Monday, March 24, 2014

"Your love is teaching me how to kneel"

A Recent Sunset at the James M. Cox Arboretum

Who was James M. Cox, Jr.? He was the son of James M. Cox, Sr., about whom you can read here. The country probably would have been better off had Cox the elder been elected president instead of fellow Ohioan and newspaper publisher Warren G. Harding, when both were the nominees of their parties for president in 1920.

Loving the Church...and the People In It

[This was prepared for sharing during worship with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, yesterday.]

John 13:34-35
During these weeks in Lent, we’re focusing on five building blocks for our personal Christian discipleship and for the life of the Church. They are:
  • loving God,
  • loving others,
  • loving fellow believers,
  • making disciples, and
  • growing in our own discipleship
Today, our focus is on Jesus’ new commandment, John 13:34-35 (page 751 in the sanctuary Bible). Jesus is the speaker. He says:
"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."
What makes this commandment so new? And why does Jesus give it?

There are two main ways in which this commandment is different from Jesus’ command to love others as we love ourselves. That command does hold up an impossible standard for us to adhere to, to have the same regard for the needs, hopes, desires, loves, hurts, and difficulties of others that we have for our own needs, hopes, desires, loves, hurts, and difficulties. 

But Jesus’ new commandment holds us to a much higher standard: We are to love just as God in Jesus Christ has loved us!

In thinking about how God loved us, Paul writes in Romans 5:6-8: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” That’s how Christ loves us!

Jesus says in Matthew 20:28: “...the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." That’s how Christ loves us!

2 Corinthians 5:1 says: “God made [Christ] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” And that’s how Christ loves us!

He willingly bore the condemnation for sin we deserve--death--so that, when He rose, He could claim new and everlasting life for all who repudiate sin as their way of life and trust in Him, believe in Him, as the only way to God, their only hope for this world and the next, their only Savior, God and Lord of their lives.

Jesus says that we are to love like that. To be willing to love even to the point of doing what He did for us, giving our lives for others.

As Paul says in Romans, we might do that for a righteous person.

Or we might do it for a family member or a friend.

But Christ did that for a world of people--including you and me--who really don’t want God over our lives, who nailed Him to a cross. “Love like that,” Jesus tells us.

If you’re not feeling a bit squeamish right now, you haven’t been paying attention.

So, the first thing that makes this a new commandment is that it dramatically ups the ante on the love that God requires of us as believers. We’re not just to love others as we love ourselves, we’re to willingly give our lives for them, no matter how they may feel about us, no matter what they do to us. (This doesn’t mean we should submit to abusive or co-dependent relationships, something we’ll talk about another time, I’m sure.)

Now, here’s the second thing that makes this a new commandment: The object of the love Jesus commands isn’t the ordinary neighbors in our lives.

The object of love in this commandment is our fellow believers, our fellow disciples, other Christians, the people who make up Christ’s Church, all who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and God and Savior and King, inside and outside our congregation, inside and outside our denomination.

We are to love the Church--not an abstraction and not the sentimentality surrounding the scent of burning candles or stirring music or fellowship time, but the Church: the flesh and blood, imperfect people, saints by the grace of God who in this world remain sinners by birth and impulse, the people of the Church with whom we confess faith, worship God, receive the sacraments, study God’s Word, pray, serve in Christ’s Name, the people with whom we sometimes disagree or don’t understand or who drive us crazy...These are the people Jesus tells us to love and serve and live for to the point of death itself, if necessary.

Why? Why does Jesus make such a steep and daunting demand of us as His disciples? Jesus, of course, gives the most important reason for obeying the new commandment: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

When the world sees Christians loving and caring for each other, as I see happening so often in the life of Living Water, the world then knows that we truly are Christ’s disciples. They see Christ living in us and that makes following Christ--becoming disciples themselves--more compelling to an unbelieving world.

The book of Acts tells us that people saw how the early Christians loved each other and their neighbors and enjoyed “the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (By the way, notice that the Bible isn't squeamish about saying that some people are saved and some aren't. Those who reject faith in Christ, reject His salvation.)

