Why Is It…?

Why is it so hard to love others?

Ron opened this week’s message with this question. Scripture is full of the Jesus’ mandate to love each other. In Mark 12:31, He tells us that after loving God, there is only one other commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself”. In John 13:34-35, He tells us, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another“. And in Matthew 5:44: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven”. And in John 15:12, Jesus says, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you”. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but we get the idea. Jesus was pretty clear. We are to love one another.

So, why is it so hard? Ron gave us four reasons why it is challenging to love others:

We have to become vulnerable. 

We risk being rejected

It requires removing conditional barriers.

Some have never experienced authentic love.

When we choose vulnerability, we put our well-being in someone else’s hands. Becoming vulnerable not only requires lowering our defenses–it requires us to completely lay them aside, to open ourselves up to the possibility of being wounded. One way we can be wounded in our vulnerability comes in the form of rejection. I don’t know about you, but there is little else that has wounded me as deeply as being rejected for who I am. The pain is deep, and when we’ve experienced it once, we become wary of putting ourselves in any position where it could happen again.

But this is what love requires of us…

Choosing to love the way that Jesus calls us to love requires a willing vulnerability. A vulnerability that is keenly aware of the potential for rejection–but chooses to love anyway.

What does this Jesus way look like? Ron gave us some examples. Jesus love looks like…

…reaching out to touch the leper that society-and the law-had deemed “unclean”. (Matthew 8)

…choosing mercy over judgement when the law of the land required stoning the woman caught in adultery. (John 8:2-11)

Jesus stood in the gap for these two–and so many others that we meet on the pages of Scripture. He put Himself in vulnerable positions over and over and over again to align Himself with those who were even more vulnerable in society. He willingly stepped into situations where He would find Himself accused, mocked, rejected, hated. And He tells us to love others in the very same way. He asks us to lay down our defenses and stand in the gap in the name of loving one another,  loving our neighbor. And our neighbor is everyone. Everyone that bears the image of God.

As I listened to the message, I remembered a story from scripture that we don’t talk about all that often. But it is quite possibly the key moment in our even having most of the New Testament available to us today…

Not long after Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), he tried to join the disciples in Jerusalem. Here is the account from Acts 9:26-29, out of the Message:

Back in Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him. They didn’t trust him one bit. Then Barnabas took him under his wing. He introduced him to the apostles and stood up for him, told them how Saul had seen and spoken to the Master on the Damascus Road and how in Damascus itself he had laid his life on the line with his bold preaching in Jesus’ name. After that he was accepted as one of them, going in and out of Jerusalem with no questions asked, uninhibited as he preached in the Master’s name.

Saul had arrested, persecuted and sanctioned the murder of countless Jesus followers. He had a past. People were afraid of him-so much so, that many were unwilling to give him a chance. This is what he faced when he came to Jerusalem. His reputation preceded him.

But someone stood in the gap… 

What would have happened if Barnabas had been unwilling to be vulnerable, unwilling to risk his own reputation to vouch for Saul? Thankfully, we’ll never know. Because after Barnabas spoke up and stood in the gap for Saul (who would become Paul), Saul was “accepted as one of them” and he went on to plant churches and preach the Kingdom of Heaven and write a massive portion of our New Testament. All because someone was willing to oppose popular opinion.

Are we willing to do the same? Are we willing to vouch for the humanity of another when it means we may be criticized, rejected, even hated? To push back against the labels society has given–the way that Jesus did over and over again? So that someone who is even more vulnerable than we are might be given a chance, a fresh start? Will we choose to love by looking beyond the dirty exterior into the Image of God that all of humanity bears–the way that God looks beyond our own dirtiness to see His own image in each of us? I hope that we can say yes. Yes, we will choose to love the way that Jesus loved us-by laying our lives down for one another. By choosing vulnerability and risking rejection because we know that God’s love is the only thing that ever changes anyone. May we be vessels that His life-changing love can flow through to change the world…

–Laura

Ron’s question–Why is it so hard to love?  My answer–Because it’s stinking hard!

Loving God’s way is impossible apart from the Spirit of God. God’s very essence is love, so in order to be able to have godly love, His essence, His character must dwell in me, and in order for His character to dwell in me, I must be filled with Him. How I would love to say that I  live this way consistently–but I can’t.

