April 27, 2013

Love is the Blessing of a Community (Easter 5)

Jesus gives His followers a new Commandment. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 14.34) This is a dramatic moment. Jesus is not just giving some pastoral advice. As devout Jews His followers were already under  the 10 Commandments. Five of these specify how Gods’ people were to love one another by not stealing, lying or harming others. Something special is going on here. Jesus is stepping into His divine role and making a new Covenant that alters the Covenant of Moses. The old Covenant was with the whole Hebrew people. The new  Covenant of Jesus is with a community of His disciples. It is with individuals who put their trust in Him personally. This is not an academic thing. This is a personal Covenant relationship with Jesus and with others who believe in Him. Christians are a covenant community of love.

1. Love means extending yourself for others
We often use the word “love” carelessly. Jesus is teaching His followers a new definition of “love”. There was in fact a new Greek word “agape” that is used primarily in the New Testament to describe the self-sacrificial love Jesus modeled. Christian love is about serving the deepest emotional and physical needs of the other person. This is very different from our ‘love of ice cream’. When we say we love ice cream we are describing what we want to get for ourselves. This is selfish love or desire. The Christian Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck defined Christian love as “extending yourself  for the other person”. Jesus wanted this kind of self-less love to be the sign of a Christian community. Deep down inside many people want to belong to a community with this kind of caring love even more than they want forgiveness and the hope of eternal spiritual life. This deep desire for intimacy with God and others is what Jesus built His church on.

2. Love is a sign of the presence of God

Notice how quickly the early church got into a dispute over doctrine. There was a raging dispute over whether converts had to be circumcised as Jews before they could become followers of Jesus. Peter has a wonderful vision of all the animals an orthodox Jew would not dare to eat. He hears the voice of God telling him to kill and eat. God is doing a new thing. God is making a new covenant with new rules. The fear, power and control of ancient Hebrew teachers is being replaced by a new way to relationship with God. What God really wants is not just obedience to minor food rules. God wants a relationship of love with each person. It is when we see God acting through the Holy Spirit that we know God is present and loves us. God ‘shows up’ when we need guidance. God ‘showed up’ when Peter spoke to the gentile family. This was a divine sign of Gods’ love intervening to help Peter resolve a major conflict in the early church. There was to be a new covenant - a new  way to favour with God.

3. Love is the blessing of a community
Notice very carefully that Jesus does not, repeat not, say to love everyone. Many people miss this distinction and think Christians are to just love everyone. This is not what it says. It says “love one another”. This means the love relationship within the Christian community is to be special. In fact it is to be much more intimate than just civil or  “friendly”. One of my books on Parish Development distinguishes between two types of church to illustrate what really works in building congregations. One church is called “St. Friendly’s”. It is very much like a typical Anglican church where everyone is friendly and they seem to be doing all the right things. The problem is they are not growing. In fact they are dying as a congregation. The reason they are dying is that many of the younger people are going to a new church. “New Hope In The Heart” church is very different. People there are excited about their personal relationship with Jesus. Newcomers are amazed when they drive into the parking lot. The best ten parking places have a big sign that says “Reserved for First Time Visitors”. When they go in they are met by greeters who are very friendly and discretely record their name and phone number. Within three days a minister calls them to schedule a visit. They are invited to join a midweek Newcomers group that is exploring Christianity. Everywhere they look they see people excited to be there.

These people have something special. They are different. They love one another.

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