How Can We Deconstruct Skepticism?
By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. —John 13:35
Jesus Community Mission, in that order – it’s what the gospel looks like in real life. It’s how God gives us lives that will still matter a billion years from today.
Here at Immanuel we articulate Mission this way – making the real Jesus non-ignorable in our city and far beyond. Can you imagine being a Christian and accepting the status quo? Every one of us is thinking and praying through – in our care groups – how we can personally advance the mission. Some of us are already living this way. Others of us are jumping in quickly. I’m behind the curve. But we’re all learning together. The Lord is teaching us. He said, “Follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people” (Mark 1:17, NLT). If we’re not fishing for people, are we following Jesus?
Our text for today includes Jesus and Community and Mission, because it’s all one continuous flow. That is not easy. We Christians have a lot to live down. Several years ago Anne Rice famously said, “Christians have lost credibility in America as people who know how to love.” Some people fear churches, they fear Christians, they expect Christianity to bring oppression. Some churches are oppressive. They’re about control, not freedom. No wonder people are skeptical. They see not enough Jesus and too much domination. They see not enough Community and too much strife. They see not enough Mission and too much self-absorption. We believe the Lord has sent us to this place at this time, to do something about that. What is God asking you to do?
In this passage the Lord himself gives us an insight – how to deconstruct skepticism and create credibility. Let’s think it through.
A new commandment I give to you… —John 13:34
The Lord is speaking as our King and as our Savior. His word is a command and a gift: “A new commandment I give to you.” Jesus is speaking to us with authority and with grace. And the words “a new commandment” are emphatic in the word order of the Greek text. The Lord is excited about this. He’s moved by it. He feels the urgency of it. He is eager to say it and eager for us to receive this. He knows what a difference it will make. So it’s not “a new option.” This new commandment is too important to him.
Jesus gave this to us the night before he died. And it’s been said that last words are lasting words. He wants the weight and beauty of this to fall on us. He is not asking that we fit this into our busy schedules somehow; he is commanding us to redesign ourselves around this. His new commandment means the world to him. He died, to make this real to us. So many other things could have been on his mind that night. But it was this that rose up in the heart of Jesus.
Do you see how Jesus presents himself here as the world’s foremost authority on love? “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another just as I have loved you.” He makes himself the authoritative definition of love, he does it with no embarrassment. Now, either Jesus is an egomaniac, or he is the God who is love, and love is ultimate reality – not empty space, not cold logic, but sacrificial love for the undeserving that brings us together as a joyous unity. The reality is, we are swimming moment by moment in an ocean of divine love, and all evil is parasitic and secondary and derived and temporary. God came down in Jesus and went further down to the cross out of love for us. And when he was on the threshold of that ultimate sacrifice, Jesus paused, turned to us and commanded his own love. If you’re not sure which of these two Jesus is – an egomaniac or the God who is love – then ask yourself this. If everyone on the face of the earth loved you as Jesus loved, and if you loved everyone on the face of the earth as Jesus loved, would you complain about all the ego going around, or would it be heaven on earth?
By the way, the word “you” here is not singular but plural in the original text. His new commandment is not for this individual or that individual but for everyone and for all of us together – “you” plural. One of the fallacies of the modern concept of “church” is that the pastor is the professional and the people are the spectators. The Bible has a completely different expectation. Both the pastor and the people, all of us together, come under the authority and grace of Jesus. Everyone is involved. Everyone matters. If one person is missing, everyone is diminished. No one is passive. No one is left out. No one stands by looking on. No one is a passenger. No one is a spectator. Everyone jumps in with heart and mind and prayer and passion all the time, and everyone can feel the power of it, because Jesus gave this to all of us. A Chinese Christian wrote this many years ago: “Whether or not we take a public part in things is immaterial; we must also be giving life. . . . It is when all the members fulfill their ministry that the life flows.” The “you” is plural. Why? Because Jesus is making us together living proof of something from beyond this world. He gave it to all of us and to every single one of us. That takes us to Community.
…that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. —John 13:34
Isn’t that amazing? He didn’t give us a list of rules. There are many important commandments he could have give us. But what was most on his heart? “. . . that you love one another.” But he didn’t say, “. . . that you love others.” We should love others. But his new commandment was that we love one another mutually – not just giving, and not just receiving, but loving one another reciprocally, back and forth, giving love and receiving love. That’s Community.
Why does Jesus call this a new commandment? Because he’s building a new community. Obviously, this isn’t the first time the Bible commands us to love. In the Old Testament God said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). And Jesus reinforced that old commandment (Mark 12:28-31). He himself obeyed it. But Jesus went further. He showed us a love we’d never seen before. He did not love us as himself; he loved us above himself. This chapter starts out by making that point: “. . . having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). He never stopped loving us. He never pulled back, no matter what the cost. He never put himself first. This is so unlike us today. We are guarded and careful that no one gets too much of us. Jesus loved us to the end, and nothing will ever separate us from his love (Romans 8:31-39). When the disciples were too proud and self-important to wash one another’s feet, here in chapter 13, their Lord and Master got down and did the job. I remember hearing Bill Gwinn speak at my seminary once. He was the Director of the Mount Hermon Conference Center in California. He said that when a little child threw up somewhere there at the Conference Center, he had learned to be glad to be the one to clean it up. And he was the boss. That’s the love of Jesus. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a high standard. “Love one another as I have loved you” raises the bar.
