“By this all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. “ John 13:35
When I was teenager my mom started to attend a church in north jersey where we lived at the time. Months prior, she met the pastor and his wife through her real estate business. They invited her to a fellowship that met at their home, and eventually to a Sunday worship service. She became a regular attendee and I soon followed her also getting involved in the youth ministry.
The timing was providential. Within sixth months of starting to attend Calvary Church of Essex Fells, my mother fell ill with an infection that took her to death’s door. The events that followed were instrumental in opening my heart to the Gospel. My new found friends in the church youth ministry were ready to answer my spiritual questions and help meet the practical needs my family faced as my mom lay in a hospital bed in NYC for 3 months. Meals were delivered to our home by the families of the church. Rides were given to and from church and youth group by volunteer youth leaders. Offers to assist with chores around our home came regularly.
On the one side, my biological family was in threat of becoming smaller and void of a mom. But, my new found church family was expanding my care network and lifting much of the weight my dad, sister and I were feeling.
In the coming months, I started to follow Jesus. Within a year, my dad and sister also responded. I still remember some of the stories and messages from pastor John Akers sermons in the walls of that church. He was deeply theological and compelling in his communication. But his messages were not as formative to my faith, as were the conversations in his office and in the car as he drove me home often from church. He was a busy pastor of a church of nearly one thousand attendees, yet he gave personal attention to a scrappy Parochial Prep School teen. These acts of love compelled me and gave a tangible glimpse of Jesus. And it didn’t hurt that he was a former catholic monk himself.
As I look back on those formative days in my faith walk, I realize that the the love extended by a group of Christians made the Gospel real and drew me in.
The most important characteristic of the people of God is love. It’s the visible sign that the Gospel changes everything. If our bedrock is Jesus Christ’ love crucified and raised, the footers for our community of faith are love. “We love because He first loved us.” And we respond through our love for God followed up by a love for one another.
Calvary’s people were the very presence of Jesus for me as a young seeker.
Their practical expression of love gave Jesus skin.
Reflecting on love’s central role in my conversion to faith is not meant to minimize the importance of good theology, strong discipleship, powerful preaching, or of sharing one’s story and the Good News through words. It simply means that these other critical components would have been hollow expressions to my broken life had they not been preceded by tangible love.
Our world is in need of an invitation into a transformative community with the transcendent Love of God manifest. We need to speak the Gospel; but, we also need to be clear expressions of the Gospel in the way we live.
Love that changes how we relate to one another. We and our friends needs a love that creates deep lasting community that is hopeful and life giving.
This kind of love comes from a deep awareness and understanding of God’s love that saved us. Love precedes all else.
Without love we are clanging symbols interrupting God’s grand symphony. Love is the proof in the pudding. It is the deepest defining characteristic of the true church- the people of God.
When we love, we reflect the image of our Savior. If we want to see change in our world, it will begin with love for one another.
Jesus spent the first 18 months of His ministry life with His disciples focused a small band of followers. He didn’t give a lot attention to the needs outside this group. Instead He helped them understand who God is, what He does for us, and who we are and are becoming in Him as His disciples.
Only two miracles are recorded in the Gospels in the first year and half of Jesus ministry. And most of His time is spent in small towns and villages escaping the crowds and the hustle and bustle of city life.
Why is this the case? Because the disciples needed to know who He is and who they were as His people before they could invite people in. They needed to create the beginning of what would later become the church- a community for all to come in and experience the presence of God through His people. They needed to become a band of brothers and sisters willing to walk, live and die with each other and for each other. They needed to become a community that testified to the veracity of the Gospel through their lives. Studies have shown that it takes seven significant relationships with Christians for the typical person to come to faith in Jesus.
How did God bring restoration, newness and salvation to us? Through sacrificial love willing to die for the undeserving, embrace persecutors and give His all for everyone to receive freely. And a love that created the community we call the church: the true church.
Lasting change will only come to our communities, country and world by the love of God in us, shining out through us together. His love incarnate in the people of God compels others in. And His love transforms those who enter.
It did it for me? How about you?
Love declares, “the kingdom of God is here!”
Mike Harder, President of Concentric