34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Dear Friends in Christ,
Over the course of my ministry I have seen my share of troubled congregations. But I don’t think any of them could compare to the one I want to tell you about right now. I mean this church is ripe for division because in it you will find political differences, personality differences, clans, and cliques. Let me tell you about some of its members. There’s Matthew and Simon. Simon is also known as the Zealot. The Zealots are a political faction that is bent on bringing down the government. Matthew, on the other hand, has made a career out of working for the government. And now Matthew and Simon are in the same church. Does that spell trouble, or what? Serving on the same committee in this church are Andrew who always calculates before he speaks and Peter who always speaks before he calculates. What’s more, those 2 are brothers. So you’ve got family units within this church. Peter and Andrew are brothers. James and John are brothers. So you’ve got groups within the group.
And then you’ve got a group over the group – Peter, James, and John – who get to do things the others don’t get to do. They got to go up on the Mt. of Transfiguration with the leader of this church. They got to go into the room where the leader raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead. They got to be closest to the leader when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. So it appears on the surface at least as though there may be some favoritism going on in this church – some getting included while others get excluded.
And oh, how these guys like to argue. They argue about everything. They argue over which one of them is the greatest. They argue over how to cast out demons. They argue over who can come in to the group and who can’t come in. They argue over who’s going to get the highest seats of honor in heaven.
I mean the place is a disaster. Anyone who peeks in on this congregation and observes what’s going on is going to turn around and find another one elsewhere because anybody can tell that these 12 fellows are just a few steps away from splitting up and organizing 12 different churches. But you and I know the rest of the story, don’t we? Somehow those guys stuck together. Somehow they not only survived as a church, but thrived and grew beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.
So how did they do it? How were they able to hang together? Considering the strife from within and the stress from without, could it be that perhaps the greatest miracle of the early Christian church was not the raising of the dead as happened on very rare occasions, but rather the unity of the living? So how were they able to stick together when there was ample reason for them to come apart?
Whatever the answer is to that question, we need to know it because we’re no different than they were. Are we not a politically diverse group? You probably don’t want to know how far to the right or left of you some of your fellow church members are. Do we not have personality differences here? Do we not occasionally have little arguments and conflicts with fellow members? Listen, my friends, every church since the first church which was made up of the 12 disciples has had the same potential for division. Some make it; some don’t. Those who do make it are the ones who take seriously the words of Jesus that he spoke to his disciples in an upper room in Jerusalem the night before he would hang on a cross and die. Listen to them again: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Welcome to the headwater of the “one another” verses of the New Testament. All the others flow from this one. Over the past few months we’ve been looking at some of the more than 20 “one another” passages in the New Testament. We’ve talked about how we are to forgive one another, be devoted to one another, regard one another as more important than ourselves, bear one another’s burdens, pray for one another, confess your sins to one another, and so on. All of these passages though trace their roots back to the one that we’re looking at today as we draw to a close this 2nd leg of my “Faith Odyssey” sermon series. Next Sunday we’ll begin the 3rdand final leg of this journey that will find us going higher in our understanding of worship. But for now we want to conclude our study in which we have gone wider in our understanding of fellowship and how we are to relate to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Notice in our text that Jesus calls this command to love one another “a new command.” But was it really new? I mean if we go back to the book of Leviticus which was written centuries before Christ came along we find the Law of Moses telling the Israelites that they were to love their neighbor as themselves. So this seems to be an old command. But in reality it isn’t. For as we examine these words of Jesus, we find that he gives love a new perimeter, a new pattern, and a new power.
First, the new perimeter. It is true that in the book of Leviticus the Israelite was commanded to love his neighbor as he loves himself. But a closer look at that command reveals that it is speaking about Israelite neighbors only. For example, at one point it says that he must not seek revenge or bear a grudge against “one of your people.” So this was a command to love those who are like you. But now Jesus expands the perimeter of love. He gives us a command to love those who are not like us. “Matthew, love Simon. Peter, love Nathaniel. Thomas, love John.” In essence, Jesus is saying here, “If you are a follower of mine, I call upon you to love one another. Not just the people you like or the people who are like you. But love anyone who calls himself or herself one of my followers.”
