As I said last week, I’ve been reading Dominion, historian Tom Holland’s account of the expansive 2,000-year history of Christianity. What I find most remarkable are the stories of amazing people who, virtually single-handedly, changed the face of entire civilizations forever. People like Patrick, a 5th century Roman Briton who at age 16 was captured by Irish pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland. While in captivity, he converted to Christianity, and eventually escaped to Britain. God told him in a vision to return to Ireland and preach the gospel. Returning to convert his former captors, Patrick became the patron saint of Ireland, a people whose eventual Christian culture of writing and transcribing ancient texts kept many Greco-Roman classics alive and intact to this day.
No less intriguing was Boniface, an 8th-century Anglo-Saxon son of a prosperous family. Boniface left his wealth behind to become a monk and a missionary to the then-pagan Germanic people. He established monasteries and baptized Christians throughout what is now known as France and Germany, physically cutting down pagan worship sites and building churches in their places, before ultimately being martyred by bandits.
What possessed these men, and countless others like them, to return to the lands of their slavery, to leave worldly possessions behind, to enter dangerous and dark places, and to face death without fear? They were motivated by love: love for God, and love for others. And, for all the grandeur, their stories are no more amazing, no more earth-shattering than yours. You’re capable of that kind of love, you know? The only thing that separates you and me from people like Patrick and Boniface is our willingness to press into Jesus, and to take advantage of the opportunity.
The thing that most separates us from non-believers, the one thing that is and should be an identifying factor of a follower of Jesus Christ, is supernatural love. The story of Christianity throughout the ages is that of people, motivated by love for God, spilling over into love for others, a love causing them to carry the gospel to unknown places; stepping into disease-ridden regions to care for others; taking other people’s children into their homes; investing their whole lives into educating others, often in far off, remote places. That’s still the story.
Great men and women of the faith, people of tremendous strength, of godly character, courage, and hope, allowed themselves to be killed rather than to compromise love. They didn’t fight for or assert their own personal rights or selfish needs, but laid them down for others. The greatest witness we can give the world is how we love.
The best definition I ever heard for love is that it’s the intentional decision to be all for another. Love is not a feeling, but a decision, a purpose, a sacrifice for others. It’s the most powerful force in the universe–love is the power that created all life, it motivated God’s dealings with man throughout history, and it conquered death and the grave. As the apostle Paul said, love never fails.
That kind of love is only possible as an overflow of one’s love for God. There is no other way. It’s otherwise impossible to sustain over time.
If you’ve ever been a pastor, a teacher, a leader, a coach, a church group leader, or a parent, you’ve seen this love in action–God gives you this indescribable love for the person or people He has given you, a love that isn’t dependent on their loveliness or willingness to be loved. This is the love that Moses had for (let’s face it) the overall absolutely miserable people of Israel, the love you have for your (at times, equally miserable) children, and the love I have for you (unlike those others, we’re always delightful, right?). This love defies logic; it ought not exist, in a Darwinian, selfish, preserve-and-promote-me-at-all-costs-even-at-the-expense-of-you-world. And, yet it simply is. It’s the most beautiful thing that exists; it’s otherworldly and God-like, because that’s from whence it comes.
It’s not meant to be hoarded, but shared. God may not have called you around the world, and He may never do so. He did, however, put you in that home, that office, this school, your congregation, and wherever else you work, live, and play, to be Patricks and Bonifaces to those people God gave you, and to love them well.
And, love is expressed in community through unity. The greatest expression of unity through love we have is Christ’s Church. Pastor and author Tim Keller has observed that the Church is, and has always been, composed of people who would otherwise be each other’s natural enemies, brought together by the blood of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit and made a family. That’s the whole point of the Church; it’s why in John 17, on the night before His death, Christ prayed in the Upper Room that we would be unified, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world…I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Christ banked His message, His entire gospel, on us loving each other and being unified in a way that would testify that He was who He said He was. Because in some beautiful, miraculous manner, when we are unified, we give testimony to that gospel love, and to the healing, reconciling power of the gospel and the blood of Jesus to break down barriers and unite natural enemies.
And, nothing–neither politics, nor ethnicity, nor our position on masks or vaccines or the CDC–nothing is supposed to stand in the way of that unifying force, the force of love. When we let things divide us and separate us from our brothers and sisters in Christ who are different than we, yet the same, we miss the whole point of the Church and, by extension, the gospel. We’re supposed to be different from each other; we’re not supposed to agree on everything; and yet, we’re supposed to be unified and to care for and love each other. Even when we don’t agree with each other, heck, even when we don’t like each other that much. That’s the gospel. Yet, we mock that very gospel, and say it doesn’t really apply to us and we don’t really care to live it out, when we blast our brothers and sister on social media or behind their backs, or in our little groups, or when we refuse to listen, and talk, and be reconciled, or we bear unforgiveness in our hearts, or we treat each other differently based on beauty, or status, or wealth, or any reason other than who they are in Jesus.
We’re all guilty of these things. We all stand convicted. Yet, we’re all covered by the blood of Christ. The Christian faith is about repentance, about having a heart that is inclined to seek forgiveness and restoration, and a desire to live differently. The majesty of the Cross is that we don’t have to wallow in the guilt and shame of messing it up–we just have to repent and commit to doing it better. Pressing into Jesus. Chasing after Him. Spending at least as much time pursuing Him as the other stuff. Then, letting that overflow spill into love and charity for our brothers and sisters, thinking of them and caring for them, listening to their stories and understanding what motivates them, whether pain or struggle or other life experience, seeking to forgive and being willing to be forgiven.
Standing firm in love and unity this year means being the Body, literally the hands and feet of Jesus to a dying world in need of both.