One of the characteristics of religious cults is their tendency to preach what C.S. Lewis called "Christianity And." "Christians lose their effectiveness", he asserts, "when they substitute for the faith itself some fashion with a Christian coloring." (Screwtape Letters, page 25) As long as people's attention is focused on the supplement, they lose sight of Christianity. This is how cults get so far off the mark.
However, it is not just religious cults that do this. Many Christians who call themselves "orthodox" or "Bible-believing" have allowed themselves to become so involved in secondary issues that they neglect the most basic principles of the faith. And it's not just individuals who do this; entire churches and even entire denominations can succumb to this unbalanced approach to Christian living.
How do we see this expressed in our society? There are those who preach Christianity and Capitalism, Christianity and Socialism, Christianity and Social Action, Christianity and Prophecy, Christianity and Prosperity, Christianity and Pro-Life Movement, Christianity and Gun-Control, Christianity and the Republican Platform, Christianity and the 12 Step Movement...the list goes on and on. Not all of these are bad, but when any "cause" replaces our commitment to the Gospel, we become ineffective in fulfilling our mission of sharing the Gospel.
Recently there was a letter in a Christian periodical criticizing Billy Graham for his lack of "allegiance" to the Pro-Life Movement. Billy Graham is, of course, Pro-Life - but the writer of the letter questioned Graham's integrity and his sincerity because he is not, in that writer's opinion, sufficiently outspoken on the subject. This illustrates the danger of "Christianity And." I, too, am pro-life, but we need to remember that the mark of the Christian or the measure of a man's ministry cannot be determined by his solidarity to any single cause.
So what is the mark that distinguishes Jesus' disciples? Jesus told us. It is not political, it's not sociological, and it's not theological. It crosses doctrinal and denominational boundaries. It is a principle as fundamentally sound as the virgin birth, and even more radical than preterist theology. The mark of His disciples is, according Jesus, LOVE:
John 13:34-35 (NKJV) "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."
In this text Jesus' ministry is coming to a close. It is the night before His death, and He is spending these last hours with his disciples to prepare them for His departure.
With Judas gone, Jesus gives to the eleven remaining disciples a valedictory address covered in John 13:31 thru 16:33. This is the last commission Jesus gave before he went to the cross.
In these last words the night before His death we find that Jesus gives the marks and virtues that should characterize all of His own true disciples after He leaves. As long as Jesus was in the world, He personally had a profound impact and witness. But with His departure the witness becomes dependent upon the love of His disciples.
The problem today is that many Christians are not disciples, they have no witness and no impact on the world. We are all called to be disciples, and Jesus said his disciples would be identified by their love:
John 13:35 (NKJV) "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."
We talked last week about "Practicing the presence of God." Have you been working on that? We saw that what Brother Lawrence calls "practicing the presence" of God, the Bible calls "Abiding in Christ". All believers are called to "abide" in Him, to daily practice His presence. How do we do this? If we are going to abide in Christ, we need to live as he lived according to:
1 John 2:6 (NKJV) He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked.
How did Christ walk? He walked in love.
John 13:1 (NKJV) Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.
To love "to the end" literally means: "to the fullest extent". Jesus did this by dying in our place.
Ephesians 5:25 (NKJV) Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her,
It is this that makes Christianity unique. Think about it. What other religion is based on the founder's infinite love for His followers - a love so extreme that he would give His life for them? Can this be said about Islam, or any of the eastern religions? And Jesus didn't die for His followers only - He died for all who would believe in Him, including those who hadn't yet heard of Him, those who ignored Him, those who were apathetic, those who despised Him, and those who killed Him:
Romans 5:8 (NKJV) But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Love is the most basic tenet of the Christian faith. In John 13:34-35 Jesus told us emphatically that we are to love one another. The problem with passages like this one is they require no interpretation - only application. You can't argue about "Love one another." Denominations differ in their opinions about baptism, communion, eternal security, music, whether or not we should go to confession, whether or not church members can vote, and on and on - but this is one subject on which we cannot disagree. Jesus didn't give us an opportunity to. He told us in plain, simple language that we are to love one another. Today we're going to look at three characteristics of this love that Jesus commands that we should have for one another. First of all:
1. LOVE IS NOT AN OPTION, IT IS A REQUIREMENT.
John 13:34 (NKJV) "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.
