Jesus told us to love one another as he has loved us. He said that this would be the way that the world would know we follow him. That’s a hard command. After all, Jesus loved the world so much that he was willing to die for it. He went to the farthest extremes to show people who God is, and to ultimately meet the needs of the world, knowing that without him we were as good as dead.
When you think about it, that’s a mental kind of love. It’s completely out of kilter with our modern individualistic attitudes – it just doesn’t make sense. Imagine putting the needs of every single person that you come across before yourself. It’s madness. Not to mention potentially destructive. When we think about that kind of thing, we get nervous. Putting in all that effort with no guarantee of a return? It seems like a hard life.
And it is. To live like that, day in, day out, gaining nothing, is pretty much impossible. That’s why community is essential in the world of Christianity. At a time when the church is seen as broken and divided it’s important to remember why we can’t go it alone, and that’s what I want to talk about today.
Paul talks about the church as one body with many different parts, grouping all the Christians of the world together in one unit. It’s a well-known image, but I think it’s a more powerful image than we allow it to be. On the one hand, it’s a good picture of unity, to remember that no matter what the differences Christians might have in belief and practice, we’re all united under Jesus. That’s nice, but it doesn’t really help us do anything, expect, perhaps, be a little more loving towards one another.
No, the real power in that message comes out when you look at it through the lens of love. Love, as Paul writes elsewhere, is the greatest thing that a person can have, so it makes sense that it should be a part of church life. Now, remember that the love that Jesus expects of us is an extreme, sacrificial love. What happens when that appears in the church?
Picture this: a group of fifty people who meet regularly and know each other well, who constantly go out of their ways to meet each other’s needs. Suddenly, that love which could seem so extreme and draining becomes something beautiful. Let’s say there’s a member of the church who is unable to do up their deteriorating living room, and there’s someone in the congregation who’s a decorator and has exactly the skills and contacts needed for the job, but the problem is, they work in the week, and on the weekends they need to stay with the kids because their wife works shifts, but there’s someone else in the congregation who’s great with kids and has some free time, and can look after the kids. In that little example, a small chain of people meeting each other’s needs allows that first person’s life to be greatly improved, and for someone to do that without draining themselves completely worrying about kids at the same time.
Now imagine this in that 50 person church, a network in which everyone has different skills and different needs. If everyone acts in that sacrificial attitude of love, pretty quickly those needs can start to be met, but the people who are meeting them will be having their needs met at the same time. It won’t always be easy, and people aren’t perfect, so sometimes it’ll be downright difficult, I think that’s what Paul’s getting at with this picture of a body – we’re all there to do different jobs that lead to us functioning as a unit that can achieve far more than the individual parts ever could.
Blow this up even more, to a national, or even global scale. What happens when churches stop seeing themselves as separate entities, and start seeing themselves as parts in a larger whole, there to help others, and receiving help when they need it? Suddenly churches could become free to pursue their strengths, becoming far more effective at what they do. Maybe one church in the area is brilliant at bringing new people through the door, but doesn’t have the capacity to grow children’s ministry. Rather than getting stumped about what to do, imagine if another church that does have that capacity steps in and joins with them to do a youth group once a week in the evening, or lends space to use on a Sunday? Then the first church is released to grow further, and the children’s ministry thrives as kids build relationships with each other and with God.
I know I’m dreaming here. I know this comes across as idealistic, impossible even, but without these dreams we’ll never see anything like this happen. I believe that this loving unity is the vision of the church that comes across in the Bible, and it’s a far more attractive alternative to a church that’s divided, with members feeling isolated and alone. We need church because we need each other, we need to love one another and be loved by one another.
This is a hard thing, but if we start small and work up, I don’t think it’s unattainable. Already initiatives like homeless shelters and food banks show the good that can be done when churches work together, and there is room for more of this in outreach and evangelism, children’s ministry, sharing resources and more.
What’s stopping us?