I love that Laura brought up Barnabas and his vulnerability in being obedient to God by befriending Saul of Tarsus.   Acts 4:36 tells us that his given name was Joseph, but the apostles gave him the nickname Barnabas which means ‘son of encouragement’. In Acts 11:24 we learn that Barnabas was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith

I sometimes ponder, if my life was summed up in a couple of phrases–would full of the Holy Spirit be one of them?  Full of the Holy Spirit indicates full of love.

None of the verses Ron used in his sermon were unfamiliar, none of the verses Laura references above are unfamiliar, “God is love” is not unfamiliar. We know this in our heads, but living it out in our lives becomes intrinsically more difficult. When Ron talked about the way Jesus loved Judas, even knowing that Judas was going to betray him, it pierced my heart.  I pray for God’s love to reach members of ISIS, of world leaders, of human traffickers, but Jesus shared life with Judas, shared bread with Judas, didn’t talk negatively about him to the other disciples. He loved him. And I feel sure, if Judas hadn’t taken his own life, that Jesus would have gone to him after his resurrection and loved him then too–just like He did with Peter. It’s the close proximity people who challenge my loving well. If I think someone might hurt me, my self-protective barrier goes up, my wall goes up–and that’s not loving the Jesus way.

I think there’s an important nugget for us in the story of Judas.  Luke 22:3 makes it clear that “Satan entered Judas”, but what made Judas susceptible to that attack?  Was it a love of money? Was it frustration that Jesus was not setting up an earthly kingdom? Was he mad about not being part of the inner circle of Peter, James, and John? We don’t know. What we do know is that he separated himself from the rest of the disciples for a time. What were the disciples doing that day? Preparing for the Passover. What was Judas doing? Visiting with the Chief Priest and coming up with a betrayal plan, which ultimately destroyed his own life.

Here’s the nugget. We have got to guard our hearts fiercely! We have to stay connected to the body of Christ. We must be willing to ask the Holy Spirit to search us daily, and confess those areas that don’t line up with God’s desire, and we have to choose to love.  We have an enemy who is seeking people to devour (1 Peter 5:8), and the moment we let our guard down, we are susceptible to all kinds of destructive things.  Unfortunately, I know this from personal experience.

So, how do we choose love? How do we truly love God and love others–even our enemies?

I once sat across the table from a man who was going to lead a student conference for us in Brazil. While we were discussing things, he said something that I’ve never forgotten. He said that we are not capable of loving God the way God wants to be loved, so we must ask the Holy Spirit to help us love God well–to love Himself through us. Think about that for a second. Have you ever asked God to love Himself through you? I never had, but I think this man is right. God makes it clear that He loves us. Responding to that love with love is where it all begins–and it’s a Spirit thing…the fruit of the Spirit is love….(Gal 5:22) . 

So how does it happen? No doubt, there is mystery involved, but God tells us that we receive the Spirit of Christ when we receive Christ (Romans 8:9). We learn that the Spirit can be quenched (1st Th. 5;19) that He can be grieved (Eph 4:30),  that we can ask for Him (Luke 11:13), and that being filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18) is what we are to be about.   And the evidence that we are filled goes back to Galatians 5:22–His fruit will be evident in our lives, it will be the natural outflow–and Jesus tells his followers in Luke 6:43-45 and Matthew 7:15-19 that we will be recognized as His followers, or not,  by our fruit.

Paul tells us, in the famous “love” chapter (1st Corinthians 13) that it is possible for us to do all kinds of things, like speak in tongues, prophesy, fathom mysteries and knowledge, have faith that moves mountains, give everything we have to the poor, allow ourselves to go through hardship  but if we have not love…we are nothing. 

Then Paul describes what love in action looks like–patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not proud, not dishonoring, not self-seeking, not easily angered,  keeps no record of wrongs, doesn’t delight in evil, rejoices with truth, always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres,  – love never fails.  

Do we believe this to be true? Are we willing to step out of the self-righteous, hate spewing, grudge bearing culture that we live in–humble ourselves, choose the Jesus way, and let Him love through us, even if it costs us dearly?

Holy Spirit, we need your help! In this day of division, labels, hate, vitriolic  comments, may we, Your people, choose a different way by choosing to allow you to fill us and choosing to allow You to love others through us–all others. Your love is the only thing that will change this world. May we allow you to change us, and use us to love others well.

