Some of the biggest things God has to teach will come through folks you don’t click with.
Behind every celebrity there’s some kind of following. The old school term for it was “fan club.” You would send off five bucks and then get a newsletter in the mail telling you where your favorite celebrity was going to be performing next, what they were doing, and what kind of hair gel they were using. You’d also get a little round button that said, “I (heart) David Cassidy” or Donny Osmond, or other names most of you have never heard of. I had older female relatives who wallpapered their bedrooms with posters of these teen idols. I had trouble wrapping my nine-year-old brain around how certain these girls were that they were going to marry these guys. They were totally smitten with them, making me wonder how they could love someone they’d never even met.
But it’s actually easy to love people you don’t know. Consider some of the folks on social media who give the impression that they love everybody. They love all nationalities, and all races, and wish I could stop them and ask, “How many of these “everybodys” do you actually know? Let’s talk about some of the relationships you have with people you already know—your parents, your spouse, your siblings, your next-door neighbors, the people you’re interacting with on social media. Are they feeling your love?”
It’s easy to love people you don’t know, but it’s hard to love people you know.
Lately, we’ve been talking about internal dynamics of church life, so we can remain healthy. One of the biggest factors of importance to the faith community is loving the people you know. You might ask, “What about truth?” Yet biblical love doesn’t separate love and truth. It keeps them together. That’s why in Ephesians, Paul advised the believers to speak the truth in love (c.f. 4:15).
A congregation that forgets the importance of love becomes little more than a group of people and their “besties.” Think about it. You can get to know everyone in a church in about four months. Of course I’m not referring to gigantic churches. About half the churches in the United States are under seventy-five people, so it doesn’t take long in a typical church to at least make observations about who is funny, or smart, loud, or quiet. And if you hang around long enough, you’ll learn how people spend their money, what is their level of education, the condition of their spiritual life, and how they raise their children.
Then you’ll start picking the ones you want. Of course you’ll justify it by saying, I only have room for these, but if you’re honest, you’d admit to not having an interest in those other people. Worse, circumstances like Covid keep us from casually being with everyone now, so we have difficulty knowing what avoidance is valid, from what is sinful.
We’ll need the New Testament to sort through these issues, and In fact, it commands us to love three categories of people. The first is our enemies. This one requires a real learning curve, because some people out there have developed negative vibes about you, and they’d love to run the bus over you. We have to learn how to love them anyway. The second category of people are mentioned in the second great commandment—your neighbors. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The word neighbor indicates proximity, either spatial, or emotional. We live next door to people, work in the cubicle adjacent to them, sit in class next to them. We also have an emotional proximity with some neighbors even if they live a thousand miles away. That’s why we text, email, IM, or call them.
The third category of people is “one another.” When Jesus said to “Love one another,” He spoke to a defined audience, His disciples. That is the category we’ll look at now, by going to 1 John chapter 3:
14 We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.
John writes that We know. He obviously assumes he’s speaking to a particular group of people who have experienced a certain phenomenon, that of passing out of spiritual death into spiritual life.
How can we know we have had such an experience? According to John, we can know because we love the brothers. “Brother” is a very specific word here. It includes both brothers and sisters, and is intended to be a term related to family, but not the kind of family based upon race, flesh and blood, and biological life. It is a brotherhood based on eternal life, the spiritual life a man or a woman receives the moment they believe in Jesus Christ. And when we approach this brotherhood, we recognize that life in others, and love it. We love all who possess it. Eternal life is not only precious in ourselves, but others, as well.
In fact, this spiritual experience of life and love is ongoing within the church. John is so sure of it, he adds that “whoever does not love abides in death.” A Christian might say, “I’m not feeling it for this other believer,” or, “We just don’t click,” or whatever rationale we use to justify our not loving them. But John would simply say, “You’re abiding in spiritual death.”
What does this love look like? A couple of verses later, in verse 16, we’re told that “by this we know love, that he [Christ] laid down his life for us.” By looking at the cross of Jesus, we know love. Without the cross we wouldn’t even know what love is. We have to look away from ourselves to know what it actually looks like. Otherwise, we’ll continue to define love like the rest of the world. We’ll think of it as mindlessly affirming bizarre behavior, or by granting sentimental indulgences.
But Christ went to the cross because He valued God’s righteousness. He extolled the will of God. Because He treasured the blighted image of God within us sinners, He voluntarily laid down his life. That is an upright, different love than the cliched, preference-based variety so prevalent in religious groups. John expects the sight of it to motivate us: “We ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.”
Let’s get practical. These “brothers” are believers you know. First John 4:20 tells us, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” This is not a theoretical brother who lives somewhere on the other side of the world. It is a brother or sister whom you see, and you probably see on a regular basis.
Paul similarly speaks of this spiritual and practical reality in First Thessalonians chapter 4.
9 Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, 10 for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more,
In His own sublime way, God taught the Thessalonians about love in a concrete framework. They didn’t simply love the brothers all over the world, but throughout Macedonia, someplace reasonably local. Macedonia, after all, contained brothers they could “see.”
Perhaps we should think about the composition of a church as something divinely arranged, so God could more effectively teach us how to love one another. With so many different sorts of people, the lessons become intense. There is always room for improvement. Even as Paul writes, “we urge you Brothers to do this more and more.”
I haven’t always been successful in this area. Early in our church life, due to my job, my wife and I were transferred to a lot of places. For a while, wherever we began to pursue Church involvement, we were either the youngest in attendance, or the oldest, or we were the only English-speaking, or we were the only white folks. I got used to being the odd man out. You can imagine when I got my first church buddy. For a change I had something in common with someone other than faith, which in a way felt good. Finally, I had somebody that could understand my generation, and my sense of humor.
I remember one time hanging around with my pal in the church lobby, joking and talking. Then George (I’ll call him that) shuffled up to us. I knew George. I saw him every Sunday at church and then sometimes in between at smaller functions.
Let me be blunt by saying, I wasn’t that interested in George. He was twenty-five years older than me and my buddy. He was the kind of guy whose shirttail was always coming out of the back of his pants. He was heavy, and his glasses were held together with masking tape. When he approached, I snickered behind my hand. But it wasn’t the good-natured ribbing that people give each other when they love each other and know they’re weird. No, this was the kind where I felt like saying, Brother, you don’t fit in with us. Get lost.
Looking back on it, I was acting according to plain old fallen human nature. It seems we’re always trying to create a smaller circle of fellowship than the New Testament brotherhood. There’s nothing at all wrong with having a spiritual companion, a friendship bonded through years of trials and celebrations. We see that dynamic in the Bible. But when it runs off the rails into selfish exclusivity, you become small. And ugly.
I’d like to pass on to you what I learned. When it comes to relationships, apply the happiness/peace rule. When I encounter a brother or sister, believers that I see, I always pay attention to whether I am happy and peaceful when I see them. Now sometimes I’m in a bad mood, which has nothing to do with them. But when that mood becomes a pattern always toward this one or that one, and I catch myself avoiding them, and hoping we don’t interact, I know there’s something I have allowed to develop within me that’s unhealthy.
Challenge this attitude, don’t accept it. Unless there’s some kind of offense that needs to be resolved, take your feelings (or lack of them) to God and nail them with confession. Lord I don’t like that person. I have opinions about him/her. My heart is small.
Own your sin, don’t excuse it. Of course the blood of Jesus will cleanse you. You might also want to affirm God’s wisdom in placing you in that congregation. Lord, I’m supposed to learn something here! I’m open. The Holy Spirit will bring to your heart the reality of the cross of Jesus, that same cross by which we know love.
That is God’s classroom.