With one more week to go in our series, Being Useful, we are starting to get a lot more clarity on what the picture of a life that is useful to Jesus looks like. And what does it look like? Love. This week and next we are going to wrap up this powerful series by talking about the role love plays in the church and in the life of a follower of Jesus. Don’t miss a single part of it.
Some of the fiercest and most significant debates happen in places where nobody sees them. These are often inner-disciplinary debates among scholars on a single topic. And the stakes for these are a lot higher than it would seem. For instance, a debate among mathematicians about the best way to solve certain kinds of math problems may look from the outside like a bunch of geeks arguing about esoteric philosophies that have nothing to do with the daily lives of normal people. But, the winning side may very well have their ideas appear in textbooks—do they even use textbooks anymore?—and curricula for elementary students and, all of a sudden, a whole new way of thinking about math will be planted in the culture. All of a sudden, what was once abstract academic jargon begins to have a profound impact on the lives of regular people who are far removed from the ivy-covered campus buildings of elite universities. Hello: Have you tried helping your kids with their math homework lately? Case in point.
Another debate that largely goes unnoticed except when it occasionally makes it into the headlines is the debate over human origins. How did we get here and what makes us work so well? The conflict is usually billed as one between science and religion; or perhaps Darwinism and creationism. The truth is a bit more nuanced than that, but the open question is whether and how much some kind of a divine or super-intelligent being had anything to do with it.
We are not going to run very far into those weeds this morning, but I would like to set one idea before you. A few years ago, a biologist named Michael Behe discovered something called a bacterial flagellum. This is a kind of propulsion system located in some bacterial cells. It’s essentially a hyper-efficient and incredibly powerful onboard motor, but at the cellular level. The flagellum is composed of a number of different parts like most machines are, but here’s the important thing: If you take any one of those parts away, it won’t work anymore. At all. The point is this: For the bacterial flagellum to exist at all, it had to come into existence all at once. There is no evolutionary pathway that sufficiently explains its existence, especially not one working at random as Darwinism, properly defined, does. Now, this does not by any means solve the debate. But it does point in the direction of the reasonableness of concluding that some kind of an intelligent mind lies behind the existence of life in this world.
We can talk more about that another time. What I want to draw your attention to this morning, is the bacterial flagellum specifically. The term Behe coined for systems like this is that they are “irreducibly complex.” In other words, as complex as some system may look, it is as simple as it could possibly be. There are no ancillary parts. Everything is necessary for the thing to work. Take a single part away and it doesn’t. Think about a mousetrap. It’s an irreducibly complex system. Every single part on it is necessary for it to work as designed.
Thinking about all of this got me thinking about something else: What would it look like if you boiled the church down to its irreducibly complex core? What are the parts—or even just the part—that are absolutely necessary to its functioning? If you took those away, you wouldn’t have a church anymore. You might have a meeting of people of some kind, but it wouldn’t be a church. As we get down to the last couple of weeks of our series, Being Useful, we’re going to talk about something for which a pretty good case can be made that it sits near, if not at, the top of the list.
This morning we are in part 8 of this journey. Next week we are going to wrap everything up and it will really be a continuation of the conversation we start this morning, so you won’t want to miss that. The big idea for the whole series is that all of us have a desire to accomplish something of significance with our lives. Even perhaps more than that, we want to be useful in our daily lives. We want for people to want us around. Meaninglessness is not something we were made for.
This applies to our lives generally, but it applies just as much so to our relationship with Jesus. But, as we learned way back at the beginning of this journey, with Jesus, significance comes from character, not achievement. This is a totally different perspective than the world offers us on how to achieve that mark. Fortunately, we don’t have to wonder how to manage it. The apostle Peter tells us about as plain as we could ask for it to be. In his second letter to believers scattered across Asia Minor, he said that if we “possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep [us] from being useless or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” There it is. If we have and grow in “these qualities” we’re set. What exactly “these qualities” are has been the real focus of our journey.