–Luanne

Who Are You Church? Why Are You Here?

Who Are You Church? Why Are You Here? What powerful questions these are! Shane made so many excellent points in his sermon, one of which was when things get confusing, muddled, lost in details that don’t really matter–asking ourselves these two questions will cut through all the fluff and get us back on track.

The beautiful verse mash-up that he read makes it all so very clear:

You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light, all who received him those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, members together of one body and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus, you are the body of Christ and each one of you is part of it.” (1 Peter 2:9, John 1:12, Eph 3:6b, 1st Corinthians 12:27)

Who are you church? Why are you here?

Church. No matter who you are, the word conjures up some sort of image, some sort of thought. To many, church is a building, a place to go. “I go to church at such and such a place.” To others it is a place to be avoided–”I could never go to church, I would never be accepted there.” To some church is the place that dictates the do’s and don’ts of life, and makes one feel guilty or self-righteous depending on the current behavioral score card. To some church is boring, irrelevant, not necessary. To others church is a habit, a social experience, an expectation. To some, church is the place to get the personal spiritual tank filled on a weekly basis. To others, church is an exercise in trying to pretend that life is perfect. But to those who seek, to those who pay attention to what Jesus teaches about this thing called church that the gates of hell will not prevail against (Mt. 16:18), church is a God-breathed, life transforming living organism, built on the foundation of Jesus,  infused with the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit to carry out the greatest mission of all—-taking the love of and the Kingdom of God to every person, tribe, tongue and nation across the globe, and every new believer becomes part of this living, growing organism. Peter tells us in 1st Peter 2:5 that we are living stones, being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood. Do you see yourself in that way?

I grew up in church, a great church, but it became routine and I was nominal in my relationship with God and His church, so I became dissatisfied and bored. In my young adulthood I took a few years off, which led me nowhere good. I had no idea how vital being part of a living church was to my emotional and spiritual health until I decided to step away for a few years. Once I made a total mess of things, and truly had nowhere else to turn, I timidly re-entered the community of Christ-followers, and was welcomed with grace and joy. I began to realize that the church is me. I am the church. So, if the global church has the tasks of glorifying God and connecting with Him, of encouraging fellow believers, and of sharing Christ with those who don’t yet know him, the question becomes am I doing those things? Once I figured out that the more I immersed myself in the true mission of Jesus and His church, the more fulfilling my life became. I was hooked.

Shane made the point that the strength of the church is defined by the connections we have– not by our programs, our budget, our building, but by our connections.
Connection number one is do we have a strong connection with the triune God–Father, Son, and Spirit? Connection number two, do we have strong connections with other people in the body? Are we making intentional time for one another, fellowshipping together, doing life together, encouraging one another, sharpening one another? And connection number three, are we bringing others in so that they can connect with God, connect with fellow believers, find freedom, discover their purpose and become part of bringing others in.  All three of these connections are vital to being a Kingdom church.

It is not possible to fulfill the mission of the church without going all in. That’s just what’s true. Jesus was very clear, and modeled very clearly that his Kingdom is all about relationships, and it requires denying ourselves, taking up our crosses and following him daily. (Luke 9:23). And you know what I’ve learned? It is not a heavy weight– it is a great joy. My dearest friends, my closest relationships, are all people who I do Kingdom life with–the world can’t offer relationships like these. My spiritual growth, the woman I’ve become and am becoming are because of my relationship with God and with others in the church. And there is nothing, nothing, nothing greater than getting to be part of God’s saving and transforming work in someone else’s life. There is nothing more fulfilling than being part of God’s global work of bringing His Kingdom of justice and love to the world. There is nothing greater than watching God break strongholds, chains, do the impossible, and blow minds with how truly great He is.

So–who are you church? Why are you here? Do you see yourself as a “living stone” a vital piece in His church? We’d love to hear your answers…

–Luanne

Luanne reiterated in her beautiful writing the three reasons Shane laid out for why the church is here:

“…the global church has the tasks of glorifying God and connecting with Him, of encouraging fellow believers, and of sharing Christ with those who don’t yet know him…” 

Shane spent a lot of time on the second point, encouraging one another. He reminded us of the definition of the word encourage–and I’m so glad he did, because I think we sometimes forget its full implications and end up operating out of a watered down understanding of what it means. The initial meaning is “to take heart”. But when it is broken down further, it means “to strengthen, foster or advance something or someone”.