When the Church is united in its commitment to Christ, to the authority of God’s Word over its life, and its love for God, the world, and one another, it is a powerful magnet for people who don’t yet know Jesus Christ or the freedom from sin and death only Christ can give.

We all know, by personal experience how destructive church fights can be.  The world sees Christians fighting and they figure the whole Christianity thing is a worthless delusion.

Church fights are nothing new. Paul wrote early in his first letter to the Church at Corinth, filled with conflict, back in the first century: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.”

So, does loving like Christ mean we paper over our differences?

Hardly! Jesus Himself confronted false teaching. He threw out the moneychangers who were using the faith of others to line their pockets. He called Peter a Satan.

Some church fights are stupid. I know of a church that split because people couldn't agree on the color of the carpeting in the sanctuary.

Some church fights are necessary. When the basics of the faith are called into question--when people deny Jesus' virgin birth or His resurrection from the dead or that He performed and still performs miracles or that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and things like that, then church fights are essential. God's truth is worth fighting for within His Church.

The New Testament makes clear that the Church should discipline or remove preachers who preach or teachers who teach false doctrine, that it should confront and deal with unrepentant sin. It should only call people to positions of leadership and service among them who have the gifts for particular ministries and have the courage to say when they don't.

Jesus Himself teaches that there will be fights in the Church, that sometimes those fights must happen, and, in Matthew 18:15-20, gives a whole process by which those fights should be fought cleanly, with love and grace. And even those fights, Jesus says, should be fought with the idea of restoring unity to the Church.

So why is the unity of the Church so important?

First, because it authenticates our faith.

Second, because we need each other! “People learn from one another, just as iron sharpens iron,” Proverbs 27:17 says. There is no such thing as a solo Christian because when you try a “Jesus and me” faith, there is no one to tell you that you’re full of it when you forget to get full of Christ or full of the Bible instead.

But the Church is so important to Jesus for another reason: It’s the only entity that will survive the end of this old creation, that is eternity.

In Revelation 19:7, we’re told about the rejoicing that will happen in the new heaven and the new earth after Jesus has returned to this world, the dead in Him rise, and this old creation has been destroyed. It describes the wedding between the groom, the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world, and His bride. “Let us rejoice and be glad and give [God] glory!” it says. “For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.”

The Church is the bride of Christ. The Church--the fellowship of those who turn from sin and trust in Jesus as God in the flesh for forgiveness, life, and eternity--will live forever. And Christ wants His bride to produce many newborn children of God. He wants His Church to be the safe harbor in which His bride, living in His grace and forgiveness, is made ready for its wedding day in heaven. It becomes that when those to whom we reach out with the Gospel, in our words and in our deeds, see that we love each other as Christ has loved us.

But, how do we do that? Only, as we’ve said the past few weeks about loving God and loving our neighbors, by letting Christ live within us. Only by becoming one with Christ and renewing our relationship with Him in daily repentance and renewal by the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells us how this works in John 15:5-8 (page 752 in the sanctuary Bible):
"I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
If we try to love Christ’s Church apart from a tight connection to Christ, we’ll give up. No one but God Himself is capable of loving with the passionate love Christ lived out and died for on the cross...unless, like the branches of a vine, we remain connected to Christ. That’s why the Church is here: to keep pumping us full of Christ’s love and God’s truth as we move through life, that we might flourish and grow in the love of God given in Christ. Then that love comes alive in us and among us and a world mired in sin wants what we have. “Jesus is what we’ve got. Do you want Him too?”

Christ’s love living in people is a magnet. It starts to exert its pull when we believe in Christ and as we submit to letting Christ grow our faith, we come to do what doesn’t come naturally to human beings: to love God, to love our neighbors, and to love each other. On these three building blocks and the two more we’ll be discussing in the next few weeks, Christ readies us as individual disciples and His the whole Church for eternity with Him.