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BIBLE EXPLORATIONS: CONGREGATIONAL VITALITY

Jesus commands us to love

By Chip Hardwick | Presbyterians Today

John 13:31–35 is a lectionary text for May 19.

I recently read a sermon by a friend from seminary detailing a harrowing time when insomnia led to migraines, which led to hallucinations, which led to a diagnosis of mental illness. My friend drew on Jesus’ healing of the demoniac in Mark’s Gospel, and explained that Jesus, today, used medical professionals, effective drugs and sabbath rest to return her to health.

The sermon is remarkable not just because my friend broke open the taboos of speaking about mental illness, but also because of her testimony to the care she received during her journey. Her husband and parents were her rocks. Doctors, nurses and healers treated her body, mind and spirit. The leaders of her congregation told her to take care of herself and come back when she could. “No judgment, no drama. Only love,” she said.

No judgment, no drama. Only love. That’s a pretty good way to describe what caring relationships in a vital congregation should look like. It’s also a wonderful way to live out Jesus’ new commandment from John 13:31–35, a lectionary reading for the fifth Sunday of Easter.

It’s Maundy Thursday of that first Holy Week. Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet and foretold his betrayal. Amid what scholars call the farewell discourse, Jesus pauses to remind his friends that his crucifixion will reveal his glory. Next, Jesus explains that he will be there with them only a little longer. The passage then climaxes with the call to love one another, as Jesus has loved.

Although the Scriptures often call us to care for others outside the faith community, in this case Jesus seems to be talking to the body of believers, that we should watch out for each other as my friend’s church cared for her.

Presbyterian congregations often excel at caring relationships. Casseroles at funerals, concerned phone calls, handwritten notes — these actions help people experience the love of Christ. This connection seems even to have been on Jesus’ mind. Why else would he move right from a statement of his departure into a command about loving each other? Jesus chooses us as magnificent means of demonstrating his love to others.

This love is reflected in the concept of the missional church, which is based on the premise that the church exists to primarily benefit those outside the congregation rather than ourselves. In this light, encouraging caring relationships with each other might seem like a throwback to a more inwardly focused church. But Jesus doesn’t see it this way. Even this inwardly focused care is a means to evangelize when Jesus says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Caring relationships can speak louder than words. In the “Feasting on the Word” commentary, Gary Jones relates a story from Isak Dinesen’s “Out of Africa.” A boy named Kitau asked the author (a Christian) for a job in her household. He worked there for three months before announcing that he was leaving to work for a nearby Muslim. Kitau resisted her entreaties to stay, for he had an ulterior motive. He was considering converting to either Islam or Christianity, so he decided to spend three months working in a home of someone who practiced each religion. The author wished she had had some warning ahead of time.

Jones does not relate in the commentary what happened to Kitau. I like the ambiguity, though. It reminds me that we never know how caring relationships  — or lack thereof — will impact others as they consider the faith. When we encourage the caring relationships that mark vital congregations, however, the love we show for each other spins out to the world. May it be so, as Jesus’ new commandment bears fruit in us.

Chip Hardwick is interim pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest, Illinois.


Discussion Questions

  • Where does your congregation excel in caring for its members?
  • How can your congregation improve in caring for one another?
  • Finally, think of someone in the pew who is hard to love. What can you do to show them your care and compassion?

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