If the love of Jesus is the pattern, what do we learn from “just as I have loved you”? Primarily this – he died for us. The Bible says, “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:2). The Bible says, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10-11). That is not easy. But death-to-ego is our breakthrough to community and credibility. Jesus said, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Jesus did not choose to remain alone, isolated, safe, pain-free. He loved, and he suffered for it. Love always suffers. But the heartfelt sufferings of love bear fruit. The sufferings of love are the only creative force for good in all the world, and Jesus is calling us to be living proof of it here in our time.
The early church understood this. About a century after John wrote all this, the Christian theologian Tertullian, noted the response of the watching world. The pagans of the Roman empire had never seen a community like the Christian church. Tertullian recorded the public response: “See how the Christians love one another, how they are ready even to die for one another!” That’s community. That’s credibility. Christlike community has the power to deconstruct skepticism. It is the Lord’s own appointed strategy. The flow of Christianity is the love of Jesus breaking down the walls, creating harmony and honesty and sympathy in Community, and then the Mission gets traction. That takes us to verse 35.
By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. —John 13:35
Do you see what Jesus is giving to the world here in these verses? As Francis Schaeffer pointed out in his book The Mark of the Christian, the Lord is giving every unbeliever the right to judge whether you and I are true followers of Jesus. If we are unloving, if we are cold, sharp-tongued, narrow in our hearts, selfish and demanding, Jesus is not saying that we aren’t Christians. But he is saying that no one will know that we are Christians: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus himself gives unbelievers the right to judge us. He authorizes unbelievers to judge unloving believers as non-Christians, whatever those Christians might think of themselves. If some are skeptical, it might be because they are exercising the right Jesus gave them.
There are many ways people won’t know that we really belong to Jesus and that he really is bringing his saving power here among us. Being right doesn’t make us convincing. The Pharisees were always right! Knowing a lot will not give us credibility either. The Bible says, “Knowledge puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). There are so many ways people will not know that Jesus really is in the world today and that we belong to him and that they can come in among us and experience him too. But there is this one way, that he himself has appointed – that we would love one another, as he loved us. The love of Jesus among us is our credibility. How we treat each other. How we speak to and of one another. How we forgive. How we serve. How we rejoice over one another. The Bible sets the emotional tone of real Christianity in Psalm 16:3: “As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight.” As for the saints in the land. We are in Christ. That is what distinguishes us. Not our own talents or attainments, but what God has done. God has set us apart to himself. They are the excellent ones. There is much to admire in every Christian. Just start asking questions. About thirty seconds into the conversation, the excellence will become obvious. Rather than rate one another, grade one another on a scale of one to ten, to see if someone else here is up at our level, which is condescending, gospel eyes choose to see the many excellencies in another Christian. In whom is all my delight. It gets personal and emotional. The gospel allows for no aloofness, no detachment. We move toward one another with joy.
The reason, of course, why we sometimes fail to love that way is that we get tired and cranky. We just do, and we will. There is only one person in the universe who always puts out 100% for his friends, and that person is Jesus. And sometimes in our disappointment, the mental list of grievances silently grows, until it explodes. But when all that anger is pouring out and Christians are blasting each other, the presence of Jesus departs. He will not dwell in the midst of strife. But he will dwell in the midst of humility. The Bible says, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). Nothing is so disarming and credible and contagious as honestly confessing our sin and weakness and failure. Every one of us needs a friend here at church to whom we can say, “May I tell you an ugly truth about myself? Could we pray about it? I’m so tired of being like this. I want Christ to heal me. I want a new beginning.” Humility opens doors to loving one another as Jesus loved us.
We should love everyone, of course. But Jesus makes love for one another the mark of his true disciples, because the church is how he advertizes heaven here on earth. The church is the model home of the new neighborhood God is building out in eternity, and he wants everyone to see the future now and buy in while there’s still time. A loving church in an angry world – that is the future glory only God can create, and he makes that future visible right now in a loving church. Jesus wants to say to all of Nashville, “Come into my churches, and see the future right now, because I want you to be part of it too.” And until the very last person of our city is brought in and believes in Jesus because his love is real and visible and accessible here among us, we will let John 13:34-35 be what Jesus meant it to be – his primary strategy for mission. Jesus Community Mission – it all goes together.
We will never find a group of people who always please us. But we can be a group of sinners who rejoice in each other, because Jesus rejoices in us, and he always will. That’s the future we’re experiencing right now in gospel community. That’s how we show that Jesus is real and here.
Who wouldn’t want to come into a church where everyone is undeserving and everyone’s sin is covered in the love of Jesus?