirit, as we meet together for teaching, communion, worship, prayer or to encourage each other.[5] Thirdly, fellowship refers to partnership of those “who share in a heavenly calling” (Hebrews 3:1) and are called “God’s fellow workers” (1 Corinthians 3:9) – essentially working together.  Lastly, fellowship implies stewardship as sharing earthly resources and meeting material needs – a logical overflow from sharing in the life of Christ and his calling (see Romans 12:13; 1 Timothy 6:18; Philippians 4:15).

Thus the early church followed Jesus’ example of love through being together and sharing all literally, and instructed new converts to do likewise.

  1. Patience and forgiveness

forgiveness

Jesus’ example of love with his disciples was one of patience and forgiveness.  In the Gospels he nick-names his disciples “You of little faith” (Matthew 6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8) since they struggled to believe the power of God who was with them. Yet Jesus was patient with them and modeled this life of faith until they believed.  The disciples were also slow to understand (Mark 4:13; 6:52; 8:17, 21; 9:32) the teaching of Jesus, so that we read the well known phrase “again I say to you…” (Matthew 18:19).  Yet Jesus was patient and did not give up on them.

Jesus also demonstrated tremendous patience with the disciples’ amidst their constant striving for prominence and “greatness” (eg Luke 22:24).  Jesus was patient and tolerant with the weaknesses of doubtful Thomas as well as Judas the thief.  He gave stern yet loving correction. But Jesus’ patient example and teachings paid off, so that in the end they believed as he believed, and lived as he lived.

When his disciples betrayed him during his arrest and crucifixion he forgave them and continued with their discipleship afterwards.  Jesus modeled patient and merciful love.

The early church also modelled their communities on this aspect of Jesus’ love.  Paul frequently wrote to the socially and ethnically diverse congregations to be patient with one another, and forgive one another “tender-heartedly” in the way Christ did (Ephesians 4:2,32; cf Colossians 3:12-14).  This also implies gentle restoration of someone who falls into sinful practice, and to “bear [the] burdens” of someone who is weak in any sense (Galatians 6:1-2; cf 2 Corinthians 2:6-7).

Jesus’ example of love was one of patiently bearing with the weaknesses and failures of his disciples, as well as relentless forgiveness of their betrayal and offences.

  1. Affection

 

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Another practical way in which Jesus’ love was to be perpetuated in his disciples was the intimate, affectionate way he shared himself with them.  This sincere, simple love for his disciples which included intimate friendship, such as John using Jesus as a pillow for his head while the group was relaxing (see John 13:25) and the affectionate way in which he spoke to them and prayed for them (see especially John 14-17).  He also allowed others to come close and touch him as expressions of love and admiration (eg Luke 7:37-38; John 12:2-6).

Consequently the apostles gave instructions that this example of Jesus’ affection be ingrained in the culture of the early congregations.  For example Peter instructed “Greet one another with the kiss of love” (1 Peter 5:14) and Paul wrote “Let love be genuine… Love one another with brotherly affection” (Romans 12:9-10).  Paul also appealed that the church’ verbal culture should always be gracious and uplifting (Ephesians 4:29; Colossians 4:16).

Thus Jesus’ love should also be seen through demonstration of appropriate affection and a culture of verbal affirmation and endearment among his followers.

  1. Selfless service

humility_feet_washing_small

Lastly, the way in which Jesus modeled love for his disciples on the evening when he gave them the New Command was humble, selfless servitude.  After washing their feet, taking the place of the lowest servant, he said “I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13: 15)[6].  Jesus taught that love meant esteeming the worth and needs of others higher, meeting those needs in service; love manifests in selfless sacrifice (John 15:13). This is the message of the cross is ultimately this selfless love of Christ.

Years later Paul appealed to the church in Philippi that love should manifest in this humble, selfless attitude in serving one another, regarding the needs of the other higher than self as Jesus “who made himself nothing, taking the form of a bondservant …and humbled himself to the point of death” (Philippians 2:7-8; cf 2:3-4).  Love in practice results in selfless service, fulfilling the needs of others – even at cost to self.

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These five ways in which love was modeled in the life of Jesus formed the basis of the relational dynamic of the early church; they were indeed known by their love.  And this should be the key aspects which distinguish Christ-followers today: a love that is visible and practical.

How do we respond to this command to “love one-another” as Christ loved his disciples?  Firstly, we respond in radical acceptance and inclusion of everyone who wishes to follow Christ – treating everyone with the same dignity and affection, regardless of ethnic or cultural background, political ideology or personality.  Secondly we respond by sharing our life with the congregation: meeting together in fellowship, worship and prayer as well as sharing readily from what we have with one another.  And this is fundamental to our identity as Christians.  Thirdly, love demands we support and identify with Christ-followers who differ from us, disagree with us, or disappoint us.  Even when they hurt us.  This requires patience (also known as longsuffering or forbearance) and forgiveness (or mercy) as Jesus modeled.  Fourthly, love in practice is affectionate in appropriate physical demonstration and verbal affirmation – our conversations and interaction should be loving and encouraging.  Lastly, and most importantly, the love Jesus modeled for us is selfless, humble servitude.  Our culture should be one of regarding the other higher, and deeming the needs of the other more important.

This practice of sharing life together in loving acceptance, affection, patience and forgiveness and selfless service is a visible witness of Christ among us.  This is the love that Jesus says shows your faith.  This is the love that turns the world towards Christ.

[1] Kinnaman D., Lyons G., unChristian (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2007), p. 21-23.

[2] Schaeffer F., The Mark of the Christian (IVP Books: Downers Grove, Illinois, 1970)

[3] The evening of Jesus’ arrest He gave instruction to the disciples to arm themselves, knowing things could become violent later.  The disciples answered “Look, Lord, here are two” (Luke 22:38) – probably Thaddeus and Simon’s swords.  It appears as though these two Zealots never let go of their political ideals of restoring the Kingdom of Israel with force, and Jesus was patient with them.

[4] Keathley J.H. III, Christian Fellowship, article found at http://bible.org/christian-fellowship

[5] Some examples of how and why the early church came together (“had fellowship”): They came together as whole congregations (Acts 2:42; Heb 10:25), smaller groups (2Tim. 2:2), or one-on-one (1Thes 5:11), for sharing truth together (Rom 1:11-12; 2Tim 2:2), communion (1Cor 10:16), singing (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16), prayer (1Cor 14:16-17), teaching (Acts 20:20; 2Tim 2:2), and ministering to one another (Rom 12:15; Heb 10:33).

 

[6] At times this text is misinterpreted to make a sacrament or ministry of foot-washing.  Yet Jesus did not say “do what I have done” meaning to imitate the act of foot-washing, but rather “do as I have done”, implying to copy the way in which he served them.  The disciples were instructed to imitate Jesus’ humble, selfless service – not repeat the act itself.

 

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