“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
~ Abraham Lincoln
Once again Honest Abe shows his wisdom. Power, the ability to do or act, can be a dangerous commodity, particularly in a church congregation. I have observed many times over the years how people gravitate to little pockets of power within the church. There is something attractive about a prominent office that empowers its holder to exert control over others. These little territories — Sunday school, worship, elders board, even maintaining the building – are often jealously guarded and ruthlessly administered.
Lincoln is right. A position of power is a great revealer of character. Anyone who occupies such positions in the church must do their work as Jesus demonstrated: with a basin and towel, kneeling at the feet of the people.
Jesus said it was a new commandment (John 13:34-35). New? Wasn’t it part of the “Great Commandment” the first part of which was to love God? So, how could this one be new if it was featured so prominently in the Great Commandment: love your neighbor as yourself?
There is key difference between the “Great” and the “New.” It is the Greek word allelon (al-lay’-lone) that is, “one another.” The inclusion of this word means the commandment is given to a group. You can love your neighbor by yourself, but you cannot love one another by yourself. It is a joint enterprise that is to reflect in its practice the Lord who gave it: as I have loved you, love one another.
Furthermore, by it our identity as disciples of the Son of God will be known. It is the badge, the mark, the honor of the Christian. May we suggest that this command is at the core of what it means to be a follower of Jesus? That is why membership* in a community of followers is so vital. You cannot obey Christ’s command without it.
Note that Jesus calls loving one another a command, not a suggestion or a good idea. He called it a command. That requires an intentional response. It doesn’t happen accidentally or as a matter of convenience. Neither does it happen when it feels good. It happens when a member of the community needs love, not when I feel like loving. The response to the command is not a feeling, but a doing.
That says something about the nature of loving one another: it is practical. In other words, it is something we do in response someone’s need—a practical response. To respond to the command is to “do love” when love needs doing. That isn’t to say that we aren’t to feel affection for other disciples—we can rejoice when we do—but affection, that warm regard for a brother or sister, is not required for us to do for others what they need in order to be loved. We are to act in love whether or not we feel it.
It is that quality of loving intentionally and practically that makes fellowship evident. Such outward expressions of love make Christ visible. “All that Jesus began to do and teach while he was with us” (Acts 1) are to be continued by his body, the church, as she loves intentionally, practically and visibly like he did.
Furthermore, the body matures in that environment. When Jesus prayed that his followers would be one and perfected in unity (John 17) he was praying that the conviction of unity (call it a covenant) would cause his disciples to grow as they bumped up against one another and smoothed their rough edges. People get good at togetherness and grow in grace by refusing to abandon a relationship when things get hard.
That is why it is so important to choose our comrades in faith wisely and well. Moreover, if we expect to love intentionally, practically and visibly, and be loved in the same way, it will be in a “one another fellowship” where the members* are known—we call it, “a church of the heart”. This is the heart of fellowship. It is choosing to live in a community that is small enough so its members are not lost to each other, or so distantly known that they aren’t challenged in their love. That isn’t to say that in larger churches people cannot know and be known, only that in such congregations it is easier to avoid the hard work of loving intentionally, especially when we find certain people irritating. As I am fond of saying, in a house church you can run but you cannot hide. In a larger congregation it’s easy enough to hide.
When considering our fellowship in Christ, the question is not, “where do I go to church?” but, “with whom has God directed me to BE the church?” It is an important and fearful question. Jesus command is for me to love my group as he had loved his group. That means sacrifice. It means finding a gathering of people among whom I can lay down—lay down my life. That is fellowship in the finest sense of the word.
* By membership, we don’t mean a signature on a church document or the completion of some catechism. We mean membership one of another, to be known deeply and transparently; to be entrusted into the world of another follower of the Jesus Way.
“He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul.”
As I reflect on the relationship I have with The Lord, living into a life where He is my Shepherd, I begin to learn that He has a plan for my well-being. In my humanness, entrusted with free will, I must be retrained in harnessing such a potent gift, and learn how to be lead. If I don’t learn to follow, I will wander like Israel in the wilderness. If I don’t learn to trust Him, fear will motivate my choices and determine my path. If I don’t learn that He is good, I will determine a good of my own choosing, and follow in Eve’s futile example.
After 42 years of walking with Him, I see how He has led me on an incredible journey. Often, a promise is offered to my heart, and a choice emerges that sets His will opposite from my own.
I once had a staff position that I loved at a large inner city church. One day, The Lord asked me to resign from that position. He said, “If you give up what you are satisfied with….I will give you what you are hungry for.” He has been in the process of making me lie down in green pastures ever since.
Dan and I are house sitting this week on some property entirely different than our own. We live in the core of the city of Portland…a few miles from the airport…..a short distance from train tracks and a freeway, and blocks from a busy street. We have learned to live with the activity and the noise. But this week, we have come aside to a place where our hearts can be stilled, our ears can hear Him in the silence, and our hope is fixed on Him. He restores our soul.
One of the most familiar phrases in all of scripture is the line, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” It has been uttered on the battlefield through lips rehearsing what they remembered from their mother’s lap. It has been read over the grave as a loved one is laid to rest. It is memorized in the early years of Sunday school. Somehow this song written by David brings even the unbeliever some sort of comfort. Why does this image capture our hearts?
Whether we recognize it or not, we are a stubbornly, independent people. We are raised with the image of the solitary, rugged individual hero, who can triumph in almost every situation. We hold up the image of a super mom who can be all things to all people all of the time, buying organic, cooking gourmet, fashionably fit, tan, and cute at the end of the day. But our heart longs for One who is higher than ourselves, and knows us better than we can even imagine.
This first verse tells me I belong. I have someone who has chosen me, and has identified Himself as the responsible party. Because David knew who he was for the sake of his sheep, He had a good grasp of what it would mean to be carried in the Great Shepherds’ arms. Is this the reason he could say, “I shall not want”? Because he knew his own heart concerning the well-being of his flock, could he grasp the nature of His Abba’s loving kindnesses?
If you find your heart longing for a greater Someone than yourself, in this hour, entrust yourself to the Lamb who leads you to the Shepherd who is willing to carry you.
The forgotten lesson of Bonhoeffer is … that we should strive to be a church that wouldn’t need him! I worry that people will either look for the next Bonheoffer or try to be the next Bonhoeffer in some heroic protest, rather than entering the more humble protests of daily life. I worry that people will think that large gestures of protest are the way to change the world, rather than entering on the difficult daily path of ordinary resistance. You see, Bonhoeffer had to be Bonhoeffer because the national church in Germany failed to be the church at all.
This is the forgotten lesson of Bonhoeffer: The Church in Germany had failed!
Personally, I would be delighted if there were a life after death, especially if it permitted me to continue to learn about this world and others, if it gave me a chance to discover how history turns out.
I can respect Dr. Sagan for his candor. He acknowledges a deep down, often ignored yearning for the eternal. Having seen the movie made from his novel, Contact, with Jodie Foster, I detect a yearning for heaven and a struggle with knowing what seems unknowable. While it is not Academy Award winning stuff, it has something to say about the inscrutability of faith.
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