The following is a message I shared in a Drury University chapel service this week. This semester, the theme many of the speakers are exploring is “One Another.” And for anyone reading this who has taken a homiletics class (or four), yes, I realize this message isn’t “balanced” in that it’s extremely heavy on application. On the other end of the spectrum, I hate that I ended up with three points! (I typically go for a more story-like structure that takes you from point A to point B.) Moral of the story: Say the thing God wants you to say through whatever structure communicates it best!
There’s a phrase we often use when we talk about what being a Christian is: “personal relationship with Jesus.” But what does that really mean?
It means we can know Jesus—not just know about Jesus, but we can know Him—personally. We don’t need someone to mediate for us. He’s not distant. He is the God who is with us. One of Jesus’ last words to the disciples before He ascended to Heaven is, “Behold, I am with you, even to the end of the age.” He’s not just with us in an ethereal sense; we have the freedom to approach Him and talk to Him whenever we want. The idea that we can have a personal relationship with God is a distinctive of Christianity.
The problem with the phrase, “personal relationship with Jesus,” is that we live in an individualist and consumerist culture. And it becomes easy for us to look at our personal relationship with Jesus with me-centered eyes.
Being a follower of Jesus is bigger than “me and Jesus.” Being a follower of Jesus means being part of something bigger than ourselves.
So here are a couple questions I’d like you to consider: Do people know you have a personal relationship with Jesus? And if they do, how do they know?
- Because you told them you’re a Christian?
- Because you post Christian things on social media?
- Because you go to church or pray before you eat a meal?
- Or because when they think of you, they think of someone who loves well?
In John 13:34-35, Jesus said:
I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
In Matthew 22: 35-40, Jesus articulated the two greatest commandments:
…an expert in the law, asked a question to test him: “Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?”
He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”
Isn’t it interesting that these two commands that all of God’s other commands depend on are both relational and social?
In Matthew 5:43-45, Jesus went so far as to say:
You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
Later, in Galatians 5:22, Paul described the fruit of the Spirit—one fruit with nine qualities. And what’s the first quality of the fruit of the Spirit? Love.
What marks us as Christians isn’t our piety, how often we go to church, or even our spiritual disciplines. Those things are important and have their place, but they’re not what marks us as Christians. The mark of being a follower of Jesus is love.
And as followers of Jesus, love is the thing out of which everything we do flows.
So I want to spend the rest of this time exploring this question: What does loving one another look like?
This isn’t going to be exhaustive, but I hope to give you a glimpse of what loving one another can look like and to challenge you to love others more deeply.
Loving one another looks like empathy and presence.
The Bible uses a lot of metaphors to describe the Church and one of them is the concept of family. When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He taught them to open with the words, “Our Father.” He could have taught them to say, “My Father,” but a personal relationship with God isn’t just, “Me and God.” Like I said earlier, having a personal relationship with God means that we can know God personally, but it means more than that. It means that we are members of God’s family.
This past month, my husband and I were in Alabama to mourn the loss of my father-in-law. Because Alabama is farther along in the vaccine rollout, we were able to hold a service that people were actually able to attend. And it was beautiful to see what kind of people came.
There were people who lived locally whom my mother-in-law hadn’t seen in decades—people who had worked with my father-in-law at the first company he worked at after college. They showed their love just by being there.
And then there was one of my husband’s cousins. To give you some context, my father-in-law was one of twelve, so my husband has a LOT of cousins! We’ve been married for almost 18 years and I still can’t keep them all straight. In fact, there are cousins I haven’t even met yet! Of the cousins my husband actually has a relationship with, there were a number of them we expected to see because they live in the area. But there were a couple that came that were a complete surprise because they had to travel (in a pandemic!) to be there. As we spoke with one of them, he told us what compelled him to make the trip to be there: “These are the cousins I know.” I met this same cousin when Daniel and I got married. He had to travel a far distance to come to that, too. So he has both celebrated with us and mourned with us.
Loving one another means seeing people where they’re at and choosing to be with them, rejoicing with them when they rejoice and mourning with them when they mourn. Loving one another looks like empathy and presence.
Loving one another looks like living for something bigger than ourselves.
How do we do that? Through our choices.
The choices we make aren’t just about us. There’s no, “I’m making this choice for me.” Our choices impact those around us.
Are there choices we make that don’t matter? Sure! A few weeks ago I bought a purse and had to choose whether I wanted the brown one or the black one. Neither one of those choices make a difference in how well I love.
