Do Christians love one another?

do-you-love-me_personalityhacker‘And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.’

So we sang in the late 1970s, in a culturally appropriate rock ballad idiom, and very real it seemed at the time. I came to faith in an evangelical Anglican tradition which had been shaped by the charismatic renewal movement, and a key sign of this was an authenticity of relationships which had been absent from the starchy formality of much church life.

It was, in fact, a key part of my own coming to faith. As a struggling teenager in a large all-boys school, I was keenly aware of the competition to be accepted—to be cool—and also aware that I wasn’t doing very well at it. By an odd series of ‘coincidences’, I met people from the youth group of the local Anglican church, and over about 9 months decided that I wanted to be part of this Christianity thing. For some time I had thought that what appealed to me about Christian faith was that it was well thought through, that it made sense. It was only when I had to tell my story some years later as part of a mission week in another church that I realised it was love that had made the difference. It was the acceptance of me as I was, without having to prove myself, that drew me to faith—and pointed to the loving acceptance of God.

As I look back, all this was very real—but it was also relatively easy. We were genuinely concerned for one another, but that wasn’t difficult because we were mostly similar to one another. As I moved to new contexts and met new Christians, often from backgrounds quite different from mine, I learned something new about Christian love. Loving the other meant just that—loving people who were ‘other’ than me. One of the hallmarks of true ‘church’ is that it includes people who would not otherwise associate together. If we meet to worship with people who we would like anyway, then it is not the love of God which has drawn us together. As Stanley Hauerwas has commented, ‘The kingdom of God is a party with a bunch of people with whom we wouldn’t be caught dead spending a Saturday night had not we also been invited.’

I recently heard a church leader talking about some of the tensions in their congregation between a judge who attended and ex-convicts who also came. The judge was finding it quite a challenge to worship alongside people that he had sent down! It’s the kind of challenge that God’s love poses us.

But it does not end there. Having learnt the importance of love over the years, and that true love means love of the ‘other’, I was stopped in my tracks a few weeks ago by a text I was due to preach on. I think it must be the most extraordinary verse in the New Testament, and it is one about love.

‘My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you…’ (Gal 4.19).

Paul is saying something theological here; the image of the ‘pains of childbirth’ is an Old Testament metaphor for the sufferings of God’s people as they await deliverance from their oppressors and freedom to worship God without fear. (There’s a theological pun here—they are waiting to be ‘delivered’ from birthpangs—gettit?!) For Paul, this deliverance has come to his people in Jesus, and each person experience the promised ‘new creation’ in him (2 Cor 5.17).

But Paul is also saying something profoundly personal. His love for these Christians is such that he is caused physical pain until they reach the maturity that is theirs in Christ. He is in pain and discomfort until they reach what he himself longs for—‘the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus’ (Phil 3.14).

I think I have learned to love people, even people quite different from myself. But to so long for the best for others that I am in pain until they have attained it? That is another whole kind of love. It raises the bar way above anything I have reached. It is a love that might change the world—but I am very clear that it is a love I cannot work up in myself. It is a love that must be the gift of grace from God, formed in my by his Spirit. Maybe it’s just the kind of love by which ‘they’ll know we are Christians…’

This article was first published at Christian Today

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3 thoughts on “Do Christians love one another?”

  1. Ian,

    I can testify that you’ve extended great warmth, fellowship and patience in our dealings. Nevertheless, I believe that, in the wider church, there a lot of work to be done.

    Perhaps one of Jesus’ most telling parables was that of the Good Samaritan. It may not be on good authority, but I was told that a Jew might expect the story to go from the Levite and the priest abdicating responsibility to the working-class Jew who saves the day. Christ’s divine genius was to cast the Samaritan as the wholly unexpected hero of the piece.

    The results of the Diversity Audit 2014 will be released this summer. My hope is that it will reveal a substantial improvement on the findings of the 2007 National Parish Diversity Monitoring report.

    That study showed that while CofE churches were (as expected) predominantly white in rural areas, the same was true of urban areas with substantial immigrant Christian populations.

    A major issue is the under-representation of ethnic minorities into clergy, lay reader and synodical government roles.

    Approximately a quarter of all ethnicities will be elected to PCC, whereas those of minority ethnicity are far less likely than their white counterparts to be considered for ordained or lay ministry in the Church of England, or to be elected to deanery or general synod. I don’t believe that its because we get a taste of church government at PCC and find the whole thing far more than we can handle.

    The hope is that as we seek to grow the church younger, the strategy employed will attract greater minority ethnic participation.

    Initiative like ‘turn up the volume’ campaign to double the number of UK Minority Ethnic (ME) clergy in senior positions within 10 years may only highlight the cause. Instead of passing by on the other side, it takes clergy with real guts to heal the wound of racism by break ranks and intentionally exploring vocations and synodical roles with those of minority ethnicities.

    Years ago, Stevie Wonder wrote a song expressing his frustration with the stalled civil rights policies of successive US administrations.

    The song might well describe my own frustrations with the CofE’s glass ceiling, supported as it is by the tacit intentional blindness towards the leadership potential of ethnic minorities, even in urban areas:

    ‘We are amazed but not amused
    By all the things you say that you’ll do
    Though much concerned but not involved
    With decisions that are made by you

    But we are sick and tired of hearing your song
    Telling how you are gonna change right from wrong
    ‘Cause if you really want to hear our views
    “You haven’t done nothing”!

    It’s not too cool to be ridiculed
    But you brought this upon yourself
    The world is tired of pacifiers
    We want the truth and nothing else

    And we are sick and tired of hearing your song
    Telling how you are gonna change right from wrong
    ‘Cause if you really want to hear our views
    “You haven’t done nothing”!

  2. I wonder if Paul’s pain for them to be mature, is the pain a leader can feel – but experienced in a Christian context. All sorts of leaders can have that sort of passion.

    David’s comment about working class Jews is interesting. I’ve noticed that on council / ex council estates, folk live life with their emotions, both positive and negative, more ‘on their sleeves’. They are in each other’s faces every day – and if that’s even mildly positive, disagreements are quickly forgotten. Help is often given readily to each other. I’ve found this less so on owner occupier developments – where in practice folk don’t see as much of each other, as they are working and commuting and living in housing which physically separates folk more – privacy is valued.

    This might map loosely on to churches – where we find the larger white Protestant / evangelical / charismatically styled churches are predominantly a ‘middle class’ thing. Mostly these churches are found in cities or large towns with relatively good employment, universities. Sticking my neck out, these might lend themselves more to meetings of one kind or another. With limited free time, perhaps there is less chance for friendships, but instead more time for friendly acquaintances in and around meetings.

    Our church has practicing doctors alongside folk that have been rescued from drug and alcohol addiction, the employed and the unemployed. A right mixture. That’s great! We have great friends in our church – people we eat with frequently, go on holidays with (outside of bible type weeks). We would not have been friends with them if we had not met at church. Apart from church, our lives were so different!
    Our church also has several smaller satellite congregations, which lend themselves to more friendships developing and flourishing.

    I say ‘our’ but I’m not one of the leadership .


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