If you presented me with the three points Shane made about why the church is here before I heard the message and asked me which one I thought was the most important, encouraging one another would have been last on my list. Because, obviously, connecting with God and glorifying Him and sharing Christ are the more important pieces of this puzzle… right? Encouraging one another can feel too inward-focused, maybe a little selfish… right?

I wrestled these thoughts through as I listened. And have prayed through them ever since.  And this is where I’ve landed–

We cannot successfully connect with God or share Jesus with those who don’t know Him if we haven’t first been encouraged by other believers.

I know that is a fairly bold statement to make, but stay with me for a minute…

As I prayed and wrestled with my own thoughts, I was reminded of my own journey with God, with faith, with church. How did I get to where I am today?

By the encouragement of other believers.

I am not talking about flattery, praise, “atta girls”. I am referring to the kind of encouragement Shane defined for us. The kind of encouragement that builds off of the love Jesus was talking about in John 13:34-35:

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.”

How did Jesus love his disciples? That list is too large to cover comprehensively here. But it absolutely included strengthening what was weak in them, fostering an environment of growth and advancing them into roles and positions they could never have imagined for themselves. Through Jesus’s encouragement and example, they learned how to connect with God and glorify Him and they also learned what they would need to know to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth. The book of Acts records how essential encouragement, in it’s full definition, was to the early church:

 Acts 9:31: Paul was preaching and when he left, the church “was strengthened and encouraged by the Holy Spirit.”                                                                                                        

Acts 11:23: Barnabas (whose real name was Joseph, but he was so known for being an encourager that he was nicknamed “Barnabas”, meaning “son of encouragement”. How cool is that?? I love Barnabas!) encouraged early Christians in Antioch “to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts”                                                                                                            

Acts 13:15: “Brothers, if you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak”                                                                                                                                               

Acts 14:22: Paul “strengthened the disciples and encouraged them to remain true to the faith”                                                                                                                                                

 Acts 15:31: People read the epistle and “were glad for its encouraging message. Judas and Silas said much to encourage and strengthen the brothers.”                                                    

Acts 15:41: Paul “went through Syria and Cilicia strengthening the churches”                  

Acts 16:5: Paul and Timothy visit “so the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.”                                                                                                                        

Acts 16:40: Paul and Silas out of prison…”they met with the brothers and encouraged them.”                                                                                                                                                

Acts 18:23: Paul went throughout the region of Galatia “strengthening all the disciples”

 Acts 18:27:  the “brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him.”  

 Acts 20:1: Paul in Ephesus, “after encouraging them, said good-by and went to Macedonia, “speaking many words of encouragement to the people”

These are a few verses from one book of the New Testament, but from this small glimpse, it is glaringly apparent how important encouragement was to the furtherance of the gospel in the early days of the Church. Jesus Himself had encouraged His disciples and Paul, and they were building His Church the very same way.

Earlier, I wrote that I have gotten to where I am today because of the encouragement of other believers. No matter what age we are when we meet Jesus, we all start out as babies in our faith. I won’t speak for anyone else here, but my personal experience was that I did not intuitively know how to connect with God or how to share Jesus with the world. I had to learn. And I am so grateful for those in my life who have been encouragers to me. Those who have strenthened, fostered and advanced me. Luanne wrote:

“My dearest friends, my closest relationships, are all people who I do Kingdom life with–the world can’t offer relationships like these. My spiritual growth, the woman I’ve become and am becoming are because of my relationship with God and with others in the church.”

“…the world can’t offer relationships like these.”

She’s right. It can’t. And it isn’t supposed to. We are to love one another and to encourage one another the same way Jesus loves us. And when we do that, we equip one another to reach the world around us and we learn how to better connect with God. All of which glorifies Him and shows the world around us what can happen when we encourage one another well.

So, which point is the most important? I have to say encouraging one another. Because it facilitates the other two points. Are the other two points more vital to Kingdom living? Probably. Definitely. But we cannot get there without first learning how. And that is taught the same way it was in the early church–through the encouragement we give one another.

How did you get to where you are? How has encouragement from other believers impacted your life and faith? We would love to continue this conversation with you!

–Laura

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