In the Gospel of John we have the poignant final words and prayers of Jesus regarding His present and future disciples before he went to the cross. Between John 13 and John 17, Jesus poured out His heart. It is considered by many to be among the most moving sections of the New Testament.
What occupied Jesus the moments before His atoning death for the sins of the world?
Not surprisingly, He was concerned that the world would recognize His gift. And how would that happen? Christ’s torrent of prayer and pleading begins and ends with a passionate call for unity among those who did and would claim His name. The observable love between those who called themselves His followers was seen by Jesus to be everything.
Jesus said it would be this unity, and this unity alone, that would arrest the world’s attention in such a way as to confirm that He is from the Father.
We often marvel at the growth of the early church, the explosion of faith in Christ in such numbers and speed that in only a blink of history, the Roman Empire had officially turned from paganism to Christianity. We look for formulas and programs, services and processes, strategies and techniques. The simpler truth is that first they shared the gospel like it was gossip over the backyard fence. But what did they subsequently observe in the communal life of the messenger who shared that gossip? As Tertullian notes, the awed pagan reaction to the Christian communal life was, “See how they love one another.”
As is often pointed out, when the Bible speaks about such loving unity, it doesn’t mean uniformity, which is everyone looking and thinking alike. The biblical idea of unity is also not to be confused with unanimity, which is complete agreement about every petty issue across the board – though within individual churches there should be unity of purpose and an agreement on the major issues related to doctrine and mission. By unity the Bible means first and foremost a oneness of heart – a relational unity. Being kind to one another, gracious to one another, forgiving of one another. It is not about assuming the worst, shooting the wounded, or being quick to be suspicious. Biblical unity is about working through conflicts, avoiding slander and gossip, and being generous in spirit. It is giving each other the benefit of the doubt, distributing ample doses of grace in the midst of our sin and imperfection, and demonstrating fierce loyalty.
Such unity matters – so much so that the Bible reserves some of its harshest words of discipline for those who sin against it. “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them,” writes the apostle Paul to Titus (Titus 3:10, NIV).
And in one of the most overlooked passages of Scripture, Paul warns strongly against taking the Lord’s Supper – the sacrament portraying our vertical unity with Christ and then the horizontal unity with others that resulted from it – if you have unresolved relational conflict in your life. So strongly was God’s feeling on this that Scripture tells us that it could result – and indeed has resulted – in the death of those who so violated the sacrament.
This shouldn’t surprise us. As we take of the body of Christ, we are to be the body of Christ. Paul writes:
Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf. (I Corinthians 10:16-17, NIV)
The symbolic act of sharing from one loaf symbolizes the unity of the body of Christ, the church, which has as its source of nourishment the bread of life. The very word companion is from two Latin words, com, which means “with,” and panis, which means “bread.” So the word companion literally means “with bread,” or “breadfellow.” We are companions because we are together through the bread, which is the body of Christ. From this comes Paul’s charge:
In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you….When you come together [in this way] it is not the Lord's Supper you eat. (I Corinthians 11:17-20, NIV)
As Francis Schaeffer pointed out, such love is the mark of the Christian. Not just a feeling of love or an acknowledgment of love, but a demonstration of love. And it is not simply decisive to our faith, but to our witness. As Schaeffer observes, drawing from the biblical witness:
Jesus is giving a right to the world. Upon his authority he gives the world the right to judge whether you and I are born-again Christians on the basis of our observable love toward all Christians.
That’s pretty frightening. Jesus turns to the world and says, “I’ve something to say to you. On the basis of my authority, I give you a right: you may judge whether or not an individual is a Christian on the basis of the love he shows to all Christians.”
Schaeffer was right when he maintains that the world cares little for doctrine. One thing and one thing only, Schaeffer asserts, will confirm the truth of a message to a world that has disavowed the very idea of truth: “The love that true Christians show for each other and not just for their own party.” This is, Schaeffer concluded, the final apologetic. Unloving attitudes and words cause a “stench that the world can smell….Our sharp tongues, the lack of love between us…these are what properly trouble the world.”
The dilemma is that it does not always seem to trouble us, and usually for two reasons: The first is that we simply do not see it as sin. It has become so commonplace, we no longer feel conviction. I recall talking to the president of a leading Christian seminary. He said that soon after his appointment, when he went to his first faculty meeting as president, he couldn’t believe the way the professors were talking to each other and the spirits that were being portrayed. The dialogue was negative, nasty, biting, vitriolic and unloving. Afterward, sensing he was shocked at the interplay, someone said to him, “Don’t worry – that was normal – it’s just the way we talk around here.”
He couldn’t help himself. “Well,” he said, “it sure sounded like sin to me!”
And he was right. It was sin.
The second reason it does not trouble us is this: It is not simply the acceptance of lovelessness that leads to its continued presence but our justification of it. Specifically, the warped theology that is often embraced that says loving actions and attitudes are only warranted when you have nothing provoking you otherwise. It is as if disagreement, disapproval, and disenchantment sanction bad behavior. The bitter blog is justified because; the slanderous attack is warranted because; the angry accusation can be made because. A pastor friend of mine, drawn to it time and again, compared it to the lure of pornography.
And make no mistake.
Like pornography, it doesn’t just sound like sin, or look like sin, or feel like sin.
It is sin.
And it is keeping the message of Christ from being confirmed in the heart and the minds of those we are charged to reach.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Baker).
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.
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