This is not a suggestion. You cannot live the Christian life without a commitment to loving other people. Some Christians place an emphasis on prophecy, some place an emphasis on spiritual gifts, some place an emphasis on social issues - but the core curriculum for the Christian life is to love one another. It doesn't matter how much we know, or how much we do. If we cannot pass this test, Paul said we're "nothing":
1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (NKJV) Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
The Greek text at the end of verse 2 does not say that he is nobody, that would be strong. But the Greek text says he is nothing, a zero before God.
Write down five zero's and then add them up. What do you get? Zero! Life minus love equals zero. The loveless person produces nothing, is nothing, and gains nothing. If we are going to be faithful Christians, we can't pick and choose who we're going to love, and we can't let love become a secondary issue. Love is more than just an option, it is the entry-level requirement to discipleship. Jesus said, "A new command I give you: Love one another."
Let's take a minute and let that sink in. Love - it's the most significant attribute Christians can offer the world. We need to love one another. Now, I'm not quoting a tweed-wearing, pipe-smoking, liberal theologian; I'm quoting Jesus. He said that they'll know we are His disciples by our love. To not be a loving person is not some small character flaw, it is to break the greatest commandment, it is to not love God. So, we must understand that love is a requirement. Secondly, Jesus teaches:
2. LOVE IS NOT AN ABSTRACT IDEA, IT IS A MATTER OF FOLLOWING HIS EXAMPLE.
Jesus didn't talk vague, idealistic pie-in-the-sky nonsense. He taught practical Christian living. And not only did Jesus tell us how to live, He showed us how to live, and He challenged us to follow the example of His love for us. Let's look at several things that we see clearly about Jesus' love.
His love is sacrificial.
The ultimate act of sacrifice was shown to us by Christ. He came into the world, he lived a perfect life. He knew the only way he could bridge the gap between sinful humanity and a holy God was to lay down his life and die on the cross for our sins. That is what he did. He willingly laid down his life so that we could have a personal relationship with God. I don't know why he would do that for me, but he did. I will never understand such love - to die for one so unlovely. But that is what Christ has done. Jesus was willing to lay down His life for us. In the same way, we must be willing to lay down our lives, not only for Him, but for His people. And he is our example of what love is. John said:
1 John 3:16 (NKJV) By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.
Listen believer, we know God loves us because he laid down His life for us. And this type of sacrifice should characterize our love for one another.
A pastor tells this story:
I have a friend who coaches Little League. His team rarely wins - in fact, this season they won only two games. There is no ego wrapped up in his coaching responsibilities; he does it because he loves the kids who play on his team. Many of them come from disadvantaged homes; he is the only positive male role model some will ever have. He coaches little league for the opportunity to minister to kids and their parents. This summer he had the chance to go to a job-related conference in Hawaii, but the trip would have caused him to miss 3 games, so he turned it down. I sat in the stands one evening, watching his team get beat by more than 10 runs, and I thought to myself, "I'm probably the only one here who knows he could be sitting on the beach right now." When I said something to him about it after the game, he shrugged it off. It was obvious he hadn't given it a second thought. The sacrifice was worth it. He loves the boys and girls who play on his team, and he considered it more important to be there with them.
Love is an act of sacrifice. Anytime you have the opportunity to sacrifice for someone, you have the opportunity to show love.
Let's get personal for a minute, what do you sacrifice for others? The most important thing you can sacrifice for someone is your time. John said that we should lay down our lives for our brothers, but you and I both know it is highly unlikely that you will be called upon to give your life for someone this week. However, I can guarantee that you will be called upon to give your time for someone this week. Time that you would rather spend reading. Time that you would rather spend relaxing. Time that you would rather spend watching TV. Time that you would rather spend on yourself. You will have the opportunity to sacrifice a little part of your life this week - a little portion of your time - for someone else. It doesn't matter how you feel about it, it only matters what you do about it. If you sacrifice your life - your time - for someone else, you are showing them love.