Peter’s list started with faith, which is the secret to pleasing God. To that we added virtue which is something that comes out of our minds before it can manifest in our lives—virtuous living starts with virtuous thinking. To virtue we added knowledge, because if we are going to think rightly, we need to have some raw material to work with first. If we are going to know Jesus well, we’ve got to know some other stuff too. To knowledge we added self-control, because growing in knowledge like this isn’t something that happens on its own. But, making it through the craziness of this race called life demands it if we’re going to be successful. If we want to win the race of life, we’ve got to stay on track. Staying on track gets tough after a while, though, so to our self-control we added endurance. We endure in the faith because of the incredible promise we have in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead that it is all going to be worth it in the end. As long as that tomb stays empty, our efforts are not in vain. Keep at it; the tomb is still empty. Finally, last week we added godliness. But, as we said then, this is not simply something else we add to the canvas, but the result of all these different brushstrokes beginning to come together into a picture. Godliness, as we said, is about worship. It’s about a lifestyle of worship. It’s about doing our duty to God in light of all He’s done for us. God’s done a lot for you; return the favor.
So, where does this leave us? Where are we after seven weeks of painting this picture of how to be useful to Jesus? What is the result of our becoming useful to Jesus? Look at the next item on Peter’s list. In fact, look at the next two. To our godliness we need to add “brotherly love” and then “love.” You see, the next thing we need to add in order to complete this picture, but also the result of all the painting we have been doing is love. That’s a nice, small topic, yes? Right. Peter breaks this up into two parts and so we’ll follow suit. We’re going to space out our conversation about love over the span of a couple of weeks. Or, to put that in more modern terms: We’re going to have a two-part season finale. And, like Peter, we’re going to do this by first focusing in and then turning out from there.
Let’s talk about this idea of brotherly love. What does that mean? Well, it’s not talking about the kind of love my boys have for one another. As a matter of fact, come to think of it, on some days, we probably don’t want to mimic that kind of love at all. Peter here is talking specifically about the love that members of the body of Christ have for one another. We might call it “sibling affection.” If God is our Father and Christ is our brother, then all we who follow Him are brothers and sisters. This is the familial language the church has been using since it was founded. If we are going to be useful to Jesus, we need to love one another within the body of Christ. Loving people outside the body is really important, and we’ll talk a whole lot more about that next week, but unless we get loving each other well within the body, we’re not going to be able to long maintain the outward appearance of it.
Okay, so how do we get this right? Well, since Peter has introduced the concept of in-then-out to us, let’s let him shed a little more light on it for us. Like last week, flip just a couple of pages with me over to Peter’s first letter. Now, I’ve said that both of Peter’s letters were written to believers around the rim of what is today the nation of Turkey. It was Asia Minor then. These weren’t just happy-go-lucky believers who were quietly living out their lives in the shadow of Rome. Life wasn’t easy then. That was true generally; it was true specifically for followers of Jesus. In the earliest days of the church, Rome thought the Christians were just another branch of Judaism and mostly left them alone. The Jewish religious leaders not only resoundingly rejected that characterization, they reported their disagreement to the Roman authorities. Vigorously. The result was that the Christians were no longer afforded the civic exemptions from things like Emperor worship that the Jews received. This meant they began to experience the dark underbelly of the Pax Romana. Rome maintained its famous peace by ruthlessly forcing all of its citizens into a mold that could be easily controlled. If you tried to break from this, you were being a bad citizen and they tended to feed bad citizens to the lions.
You see, Peter was writing to a group of believers who were facing increasing persecutions from the state. Much of his first letter is focused on offering encouragement to them to keep on the path of Christ in spite of the trouble they were receiving for it. Living in a state of constant persecution and harassment is no small task. It wears on us. And over time, the stress begins to show itself in how we respond to the people around us. Enter Peter. Peter understood this. He’d been with the disciples in the crucible of the tension of traveling with Jesus. He had been there when they were sniping at each other and arguing over who was the most important. He was there when Jesus called them over and over to a better way. He knew what it took to stand up under the pressure of persecution. Find 1 Peter 4:7 and take a look at what he says here with me.
“The end of all things is near…” Pause there for just a minute. That’s a pretty foreboding statement, is it not? But Peter wrote that nearly 2,000 years ago. How are we supposed to take something like that seriously now? Well, Peter himself answers that toward the end of his second letter: “Dear friends, don’t overlook this one fact: With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance.”
