By Brad Watson
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:34-35
In John 13-17, the Apostle paints the most beautiful picture of a missional community meal. Jesus serves and cleans His disciples’ feet to show that they are His friends and not His servants. He prays for His disciples and the impact they will make on the world. The whole occasion is filled with God’s love for this random band of brothers and the world they are sent to love.
In this passage, Jesus offers the clearest picture of a community centered on Him. I wish every missional community meal in my home was like this. The disciples were together because Christ had interrupted their lives. The benchmark for acceptance into this community was allowing Jesus to wash and serve each of them. They were free to ask questions and to err; however, they were graciously turned towards God, His love, and His purpose in this world.
The command Jesus gives in this moment must not be ignored: love one-another. Each of them loved Jesus and were loved by Jesus. But that night there were questions hanging in the air: Would that love for and from Jesus change the way they loved each other? Would they become a unified family in Christ? Or, would they settle for isolated expressions of faith? These same commands and questions hang over our communities. So ask yourself, Will the love that each of you have received from Christ spill over into love for one-another?
Jesus doesn’t allow for an ambiguous definition of love. He makes clear what it means to love one-another: “There is not greater love than this, than to give one’s life for a friend” (Jn. 15:13). We must love one-another with the same kind of love God demonstrated to us: one rooted in sacrificial service. Jesus makes clear this is the only way to be His disciple. “This is how everyone will know you are my disciples” (Jn. 13:35). The mark of being a follower of Jesus isn’t prayer, meditation, knowledge, or musical tastes, rather it’s love for one-another.
Jesus is emphatic with this implication of the gospel. Anyone who receives the love of God will love their fellow disciple. He repeats the command over and over through the evening. We love God and love one another because Christ loved us.
Missional Communities must actively grow in their love for one-another. A missional community is a family more than it is a team. We live the gospel by loving one-another. This is biblical community.
LEARNING TO ENTER COMMUNITY
In our culture, we call a group of people who care for one-another a community. Broken families, codependent relationships, and an epidemic of loneliness have created a ravenous hunger for community in this generation. This is what we long for in and outside of the church. Community has become something we consume to meet our needs, not an act of loving others.
Our desire and attempts at filling our needs through community has clouded our understanding of what community is. To understand what true community is we must clear the deck of all the things community isn’t, or rather, the way we attempt to consume community.
Missional Community isn’t:
- A Social Club—centered on your relational and social needs.
- A Counseling Group—centered on your emotional needs.
- A Social Service Group—centered on your need to change the world.
- A Neighborhood Association—centered on your neighborhood.
- An Affinity Group—centered on your stage of life and preferences.
- An Event or Meeting—centered on a convenient time-slot.
To enter into true community, our desire to use community to meet our needs must be surrendered. Community cannot meet the needs you are seeking to gain from it. Turn those desires to God instead of community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer clarifies this well, “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”
GROWING IN OUR LOVE AS FAMILY
The dominate metaphor for Christian community throughout the New Testament is family. God is Father: We are adopted by Him through Christ, we are brothers and sisters, we are heirs, and we have received every spiritual blessing. From Abraham onward, God’s purposes of blessing and salvation are worked out through a family. From Jesus’ death and resurrection onward, the Church becomes a diverse family belonging to a community that belongs to God. The family of God is characterized by the Father, who is loving, compassionate, gracious, merciful, patient, and just. Those who have been adopted into salvation are no longer orphans because of sin, but belong because of God’s love.
It is from this place of experience and knowledge of divine love that anyone is able to love others within community. We receive grace, so that we can extend grace to our brothers in Christ. It is from knowing God’s patience and mercy, that we live patiently and mercifully with our family. Christian community is authentic, generous, and caring because God is truth, grace, and love.
This sort of family is not an ideal we must realize, but a reality we participate in because of God’s work through us in Christ. Instead of finding our motivation in our own prescribed needs and desires, we cling to loving one other because we have received God’s love. Christian community is one of consistent and mutual extension of grace, truth, faith, hope, and love not for the sake of receiving it but from the joy of giving.