Country singer Clint Black sings a song along these lines. One verse says, "Love isn't something that we're in, It's something that we do." Another verse says, "Love isn't just the words we said, It's something that we do." I don't know where the songwriter got his inspiration, but it could have come from the Bible.
It's not enough to say you have feelings of love for the people in your life, the question is: Are you willing to show it? Are you willing to sacrifice for them? Love is something you do. You "do" love by sacrificing for others.
Jimmy Carter says in his autobiographic work, Living Faith, "Love is something you do more often than it is something you feel all on your own." Carter writes, "What was the main thrust of Christ's ministry? Did he just sit under a fig tree telling stories, or stand on a mountain explaining his theology? No. His ministry was tangible proof of his love for everyone ... Christ wants us today to follow his example by expanding the meaning of forgiveness, service, and love - all in a practical way."
With his work through the Carter Center in Atlanta and for Habitat for Humanity all over the world, Jimmy Carter is a living reminder that Christian faith is perhaps best described more as a verb than a noun. The kind of love Jesus called for is love in action. As Carter's Baptist preacher friend from Brooklyn, New York taught him, "You only have to have two loves in your life - for God, and for the person in front of you at any particular time." Jesus' mandate is unmistakable. Make love tangible.
Not only is Jesus' love sacrificial, His love is merciful. Even though He is perfect, He knows that we are not. When we fail, He is faithful to forgive us our sins, even though we don't deserve His mercy. Therefore, we must be willing to forgive others even when we don't think they deserve it:
Ephesians 4:32 (NKJV) And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you.
C.S. Lewis said, "He loved us not because we were lovable, but because He is Love."
Jesus' love was also unconditional. Jesus never put conditions on His love for us. He said unequivocally, "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you" (John 15:9). There is nothing we can do to change that love. We are commanded to love others in the very same way.
We've got to get past the idea that love is a feeling. There are people in our lives that we have strong feelings for, and we call those feelings "love." But without corresponding actions, those feelings mean very little. You say you have feelings of love for people? Show me a feeling. What does a feeling look like? John tells us that when it comes to expressing love, feelings and words aren't enough, we must show our love in action:
1 John 3:18 (NKJV) My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.
A woman that works at a center for abused women said the comment she hears again and again from women who decide to go back home to an abusive situation is: "Deep down inside I know he really loves me." I guess what they mean is that deep down inside this abusive person has some kind of feelings for them. But their relationship can't be called love, because love doesn't express itself through abuse. You can't say you love someone you constantly mistreat. You can't say you love someone you constantly disregard, or ignore, or belittle, or demean. Whether or not you love someone is determined by how you treat them. Love isn't a feeling, it's something you do. It's treating someone with kindness. It's showing them respect. It's patting them on the back. It's giving them a smile. It's offering your hand when they need it.
Throughout the 13th, 14th, and 15th chapters of John, Jesus reminds us of His great love toward us, and He also challenges us to show our love for Him through obedience:
John 14:15 (NKJV) "If you love Me, keep My commandments.
Love is not only the entry-level requirement for discipleship, it is also the foundation for spiritual growth. Paul taught the Corinthians that life minus love equals zero.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who was executed by Hitler during World War II. Years after his death, one of his theology students recalled the last classroom session with his teacher. Bonhoeffer, knowing his arrest was imminent, asked his students a question that took them by surprise: He asked them if they loved Jesus. The student said he was surprised at the question because religious academicians traditionally don't place much emphasis on personal devotion. They love to discuss abstract philosophical concepts; they love to split ecclesiastical hairs over the nature of the Trinity; they love to debate the fine points of systematic theology - but seldom do they talk about personal devotion. Bonhoeffer, in his final classroom session, broke through that barrier with his students, reminding them that Christian discipleship is really love in action.
The next thing Jesus tells us about love is:
3. LOVE IS NOT INVISIBLE; IT TELLS THE WORLD WHO WE ARE.
John 13:35 (NKJV) "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."