We take Peter seriously because the timing on “near” may very well not work the same for a God who is eternal by nature as it does with us who are severely temporally limited. We take Peter seriously because Jesus Himself said that nobody knows when He’s going to come back. That means we need to live every single day like it could be around the corner.
In any event, after this kind of summary statement, Peter says this: “…therefore, be alert and sober-minded for prayer.” Sounds awfully familiar to what he said last week, doesn’t it? We might rephrase it like this: The end is near so stay focused on God and make sure you’re moving in His direction. And then, look at what he says next. Actually, think for a second about all the things that could follow this. Stay focused on God and knuckle down so you’re ready for what’s coming at you. Stay focused on God and pray hard for relief from the sufferings you are facing—He’ll get you through them. Stay focused on God and worship Him because that’s what you’ll be doing when Jesus returns, and you might as well start practicing now. We could go on, but you get the point. There are a whole lot of different things that could come next. Look at what he actually says: “Above all…” meaning, this is the most important thing; of everything else you need to be doing in light of Christ’s coming, this is number one. “Above all, maintain constant love for one another…”
Love is the first and most important thing we need to be doing as followers of Jesus. But, look closely at the context here. This isn’t simply a blanket call to love everybody. Peter is talking specifically to believers in the body of Christ here. That is, he’s talking to the church. He’s saying this: Church, the most important thing you can be doing in light of the state of the world you’re in is to love one another. Constantly. You might call this our point of irreducible complexity. Without this, we cannot exist. Take this one thing away, and the whole thing falls apart. The whole of the faith may rest on the foundation of the resurrection, but the basic operational element for the church is love. And that love starts with members of the body.
But, in order to get this right, we must understand properly what love is. We’ve talked about this before. I said then that we would come back to it over and over again. Love is an intentional decision to see someone else become more fully who God designed them to be. This is what we should think when we see Peter tell us that in light of the impending arrival of the end of all things the most important thing we can do is to love one another constantly. We must be constantly committed to seeing our brothers and sisters in Christ become more fully who God designed them in Christ to be.
If you think about it, this really is fundamentally important to the survival of the church. We are always being shaped by something. Always. Every second of every day we are becoming more or less like something else. If we are not becoming more like Christ, then we are becoming less like Him. If the church is designed to be the place that most reveals Christ to the world and offers a picture of what life in the kingdom of God is going to look like, if we are not becoming all the time more like Christ, then how are we going to be able to show the world what it looks like to live in His kingdom? How are we even going to be able to show them that it is a worthwhile thing to strive for such an end? The short answer is: We won’t be so able. Take out love for one another, and the church falls apart. Love, you might say, makes the church go ‘round. Love makes the church go ‘round.
Why? Why is this so central to our identity as the people of God? Well, perhaps first and foremost because God Himself is love. If we are His body, then we too must be fundamentally loving. There’s more. In what follows this banner statement, Peter offers us three reasons love is what makes the church go ‘round. The first reason comes in the second half of the verse. We must maintain constant love for one another, “since love covers a multitude of sins.” Let that one sit on you for a minute. It’s pretty a pretty powerful idea. Have you ever had someone in the church—a brother or sister in the Lord—sin against you? Sometimes those are the people who sin against us more frequently and grievously than anyone else, aren’t they? No one can hurt you like a family member can hurt you. We dare not make a list of all the people who have been hurt by the church. We’ll be here for the rest of the month and on into the next. And, sin like this threatens the body of Christ like few other things do. A public moral failure on the part of a key leader in the church has resulted in the eventual shuttering of more than one church.
