In Search of a Church of the Heart
Below is a first draft of a book that is in process. Be patient. It will be awhile.
Jesus said, “Keep my commandments.” By some estimates, there around 50 of them. But there is one that stands out. He called it “a new commandment.”
A new commandment I give to you: that you love one another—just as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples—if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35 LEB).
So, what makes this commandment “new?” It doesn’t sound much different than the love your neighbor command or the one about loving your enemy. But there are a couple of things that make Jesus’ words “new.” One, is that the love he is calling for is to reflect his own: love one another “just as I have loved you.”
The other thing that sets this commandment apart is that it cannot be done alone. You can love your neighbor or some other person, but this “new” commandment is understood to require a group of people: love one another. The word Jesus uses is, in the Greek, allelon (al-lay’-lone) and it occurs about 100 times in the New Testament. The frequency of its appearance testifies to its importance in the life of the church. Allelon isn’t a verb, rather it describes context. “One another” is the environment where action takes place. Moreover, it refers to a community that lives in a condition of mutuality. The relationships within it are reciprocal. Jesus is saying that his commandment is alive in allelon, so to keep this commandment, there must be at least two, each devoted to the other. You cannot do this by yourself.
Furthermore, the presence of mutual love in a group of people is, according to the Lord, the evidence of discipleship. It’s not your eloquence, the way you dress, your bumper stickers or even where you go to church that marks you as a follower of Jesus. It is the way you treat others, and the way they treat you. The message of the Kingdom will be declared by what might be called an “allelon community” in which the love of Jesus is the living and guiding principle. I like to call that “a church of the heart.”
What does that love look like?
First, it is sacrificial—selfless. The kind of love Jesus is talking about is for the benefit of others without precondition. There is no “quid pro quo” in this kind of love. This is how Paul in his letter to the church in Phillipi could exhort the church to “consider one another as better than yourselves.”
Secondly, it is intentional. He didn’t say to His disciples that he had a suggestion for them. What he had to say wasn’t merely a thought or an idea; not a possible action that might be nice if it was convenient. The love He speaks of is to be mandatory. If you receive a directive from your employer or your doctor, you don’t assume it’s optional, at least you better not if you want to keep your job or stay healthy. When the boss says, “do it” you do it, and Jesus said this is a commandment. It requires a deliberate response.
This takes ‘love’ out of the realm of emotion. Often, when we think of loving we assume it is linked to our feelings. Of course, it often is—it’s even nice when it is—but this is a commandment. You don’t respond with, “Ahh, I’m just not feeling it today. Maybe some other time.” In this instance, it is understood that love is deliberate, an intentional act. It is a mandatory response to the needs of another person.
A third thing about this love is that it is observable. People on the outside looking in should be able to see a difference in the way you and your fellow disciples treat one another. The way the group lives together will be distinctive, even unique. As some translations say, the followers of Jesus were “peculiar,” not in the sense of being weird or strange, but different in the way they lived. The distinctive qualities demonstrated by Jesus’ followers resulted in them being identified as people of “the way.”
In other words, this distinctive relationship among the followers of Jesus is more than warm, affectionate feelings. There must be some outward expression that makes their attitude toward one another visible to the watching world.
That tells us a fourth thing about this “one-anothering” community: Love for one another is practical. It suggests that the community knows each other well enough to know what members lack and where they hurt; how one can provide for another. If there is a need among them, members of the community take it upon themselves to meet it.
The story of the church in the book of Acts includes several examples. In the second chapter it is observed, “…the believers were united and shared everything with one another… [selling their possessions]…to distribute to anyone who was in need…ate at each other’s homes, and shared their food with glad and humble hearts.” Again, in the fourth chapter, the community is found to be “one in heart and soul…they shared everything they owned.”
The unifying element of the community was the common faith in Jesus. The validation of their message was their outwardly apparent love for one another. In his book, The Secular Squeeze, John Alexander observed that Jesus…
…told us that you tell whether a story is true by the lives of the people who tell it. You judge a story by its teller. You will know them by their fruit, he said… If the people telling a story love each other and live together with depth and grace, then their story is true. If they don’t, then their story is silliness– or worse. A good story enables people to lay down their lives for each other and become one.
So, how are we Christians doing in our story-telling? Are we doing Jesus’ commandment? One would expect if we are doing well, the world will have noticed. Yet, it seems that the church is noted more often for its division and hypocrisy than for its amazing love. In fairness, Jesus warned us that his followers wouldn’t be any more popular than he was in some quarters. Still, it is disconcerting that we are so often caught up in disputes and division, not to mention greed and dishonesty. Sadly, our remarkable care and concern for one another is not what sets us apart, even though the way the church chooses to live with one another ought to be, according to Jesus, the essential evidence of the Kingdom message. It would be wonderful if the old Sunday school song was our anthem: love is the flag that’s flown from the castle of my heart.
Francis Schaeffer called the response to Jesus’ new commandment, “the mark of the Christian.” In his little book by that title, he writes:
…we are to love all true Christian brothers in a way that the world may observe. This means showing love to our brothers in the midst of our differences-great or small—loving our brothers when it costs us something, loving them even under times of tremendous emotional tension, loving them in a way the world can see.
In short, to live sacrificially and love intentionally, practically and visibly will require much from a follower of Jesus. Keeping this commandment just isn’t going to be possible by making a weekly trip to a church building. Intimacy and transparency are required; time and commitment; patience and trust. All these things and more will be needed if you are going to love others well enough to keep the Lord’s commandment.
The fact is, the relationship to which Jesus called His disciples is not what you may have come to understand as “going to church.” It is deeper. It is a relational community that takes seriously the commandment and understands that its fulfillment will not be accidental. It assumes that you will intentionally surround yourself with people you will love and who will love you, traveling companions on a journey to the summit of relationship. It assumes you will count the cost and be willing to pay it.
This book is intended to reframe the question, “Where do you go to church?” The fact is, where you go to church is quite beside the point. The real question is not “where?” but “with whom?”
With whom are you called to be the church?