(John 13:34-35 ESV) 34 “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. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
What are the marks of the true, New Testament church? How do we distinguish pretenders from the true believers? What demonstrates soundness? Membership in the brotherhood?
Well, if we can trust Jesus of Nazareth to know, it’s whether we love each other as he has loved us.
How much is that? Well, enough to take on the garb of a slave and wash others’ filthy feet, even when Judas is among us; enough to die on the cross for us.
What would this look like in action? What would a congregation look like where the members actually obey this command?
Would the world be able to see a difference? Would they find it attractive? I mean, anyone would want to be loved like that, but would most people be willing to be on the giving end?
Seriously: how would the contemporary church be different if this command were obeyed? What bad habits would end? What behaviors would be gone? What new behaviors would replace them?
What does the inclusion of Judas among those whose feet were washed mean for us? What are the conditions that limit when we have to be like Jesus? Any?
You see, it’s not so hard to love this way in a fully reciprocal relationship. It’s easy to be generous when you know the others will be generous back. But that’s not really the point, is it?
The Neo-Anabaptists — Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, etc. — argue that the first, foremost, and very nearly sufficient purpose of the church is to form a community that lives by this rule. The idea is that, if were to actually do this, living to love one another, gathering to share and express that love, and taking communion with that Spirit — sharing the Lord’s flesh and blood by eating together in his memory and proclaiming him to a lost world through the sacrament — that this would somehow draw the lost toward Jesus.
There’s much more. But if were just to get this one right, Christianity would be radically transformed.
You see, we define Christianity individually. Have I believed? Have I been baptized? Have I confessed? I … I … I …
What about, am I an integral part of a Christian community that’s all about us and not even a little about me?
Indeed, it may be that the biggest failing of the modern American Christian is the failure to see himself as indispensably a part of the body — just as disconnected and out of place apart from the body as a vine branch clipped from the vine and lying on the ground. Not dead — but not at all in a good place to be. If the Gardener doesn’t regraft the branch in quickly, death will be certain and quick.
We just don’t think that way. Rather, we see ourselves as consumers, with dollars and hours to spent in the congregation that offers the best value. We literally speak of “church shopping.” We are shoppers at heart, and we bring our individualistic, self-satisfying thought patterns into the church.
Worse yet, when we finally do place membership and get connected, we’re connected to exactly that one congregation. We have no vision of God’s Kingdom as anything but the church we shopped for and committed to.
We give no thought to unity beyond congregational boundaries — indeed, we see the other churches in town as competitors (because, you know, we’re shoppers).
Our leaders are the same. We are far more afraid of losing members to a sister congregation than being viewed by the world as divided and competing. We’d rather embarrass the image of God to the world than lose a contributing member!
Jesus would have none of that. His apostles built a mega-church — a congregations of tens of thousands — in Jerusalem, all under one leadership structure, meeting in whatever locations were available — houses, the Temple courts, whatever would work. The issue was never: Is the building big enough so we don’t have to divide? They crossed that boundary on day one.
Rather, they did not let budgets and architecture separate themselves from each other. After all, they were helping to birth the Kingdom — a nation with its capitol in heaven, ruled by Jesus on a throne. It’s just one Kingdom. One King. One faith. Why divide? Why compete?
Or to put it in Jesus-terms: How can you love people you’re competing against? How can you love people you’re looking down on? How can you love people when you’re eaten up with jealousy at their huge buildings and budget? How can you love people and be divided?
(John 13:36-38 ESV) 36 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.” 37 Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” 38 Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.
These are some of the saddest words recorded in the Bible. Peter is full of himself, confident in his willingness to even die for Jesus — and yet it’s just not true. And Jesus will soon forgive even that.
Notice how brutally honest the Bible is when it comes to our heroes of the faith! Abraham, David, Samson, Peter, Paul are all recorded warts and all. They are not remotely romanticized. Rather, the scriptures seem to scrupulously record the flaws of our heroes to demonstrate that even the deeply flawed can not only be forgiven but can be of great service to the Kingdom.