If, however, we are committed to seeing each other become more fully who God designed us to be, all of a sudden, we have a way forward. We don’t ignore the sin, but more importantly perhaps, we don’t ignore the sinner. Our intention to see them grow into who God designed them to be compels us to forgive them even as He already has in Christ. Restoring the relationship is going to come more slowly and with greater difficulty, but it can’t happen without that initial forgiveness. Love leads us to make that first move. Indeed, Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, if we have something between us and a fellow believer, we shouldn’t even bother trying to worship until we have sorted it out. No matter how grave the offense, if someone has offended us—or we them—we must get that dealt with before we try and worship the Lord. That includes observing the Lord’s Supper, by the way. More on that one in just a bit. The idea here is that love covers over sins and allows life to continue. It doesn’t mean they are swept under the rug. It means they are smothered in love; the kind of love that draws righteousness out of the one who experiences it. Putting this into practice keeps any one sin from derailing a church’s efforts at advancing the kingdom of God. It covers a multitude of sins. Love makes the church go ‘round.
What else? Look at what he says next. He says we should “be hospitable to one another…” That seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Most churches are pretty good about that. If there’s a need in the body, most churches can count on someone stepping up to help. Yeah…but that’s not the extent of what he says. He says we should be hospitable to one another “without grumbling.” That’s a bit trickier. In a sense, it’s easy to be hospitable. We do that all the time. Doing it without grumbling—even under your breath—is harder. We do things out of habit. We do them out of a sense of guilt or even duty. But doing them gladly…that takes something else. It takes love. Love makes the church go ‘round. If we are committed to seeing our brothers and sisters in Christ become more fully who God designed them to be, we will bear with their needs and failings with grace and even cheerfulness, because we understand we are playing a role in molding them in His image and there is no higher good than that for any person in the whole world. It puts us firmly in line with God’s own intentions for them.
Now, we really do this one well as a body. I don’t say this pridefully, but our reputation in the community is as a really loving, friendly church. We love in and love out really well. But one place this idea of love as showing hospitality without grumbling can come pretty powerfully into play is in the midst of a season of change. Maintaining love when things are in flux is a mark of a healthy church that speaks with greater volume than almost any other such mark. Here’s what I mean: One of the reasons a lot of folks go to church and stick with that church—even if it’s a bad church—is because in a culture that seems to be in a constant of change, the church often doesn’t. Whether they can give word to it or not, for many folks, the church is a place of stability in a world that often isn’t. When a church gets this whole loving thing right, though, the odds are pretty good that it’s going to grow. Well, growth means change…which is exactly what so many go to church to avoid. As a result, change has destroyed many churches. Now, sometimes this is because an overzealous pastor has foisted too much too fast on a congregation and they finally break. Sometimes, though, the change is the natural result of getting things right. As a church grows, approaches to doing church that worked before cease to work in the same way they did. This causes stress. It causes tension. In a sense, it brings about a season of mourning. In short: It requires a lot of hospitality. Love is what allows a church to weather this particular storm. An intentional commitment to see our brothers and sisters become more fully who God designed them to be—even in a season of great turmoil—will see us through the valley of change and to the plateaus of a new and exciting reality waiting for us on the other side. Why? Because love covers a multitude of sins. Indeed, love makes the church go ‘round.
Okay, but how do we move in this direction? We serve. Look at this last part of what Peter says here: “Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve others, as good stewards of the varied grace of God.” Being intentionally committed to seeing our brothers and sisters in Christ become more fully who God designed them to be requires action on our part. It requires the action of service. Each member of the body has been specifically gifted by God for the role He designed them to play in it. Love compels us to seek out and fulfill that role to the benefit of the rest. No two members are identical in this. Even when their gifts might be similar, they bring a different set of experiences and passions and abilities to the table with their gift such that they have been designed for a truly unique role. The reasons God has designed the system to work like this are many, but here’s one: How one person is going to be moved intentionally in His direction is not the same as another person is going to be. Thus, there are a variety of gifts to reach a variety of people. All of this so that love’s aim is fulfilled. Love makes the church go ‘round.
Love is the church’s one truly irreducibly complex element. She just won’t work without it. You can take a way a whole bunch of other things, but remove love and the engine is gone. And, three of the best ways love is expressed are through forgiving one another, being hospitable without grumbling, and serving one another with the gifts God has given us for that purpose. These are the things that make the church go ‘round. And when they are firmly in place, our loving in begins to naturally flow out—because that’s what love does. We’ll talk about why loving out is so important and what it can look like next week.