If you have been a parent you will know that one of the most frustrating things you have to do is police all the silly, pointless fights that your children seem to have as they grow and mature. Well sometimes it can be like that in the grown-up world too. We can find ourselves in fights in the workplace or in organisations we are a part of and yes, even in the Church. Most Pastors I know have lamented the times they felt like a parent having to break up a fight between some selfish ‘kids’ over things which really don’t matter in the long run.
There are countless issues we may fight over and every one of them is different and can blow up in our face when we least expect it. It can seem overwhelming for parents and Church leaders when they are trying to deal with so many issues at once. However, when we take a step back and have a closer look, we really only have one issue to deal with and it’s the same issue every time, regardless of the cause of the conflict. The single issue we need to grapple with is our lack of love for one another.
Whenever we fight and divide and argue over all of these unimportant little things, it’s really a result of a lack of love for one another. Now the reason I mention this as I wrap up this mini-series today is because I believe the love we have for one another (or don’t have) will greatly impact our ability to change the world. It’s our love for one another that will give us credibility as we seek to serve, minister to and reach our community and this nation with the Gospel.
So I want to take you to a verse in John’s gospel today. It’s the night before Jesus is arrested and later murdered. Jesus knows what’s coming. He knows what’s about to happen and so He takes this one last opportunity with His disciples to basically teach them everything that He wants them to know before He goes to the cross. But the most important thing they need to know is spoken by Jesus here:
John 13:34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Now this is a pretty tall order because the way that Jesus loved these disciples was extreme! He was about to go to the cross and give His life for them. He was about to let Himself be executed when He had committed no crime. That’s the kind of love that Jesus shows His disciples and that’s the kind of love He expects them to show to one another.
But then He says something even more profound. He says that this is the way the world will know that these men are His followers. Not by the miracles they perform; not by the theology they espouse; not by their bragging about knowing the Messiah personally. The way that people will know that we are disciples of Jesus is by the love that we have for each other.
Basically Jesus says that the love that we have for each other should be so countercultural, and so different to the norm that when the world sees it, they really will sit up and take notice! That’s how people will be able to identify you as a disciple of Jesus. In other words, Jesus is saying here that it’s our love which gives us credibility in our community. It should be our love for one another that defines us as the people of God.
Well, let’s just get real for a second. If we were to go out onto the streets and find a hundred people who are not Christians and ask them what are Christians are like – what are they going to say? Some of them may have some nice things to say. However, a significant number of those hundred people would use words like judgmental, hypocrites, superior. Sadly I fear that not too many would say that Christians are the most loving people they have ever met.
So how have we as the people of Jesus, the people of God, how have we gotten so far removed from being known for what Jesus says we should be known for, which is our love for each other? How far have we fallen from giving God and this world our very best? If God is going to truly use us to change the world, then we’ve got to recover the supernatural love for one another that Jesus says we should be known by.
Now the good news is the book of Acts gives us a framework, a picture of what this kind of love looks like. In the opening chapter of the book of Acts, we see the early Church is exploding. They are literally changing the world as countless people come to faith in Christ. Within the early Church, we see this amazing, incredible, supernatural love for one another. I have spoken at length in many sermon series about the snapshot we have of the Church at the end of Acts chapter two. However there is another one a couple of chapters on.
Acts 4:32-35 “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.”
So here in this passage we see a picture of two things that I believe must be present if we’re going to have a supernatural love for one another. There are two things that have to be present, if we, as Jesus says, are going to be known by our love. The first thing we see in this passage is that love requires a supernatural unity.
Verse 32 says that all of the believers were united in heart and mind. Previously divided people, many of whom despised one another, were now united in a way that could only have been achieved by a miracle of God. Some of these people were from ethnic groups and nations which historically had hated each other for centuries and now they are sharing their possessions with each other and selling real estate and giving the money to the Apostles! This was truly a supernatural unity.
Now as I am sure you already know, when we look at our culture and society today, it seems like we are living in a time where we are more fractured and divided than probably most of us can remember in our entire lives. It seems that we draw lines in the sand and fight over every little thing. Look at how toxic our political world has become. They call question time in Parliament ‘the bear pit’ and that’s an understatement some days.