Now I will say, there was another purse I’d been eyeing for months—stay with me here—but it was way out of my budget. So if I would have bought that other purse, it would have meant less money in the bank. The purse I ended up buying was almost exactly the same as the one I was eyeing except it was a different color and it was 75% off, so I could make it work within our budget. And why does it matter that I made a choice to work within our budget? Because I’ve been wanting to live more generously. And staying within our budget gives us more room to be generous and to love others better.
A completely unspiritual choice can open up possibilities for spiritual things!
Our choices—even some that we think don’t really matter—impact those around us.
Last Friday, I got my second vaccine shot. As I was getting it, I started tearing up and said to the nurse, “I’m getting emotional!” And she said, “That’s understandable! You’ve never lived through anything like this before.” And then she said something that made me tear up even more: “Just think about the difference you’re making!”
As we’ve navigated the pandemic over the past year, we’ve seen a lot of opinions about wearing masks, whether or not we should get the vaccine, and a gajillion other things. I’m not here to make a partisan argument. Science is important. The Constitution is important. And it’s okay if we have convictions about those things. It’s okay for science or the Constitution to be a reason why you advocate for something. But as Christians, the thing that should be our primary, core motivation, the motivation that trumps all others, the thing that most compels our actions…is love.
You see, if we advocate for science but without love, or if we advocate for the Constitution but without love, we can cause a lot of destruction.
If you study history, it doesn’t take long to see ways that both science and the Constitution have produced some bad fruit and have been used (and at times, manipulated) to justify some awful things, from slavery to the use of atomic bombs.
But when our core motivation is love:
- instead of destruction, we create;
- instead of despair, we bring hope;
- and in a world that is broken, we bring healing.
Loving one another looks like empathy and presence. It looks like living for something bigger than ourselves. And…
Loving one another looks like allowing God to transform us when it’s hard to love.
Our world is divided. And one of the things that has broken my heart over the past year is to see all the ways that the Church is divided, too.
There’s so much fear, anger, and hate. And I’m gonna to be honest: as a woman of color, it has been a struggle to love. People I disagree with who aren’t Christian? I can love them—easy. But Christians who post racist or misogynistic things on social media, people who marginalize me within Christian spaces and force me to defend the dignity and worth of myself and others who look like me, people for whom I think, “They’re Christians! They should know better and do better!” Not easy.
I don’t know who you struggle to love, but know that your struggle doesn’t make you a bad Christian—it makes you human. Opening our hearts to love people also means opening our hearts to be hurt by people. And unfortunately, some people do a lot of damage and never repent, never try to be better, never try to fix what they broke, never even say sorry.
So what do we do about people who are hard to love? We can’t will ourselves to love better! We can’t love our enemies or the people who’ve hurt us without God’s help.
Start by bringing your honest, unfiltered feelings to God. Don’t hold anything back from Him. If you want to learn how to do that, the Psalms are a great place to start. There’s no human emotion that isn’t expressed somewhere in the pages of the Psalms. God gave space for celebration, joy, and hopefulness. But He also gave space for lament, sadness, discouragement, depression, anger. And if God gave space for those emotions in the Bible, we can know that God gives space for those emotions in us as well. Our emotions—even the dark ones we try to hide from other people—are safe with God. Sometimes we think, “I don’t want to have this emotion, so I’m going to ignore it and pretend it’s not there.” But there’s a better way. You don’t have to hide those things from God.
When you give God access to those parts of yourself, you also give space for Him to heal and transform you—not with a neat and tidy bandaid, but with true healing. And when we experience God’s healing and transformation, we can truly love.
So what does this look like? We can pray, “God, I really wish this person or these people would [insert all the dark stuff you don’t want to wish on them but deep down you really do].” And feel safe in the knowledge that God won’t be surprised by any of those thoughts or feelings because He already knows you have them! It’s not about telling God so He can see them. It’s about telling God so you can give Him access to every single part of your heart. And when you’ve laid it all before God, ask Him to do His work in and through those painful thoughts and emotions.
As you pray for people who are hard to love, you might need to start by praying for God to help you to be able to pray for them!
And then over time, you can try praying for God to change their heart—for them to see the harm they’ve caused and to come to a place of repentance. And maybe one day, you can even come to a place where you can pray for their well-being and flourishing wherever they are.
And even if they never change, you want God to have access to heal and transform the part of your heart that was hurt by them—not to excuse what they’ve done, but so the hurt they caused doesn’t hold you back from being able to love others and to also be able to receive love from others.
Because love is our purpose and calling as followers of Jesus. It’s even our birthright as children of God because we’re not just meant to give it but to also receive it.
Let’s love one another with empathy and presence.
Let’s love one another by living for something bigger than ourselves.
And let’s even allow God to transform us when it’s hard to love.