The Church was formed to represent Christ on earth. The Church is a new community of believers in Jesus, called and empowered by the Holy Spirit for mission. Christianity was never intended to be just a personal faith; it was designed by God to be a community. Community is not optional equipment for Christians, but is absolutely vital to every individual’s faith. John Calvin said with conviction that “No one can have God for his Father who does not have the Church for his Mother.” In other words, to have a loyalty and commitment to God is to have a dedicated and devoted spirit to one another in the church.
Since the Church is not a random collection of individuals but a community of redeemed persons with a common confession of Christ, it is love that is to be the rule of this new community (John 13:34-35). Church ministry is to be governed by loving one another. Jesus is the model of love that we are to emulate. The love that the Lord Jesus demonstrated was a service-oriented love which is the compassionate meeting of a need for another, regardless of who that person is. When Jesus told his disciples that they should copy what he had done for them, the washing of their feet, it included washing the stinky feet of Judas. We are to love everyone in the community of saints, and not just our friends or the ones we like.
Loving one another means we will be realistic about community. Idyllic views of church and community as perfect unity and harmony always working together and moving forward in mission while singing Kum-ba-ya isn’t very realistic. Community is often as messy as a pile of manure. But God is expert at turning the mess into something useful and productive. He uses the conflicts, idiosyncrasies, and even sin to grow his people in a more vibrant faith and ability to follow in Christ’s steps. Jesus has loved us with a love that took care of our brokenness once for all through the cross. Because of that love, we have motivation to love each other (1 John 4:9-11).
This is the kind of love that we cannot simply will ourselves to do because it only comes as a grateful response for the grace shown us in Christ. We need help with this love which is demonstrated in both action and attitude. And, thankfully, God in his grace has given us the help we need to engage in godly love by providing his Holy Spirit to help us. The Spirit energizes and enables us to love each other. There are times when we may lack the ability or spiritual energy needed for the work of loving each other. It is in those times that we need to check our spiritual electrical box to make sure we haven’t tripped a breaker by trying to live the Christian life our own strength.
We need the Spirit. People who are full of God’s Holy Spirit don’t walk around like Droopy poodle with no affection on their faces. The Spirit gives us the zeal we need to love one another. It’s just a reality that we don’t do anything in life unless we have the motivation for it. The Spirit is like the Christian’s personal and corporate trainer, encouraging, exhorting, getting in our face, comforting, and spurring us on toward Christ’s way of love.
When believers in Jesus are energized by the Spirit and loving one another because of their collective love for God, then the mission of world evangelization begins to take shape. All people will know you are Christ’s disciples if you love one another. The way we treat each other in the church is foundational and fundamental to the mission of loving our neighbors.
The medieval mystic, St. John of the Cross, said: “Mission is putting love where love is not.” When the church has a healthy and even supernatural dynamic of loving one another, they joyfully proclaim the good news to every person that Jesus is the one and only answer to the terrible brokenness of this world.
Community for us as believers in Jesus is not optional, but absolutely necessary to mission. Lesslie Newbigin was a British missionary to India for forty years. After retiring and returning to Britain, he found his homeland was very different than when he left. He was astounded to find the British people were more like the Indians – the society had become very less Christian and was now predominantly un-Christian. It was clearly a post-Christian society. What to do about it? Here is Newbigin’s answer:
“I have come to feel that the primary reality of which we have to take account in seeking for a Christian impact on public life is the Christian congregation. How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross? I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel (that is, the only way society can discern or interpret who Jesus is) is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it. I am, of course, not denying the importance of the many activities by which we seek to challenge public life with the gospel – evangelistic campaigns, distribution of Bibles and Christian literature, conferences, and even books such as this one. But I am saying that these are all secondary, and that they have power to accomplish their purpose only as they are rooted in and lead back to a believing community.”
This Christian congregation is the means by which a watching world will know about Jesus, if you have love for one another. The implications of community for our faith are significant. If we keep other Christians at a distance and give them the stiff arm, we are really giving God the stiff arm. Jesus identifies so closely in love to his people, that to love them is to love him. It is fallen sinful humanity that keeps secrets and hides, making for themselves fig leaves to cover their nakedness. It is not the way of love.
Will we take Christ’s way of love, and model ourselves after his life and teaching? Will we give ourselves not only to Christ, but to each other because of love? Will we allow love to characterize our life together to such a degree that a watching world desires to be a part of the community that we are a part of?
The late African-American preacher E. V. Hill told the following story about an experience with a white Christian leader in the 1950s. Hill writes: “As a freshman at Prairie View College (Texas) I was actively involved and was one of two students selected to go to our denomination’s annual meeting in Memphis. The trip through the South was by car—three whites and two blacks traveling together. I had no idea how we’d eat or how we’d sleep. So great was my anxiety and hatred over how the trip might turn out that I almost backed out entirely …. In all my experience I had never seen a white man stand up for a black man and never felt I would. But then Dr. Howard, the director of our trip and a white man spoke up. ‘We’ll be traveling together,’ he said. ‘If there isn’t a place where all of us can eat—none of us will eat. If there’s not a place all of us can sleep—none of us will sleep.’ That was all he said, but it was enough! For the first time in my life I had met a white man who was Christian enough to take a stand with a Christian black man.”
May the Spirit give us the courage for community.