GROWING IN LOVE BY GIVING YOURSELF
Within this familial community, each of the “one another commands” makes sense:
- Comfort one another (2 Cor. 13:11)
- Agree with one another (2 Cor. 13:11)
- Live in peace with one another (2 Cor. 13:11)
- Greet one another (2 Cor. 13:11)
- Bear one another’s burdens—which in context refers to confronting sin and being burdened for the sinful brother (Gal. 6:2)
- Bear with one another (Eph. 4:2)
- Encourage one another (1 Thess. 5:11)
- Build one another up (1 Thess. 5:11)
- Do not grumble against one another (James 5:9)
- Do not speak evil against one another (James 4:11)
Through these “one-another’s” we become family in experience. These commands are the process and action toward an authentic life of community where people care for one another. They are also commands that say unequivocally that community is a place of giving of your self.
Being a member of God’s family requires death to self. You must die. Community is costly.
As the Apostle Paul write in Colossians, put off the old self:
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. – Colossians 3:9-11
Paul is telling us exactly the way toward familial community: become new through God and be formed in the image of God. Now, all of this sounds very utopian and pleasant. Who wouldn’t want to be “fixed” and experience a caring and authentic community where your burdens are carried, you are not alone, and you are known? We all would, but a community like this is costly. It requires a death to you. It requires leaving your identity—what you do, what you have, where you came from.
To be like Jesus is to love like He loved and to extend that love to the ones He chose to love.
In the place of this dying self, you must cling to the new self which is being formed by God in his own image. They way toward an authentic community is God recreating us. In Christ, we are not known by our culture, ethnicity, status, or resources. Those labels do not fit within a missional community, because we are all defined by Christ. He is recreating every aspect of our hearts.
Paul, then, describes the cost and fruit of this new identity in Christ:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him. – Colossians 3:12-17
We exchange our self-interest, self-definition, and approval-seeking lives for one where we know we are approved of and chosen by God. The new life is one in community where we live with pure and loved hearts. Now we clothe our lives with kindness and humility! This is how we bear with one another, how we forgive one another: by being made new by God, by receiving new hearts of compassion.
Paul then points to a key pillar of community: forgiveness. We must not hold grudges, judge others, snicker behind others’ backs, hold their problems over them, or force them to earn our acceptance through right living. No, we don’t get to do any of those things and we shouldn’t want to. Instead we must forgive.
How can we forgive? We have been forgiven. Or, in other words, we received compassion from God who did not snicker at us or make us earn His approval. With a first-hand knowledge of this kind of acceptance, welcome, and forgiveness, we must extend it to others. This will stretch us.
The pattern of life in this world is to use others’ mistakes, errors, and missteps against them and for ourselves. Our sins define us and their sins define them. However, in Christ, we are defined by the love God poured out on us to forgive us our sins. We are defined by that love. This love rules in community. This love overcomes burdens. This truth brings peace amidst all kinds of suffering. This grace produces thankful hearts. This is the love of Jesus. Paul says that this love rules community (1 Cor. 13).
You could sum up all of the one-another commands in the New Testament into this one: love one another. But what kind of love? The greatest kind of love: sacrificial. The love exemplified by Jesus on the cross, where he gave his entire self. On the cross, we see the love that is required within his community. We see on the cross the commandment lived out. Jesus doesn’t ask us to live out an ideal for our sake, or require us to do something He does not do. Jesus calls us to be conformed into the image of the Creator. To be like Jesus is to love like He loved and to extend that love to the ones He chose to love. This is why we love one another. What are the implications of letting this love rule our hearts as we live alongside others?
- We don’t give from the margins.
- We don’t give from convenience.
- We don’t give from comfort.
- We don’t give our left-overs.
- We don’t give from insecurity.
Rather we . . .
- We give ourselves with joy.
- We give ourselves with generosity.
- We give ourselves with truth.
- We give ourselves with humility.
- We give ourselves with forgiveness.
- We give ourselves with confidence, not allowing our community to live in sin, worship idols, and disregard Jesus as savior.
- We give because God gave Christ.
- We love because Christ loved us.
This is the type of familial community our souls actually crave. This is the only expectation big enough for lasting community.
Brad Watson (@bradawatson) serves as a pastor of Bread&Wine Communities where he develops and teaches leaders how to form communities that love God and serve the city. Brad is the author of Raised?, Called Together: A Guide to Forming Missional Communities, and Sent Together: How the Gospel Sends Leaders to Start Missional Communities. He lives in southeast Portland with his wife and their two daughters. You can read more from Brad at www.bradawatson.com.