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Among the most vital of conversations

Jesus commanded the disciples and us to love one another as he has loved. How does agape love make for vital congregations?

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Nancy Wind is ministry coordinator at Isaiah’s Table, a new worshiping community in Syracuse, New York. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Based on the new commandment Jesus gave in John 13:34, where he instructed his disciples “to love one another, just as I have loved you,” four church leaders were asked how that passage applied to vital congregations — and how this kind of love has been demonstrated or even changed during the pandemic.

These were the main questions discussed this week during a Vital Conversations panel discussion on Caring Relationships, which is one of the Seven Marks of Vital Congregations (see section two).

For the Rev. Dr. Diane Bogues, director of admissions and financial aid at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, Pa., this love that Jesus speaks about in John is an unconditional, sacrificial, and not-expecting-anything-in-return kind of love. What Bogues sees here is safe space. There was foot-washing and then fellowshipping over a meal, in a trusted space, with intimacy — all happening while Jesus knew that one of the disciples, Judas, was about to betray him.

“Jesus could have outed Judas because he knew what was going to happen,” she said. “And yet he held even Judas’s stuff.”

The Rev. Dr. Diane Bogues

This “loving one another, as Jesus loves us,” commandment leaves Bogues wondering about how communities of faith could create safe spaces where people could really be their authentic selves, with all their flaws — “where the good, bad and everything in between could be held in their humanity of their worth and value made in the image of God,” she said.

According to the Rev. Eric Thomas, interim pastor at Siloam Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, New York, too often Christians can put “daisies around agape love”  instead of imagining it as a radical and extraordinary love, the kind of love that made Jesus wash his disciples’ feet.

“The kind of love that lets you let go of hierarchy, and actually flip the hierarchy, and make yourself like the slave,” he said. “It was the slave’s job to wash the feet of the guests of the house.”

This text left Thomas with questions including, “What would it be like to know that your homie (Judas) is going to betray you, but to move forward with that knowledge anyway?”

And yet, Jesus consciously stays in community with Judas, a brother who will betray him. Knowing it is his time to be glorified, Thomas said, Jesus lays down his life for us. As a result, perhaps the command to love one another, as Jesus loves us, takes on a different meaning.

The Rev. Eric Thomas

John 13:35 says that how we love each other is how people will know we belong to Jesus,” Thomas said. “In this pandemic and virtual reality we are in, how will people in our community and neighborhoods know [we belong to Jesus]?”

To understand how to love as Jesus loved, said the Rev. Shawn Kang, 1001 New Worshiping Communities associate for the Central and Western regions, is to understand how Jesus loves those in his community, for Jesus’ love was all-encompassing, for the whole person.

“I am accepted as I am, no matter how I see myself or what I look like,” he said. “If we could just be vulnerable with one another, it would create a love relationship that Jesus modeled for us.”

With all of the current turmoil in the world, Kang believes that people around us are looking for a community of Jesus that will love an accept them, but also challenge them, in ways that are risky.

The Rev. Shawn Kang

“It’s a discerning love. It encourages, it emphasizes, it sacrifices,” he said. “I’m learning how to ask questions: ‘What are the new needs and injustices happening in their lives and in the community’s life?’ and then learn from them.”

Nancy Wind, ministry coordinator of Isaiah’s Table in Syracuse, New York, has built six core principles into the community she serves, principles she learned as a social worker. Each principle relates to this commandment from Jesus to love one another as he loved.

The principles, listed below, allow those who come to Isaiah’s Table to continue to grow, Wind said:

  • Service to those in need
  • Social justice
  • Dignity and worth
  • Importance of human relationship
  • Integrity
  • Competence

About half of the people drive to the building that houses Isaiah’s Table. The other half live in the neighborhood, in substandard housing projects, in shelters, or outside. Some have spent time in jail, Wind said.

Prior to the pandemic, Isaiah’s Table met for breakfast and worship on Saturday mornings.  When certain people displayed anger issues, the community developed a policy for how to handle worship disruption based on Matthew 18:22, where Jesus encouraged his disciples to forgive others again and again.

“We wanted to make sure it was taken care of in a way that respected a person’s dignity and their full humanity,” Wind said.

During the pandemic, many of the people coming to Isaiah’s Table either didn’t have online access or didn’t want to worship that way.

So, the community put up a chalk prayer board outside the building, where people could share their concerns and joys for their core group. The prayers are then offered up during the online worship service. They also installed an outdoor food pantry for people in the neighborhood to take what they need.

As the community began gathering again in July outside for “breakfast to go” and worship service again, one woman who had come all the time before the pandemic had faced major surgery and health problems.

When Wind told her that the community had lifted her name up in prayer every week, tears streamed down her face. She said, “I wondered if you still remembered me.”

Earlier this year, 1001 new worshiping community coordinator the Rev. Nikki Collins worshiped with Isaiah’s Table. She said she was blown away as she heard the names of every person who has ever worshiped with them lifted up during the prayers of the people.

“They do this every Sunday,” she said. “It was such a simple, loving act and blessing, knowing that my name would be added to the list.”

Watch the entire conversation on “Caring Relationships” here on the Vital Congregations Facebook page.

Sponsored by Vital Congregations in partnership with 1001 New Worshiping Communities, these panel discussions — Vital Conversations on the Seven Marks of Vital Congregations (see section 2)  — occur at 2 p.m. Eastern Time every Wednesday.

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