Now you and I know that some of the folks who call themselves followers of Christ are not always easy to love. Sometimes even the preacher is hard to love. I love the story of one pastor who had been invited to be the guest preacher at a church on Mother’s Day. Now that’s a day when you don’t want to get too long-winded in your sermon because families have plans or maybe reservations at restaurants. But this fellow seemed completely oblivious to that. And as his sermon dragged on and on the people began to get more fidgety and impatient. Until finally the tension was broken when at one of those dramatic pauses we pastors sometimes use, a little 4 year old boy who was sitting in the front pew and who just happened to be the son of the pastor of the congregation stood up in his pew, turned around to face everyone, and said, “Will somebody tell him to be quiet?”
So how do we do it? How do we love those in the church who are difficult to love? Well, the answer is found in our 2nd point and that is by looking at the new pattern of love that Jesus gives us. Notice, he says, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” So Jesus is the pattern. You want to know how to love that nosy or noisy neighbor? Look at Jesus. You want to know how to put up with that cranky co-worker? Look at Jesus. You want to know how to get along with that know-it-all classmate? Look at Jesus.
And one of the interesting things we discover when we look at the love Jesus had for others is that love is more a decision than it is an emotion. Now you may have never thought of it that way before. Instead, when you hear me talking about loving your nosy neighbor or your cranky co-worker, you think, “But I don’t have any feelings, any emotions toward that person.” Well, I can assure you that Jesus didn’t always have goose-bumpy feelings toward those he associated with or encountered. In fact, as we heard in my sermon 2 weeks ago, on one occasion he looked up to the heavens and in complete exasperation said, “How long must I put up with you? How long must I stay with you?” referring to his disciples and anyone else that was within earshot. But even though he was frustrated with them, he still loved them.
So the pattern that Jesus has given us is that love is not so much an emotion, but a decision, a determined resolve that with God’s help I’m going to love this person no matter what, just like Jesus has loved me. But there’s more that we can learn from Jesus’ pattern of love and that is that love always does what is in the best interest of the other person. You parents know what that is like, don’t you? If you find your little toddler is playing with a sharp scissors, what do you do? You take it away. Now, the child may cry and whine and claim you don’t love her, but you know better than that. You know that you do love her and out of that love you did what you knew was in her best interest.
If someone calls the church office and says, “If you’re a church of love, then you’ll pay my bills.” Well, there are times when out of love we do that. But there are other times when out of love we say, “You need to get a job.” Or, “You need to stop buying cigarettes so you have money to pay those bills or to put food on the table.” Love does what is in the best interest of the other person. Now granted, that’s not always an easy thing to do, but it is what Jesus always did. He didn’t always take the easy route. And so to love as he loved might mean lovingly confronting one who has wronged you, as Jesus did with Peter. It might mean driving the moneychangers out of the temple as Jesus did. It might even mean dying on a cross, as he did for you and me and everyone else, including those who could care less and who wanted nothing to do with him. That’s the pattern of love that we are to follow, my friends.
And when you find that pattern being practiced in a church, you discover point #3 and that isthe new power of love. Jesus puts it this way in our text: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” How will the world know whether we Christians are the real deal? What is the criterion by which those outside of the church measure those inside the church? Is it the buildings we worship in or the songs we sing or the style of worship we practice? No! It’s the way you and I treat one another.
Please understand then that this is a high stakes command we’re talking about today because the opposite holds true – that if we don’t love one another, if we don’t get along with one another, if there is arguing and bickering and backbiting that goes on in a church, people are going to get the idea that those folks are not genuine followers of Christ. And they’re going to want to have nothing to do with them because they get enough of that negative stuff already in their life outside of the church.
In 1805 a group known as the Boston Missionary Society shared the Gospel of Christ with a group of native Americans. After these Indians heard for the very first time of Jesus’ love for them, a love that moved him to die on a cross for them, one of their leaders named Red Jacket got up and said, “Brothers, we are told that you have been preaching to the white people of this place. These people are our neighbors. We are acquainted with them. We will wait a little while and see what affect your preaching has on them. If we find it does them good, making them honest and less disposed to cheat Indians, we will then consider again what you have said.”
How will the world know that we are followers of Christ? By the way we love and treat one another. And please be reminded before I close how much your Heavenly Father loves you. “For “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life.” And remember that it is only as our roots go deeper into the rich soil of his love that we will find the ability, the desire, and the power to love those who are hard to love. Then may it be said of us as it was once said of the early Christians, “See how they love one another.”