It was said of the early Christians that their impact on society was due to their profound love for one another. Jesus said that this is how the world will recognize us as being His followers - because of our love for one another.
We make the mistake of thinking that love is an emotion. The truth is, love is an action. It does us no good to "feel" lovingly towards anyone - our children, our spouse, our neighbor, our enemy - if we don't follow through with loving actions.
Forest Gump's mother kept telling him "Stupid is as stupid does." In the same way, the Bible teaches us that "Love is as Love does." The world will have no way of knowing about the love of God if they cannot see His love expressed in the lives of His people. There is an old saying that contains a great deal of truth: "The world will not care how much we know until they know how much we care."
Bill Wilson is a pastor who lives in hell - Hell's Kitchen, that is. It is the meanest, most dangerous part of New York City. Bill and others have chosen to live and work there in the name of love. They understand, share, and fulfill Jesus' mandate. The church operates the largest bus ministry in the country in order to reach children with the gospel. After being converted, one Puerto Rican woman, named Rosa, wanted to get involved in Christian service. She didn't speak a word of English. Through an interpreter, she pleaded with Bill, "I want to do something for God, please." "I don't know what you can do," he said. "Please, just let me do something for God" Rosa persisted. "Okay, I'll put you on a bus. Ride a different bus every week and just love the kids." That's exactly what Rosa did. That's how she fulfilled Jesus' mandate in her own way-as she had opportunity. In all, she rode 50 different church buses. She would find the saddest looking kid on the bus, sit down, put him or her on her knee, and whisper the only words in English she knew, "I love you and Jesus loves you." After several months, she became particularly attached to one little boy. Because of him, she decided to ride just that one bus so she could be with him on the way to Sunday School. The little boy went to Sunday School every week with his sister, but he never said a word. All the way there, Rosa whispered over and over again, "I love you and Jesus loves you." The little boy never responded. One day, the bus stopped to let the little boy off at his stop. Before he got off-to Rosa's amazement-he hugged her and stammered, "I - I love you too." That was at 2:30 p.m. At 6:30 p.m. the same day, the little boy's body was found stuffed into a garbage bag under the fire escape. His mother had beaten him to death. The story would be unbearably tragic except for the fact that that boy knew that someone loved him. He knew for sure that he was loved by at least two people - Jesus and Rosa.
Regardless of who we are or where we live-Jesus' mandate is clear. He calls us to be partners with him in making love tangible in our corner of the world-just like Rosa does in Hell's Kitchen. As the popular Christian song says, "They'll know we are Christians by our love." It's more than a feeling. It's an action. It's a verb rather than a noun. It's Jesus' parting instruction. It's his unmistakable mandate. He wants it to become our mission. It can become our passion if we let it.
Jesus makes it clear that being a disciple is more than speaking pious platitudes. It is more than a feeling or an experience. It is-when you get down to the bottom line-an unmistakable mandate Jesus leaves us as his legacy. He says, "Love each other as I have loved you." In other words, be my partner in making love tangible. Just do what you can do. That's how you fulfill Jesus' mandate. If you find yourself saying, like Rosa, "I want to do something for God" but don't know how-just focus on doing what you can with who you are, where you are, and with what you have-to make love tangible in the world. If you do that as Jesus' partner, you will be following his instructions and fulfilling his unmistakable mandate.
The love that Jesus commands us to have for one another is an unconditional, sacrificial love that reflects His love for us. The love that Jesus commands us to have for one another is a love so real, so true, so strong that the world cannot deny its existence, and they cannot deny its Source.
Tertulllian said, "The heathen are wont to exclaim with wonder, 'See how these Christians love one another and how they are ready to die for one another!'" Does the world say this of us today? Does our love identify us as Christ's disciples?
Ask yourself the question, "Am I growing in love?" Looking back over a year, am I easier to live with now? Am I able to handle people more graciously, more courteously? Am I more compassionate, more patient?" These are the measurements of life. This is why we were given life, that we might learn how to act in love. Nothing else can be substituted for it. There is no use holding up any other quality we possess if we lack this one. It is the paramount goal of every human life, and we do well to measure ourselves by it.