Of course we don’t need to go beyond the Church to see evidence of how divided our world is today. In the year 1900, the world had an staggering 1,600 separate Christian denominations all claiming to follow the same Christ. Back then this was an abomination and the Church was embarrassed by the fact that many of those separate groups were birthed in conflict. Fast forward 400 years and the number of separate Christian denominations in the world was estimated at 43,000. Once again, the vast majority of those were birthed in disputes and divisions over issues which ultimately mean very little in the Kingdom of God and mission of Christ. Even within each denomination and each Congregation there can be disunity over things which mean so little in the wider scheme of things.
Part of the reason for disunity is our persistence in arguing over the things we think divide us and that fuels our constant search to find a place where we can all agree on everything and therefore be ‘united.’ That is not the unity God desires and it has nothing to do with the carnal, earthly, human things over which we may fight and disagree.
Unity does not equal uniformity. We can still have unity without having uniformity. We don’t have to agree on every issue. For us to be united doesn’t mean we all have to look the same, talk the same, dress the same or think the same. That’s not Biblical unity.
Unity is not about minimizing the things that we disagree on as much as it is about maximizing the things that we do agree on, namely, the life and work of Jesus Christ. Biblical unity is about lifting the name of Jesus together and choosing to unite around Jesus, instead of choosing to divide over all of the other little things that we may feel very strongly about.
True unity is what you find in the Church in the book of Acts and it came from the Holy Spirit – not from some human-engineered consensus. The early Church comprised the most diverse group of people in the history of mankind. There were Jewish Christians, Gentile Christians, rich people, poor people, free people and slaves, people of many different ethnic groups. The society of that day would never dream of seeing such people united for any cause. But because they chose to be united around the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the world could see that “all the believers were united in heart and mind.” They weren’t united because they were alike; they weren’t united because they had the same opinions on every little issue; they were united because they chose to let the Holy Spirit unite them supernaturally around Jesus Christ.
Now the second thing we see in this passage is that love also required a supernatural selflessness. The early Church had such a deep and devoted love for each other that whenever there were needs in their community, if somebody had the resources and means to meet that need, they would do it – no questions asked – even if it meant they sold their own land and property. They didn’t even think twice because of the love they had for one another. That is a supernatural kind of selflessness. It’s a love that always considers others above ourselves. This is what Jesus said in John 13, that we would have the same love for others that Jesus had for us – and Jesus loves us with a supernatural, selfless love.
When Jesus hung on that cross He wasn’t thinking about what was in it for Him. He wasn’t thinking about His needs at all. He was thinking about your needs and my needs. Jesus says that’s the kind of selfless love that we should have for one another and if we are going to be the kind of Church that God uses to change the world, we’ve got to have that same selfless love for one another. It sounds like a tall order for the Church today, doesn’t it? But we’ve done it before and not just in the early Church.
Around 250 AD there was a plague that broke out across the Roman Empire. It was so long ago, historians don’t know the exact nature of what this disease or plague was, but they believe it was most likely Ebola or something similar. Now in our world today we are very weary after battling Covid for three years but this plague in the Roman Empire lasted for 20 years! The disease was so contagious, so deadly, that that historians say that in the city of Rome alone, that’s only one city, 5,000 people were dying every day.
There were no vaccines. No treatment which had any effect. So because of the deadly nature of this disease and how contagious it was, once you contracted the illness, you were shunned and isolated from society completely. There was no hope for you. There was no recovery. There was no treatment, so even your family would kick you out.
But if you go to a world history encyclopedia like I did and read about that pandemic, you will be shocked to see that it was how all the Christians responded to this pandemic in the third century that warranted a mention in the history books. This isn’t from some Christian blog which has a Christian agenda. This is from a secular historical encyclopedia.
In that historical account we learn that it was only the Christian Church which thrived in the midst of this chaos. The illness claimed the lives of Emperors and pagans, who could offer no explanation for the cause of the plague, or suggestions for how to prevent further illness, much less actions for curing the sick and dying. But Christians played an active role in caring for the ill, as well as actively providing care and burial of the dead. And listen to this. It says that ultimately, this disaster not only strengthened the Church, it helped spread Christianity to the furthest reaches of the Empire and the Mediterranean world as the people of God reached out in selfless love.
During a time of crisis, it was the Church who rose up in love. It was the Church who didn’t think about what was best for them, but a Church who served those in need regardless of the personal cost to them. Many Christians died of this disease, but the Church and the Gospel impacted the whole world because of the supernatural, selfless love of Christ’s followers.
That’s how the world was changed then and that’s how the world will be changed today. Amen.