This week we finally wrapped up our series, Being Useful. In the final analysis, how can we be the most useful to Jesus? The answer is found in getting ourselves on board with His most central mission: To love one another into the kingdom of God. To find out more about this incredibly freeing truth, keep reading.
Love Like Jesus
By the time I reached my senior year of college, I was so deep into my chemistry major there was no turning back from that. I say that, because by that time I had already agreed to pursue God’s call to ministry and realized that most of what I had spent the previous three years learning was going to gradually leak out of the back of my head from disuse. Always a fun realization when you still have the four hardest courses of your major yet ahead of you. Speaking of that, one of those courses was Descriptive Inorganic Chemistry, or DINC for short. The professor for the class was Dr. John O’Brien.
In our very first lecture he started the semester off by telling us that DINC was all about learning why everything we had learned in Gen Chem was wrong. Now, as a chemistry major, Gen Chem had formed the foundation for everything we’d learned to that point. Each new thing we learned whether in Quant or Organic Chem or P-Chem was all prefaced on this: “You learned such-and-such in Gen Chem; now we’re going to explain a little more about that.” But now, we got, “Everything you learned then wasn’t really right, so now we’re going to teach what is right.” It was a bit of a system shock to be sure.
Now, it wasn’t totally true. The things we had learned weren’t really wrong. But we learned them at a level that was rudimentary enough that as we explored them in even greater detail in the weeks ahead, it was going to seem like they were wrong. It was a little like what had happened to the physics world when a young, Swiss physicist named Albert Einstein, published a paper detailing his theory of special gravity. For a world used to the comforting familiarity of Newtonian physics, Einstein’s theory—published without a single reference because no one else in the whole history of humanity had thought in those terms before—turned the world on its head and left everybody who knew enough to watch utterly stunned. Einstein could have titled his paper, “Why Everything You Thought You Knew about Physics Is Probably Wrong.” Discovering that a deeply held belief is wrong is always an unsettling affair. And do you know who had a really bad habit of doing this kind of thing? Jesus.
This morning we are in the ninth and final part of our series, Being Useful. If you’ve been staying tuned to see where all of this was going: We are finally here. If you are so sick of this series after nine episodes that you were starting to think about finding a new preacher to listen to for a while: We are finally here. If you come back next week, we are going to be talking about something totally new and which I think you’ll find remarkably helpful. Stay tuned for that. If this happens to be the first part of the series you’ve caught, that’s just fine. I’ll bring you up to speed in a second, but you can go to the church’s website or my blog to catch up on what you’ve missed. Both are there on the bulletin for you. This morning as we wrap up the last two months’ worth of thinking and talking together, we are going to see just what exactly it looks like to live a life that is useful to Jesus.
Just to make sure we are all on the same page, let’s talk for a minute about how we have gotten here. The whole idea that has been animating this series from the start is that we all have within us a desire to do something significant with our lives. Even more potently than that, we want to be useful in our daily lives. We want for the things we do day-in and day-out to matter. And this is more than just words for the sake of getting you on board with me at the beginning of the message. This past week I heard about a survey done of British young people which found that among 16-29 year-olds, 89% believe their life has no meaning. That’s a culture in crisis and not a few folks recognize the seriousness of those findings. Absent the Christian worldview, though, they don’t know what to do about them. The point, though, is that we need for our lives to have meaning. And, if you are someone who values a relationship with Jesus, you want that in particular to have meaning.
Fortunately, we don’t have to wonder about how to do that like we so often do in our lives more generally. The apostle Peter told us how to hit that particular mark in our lives in his second letter to believers scattered across Asia Minor. We’ve come back to this verse again and again as we have journeyed together. In fact, I’m going to put this up on the screen. Read this with me: “If you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being useless or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Right there Peter tells us how to achieve the mark of usefulness, of significance in our relationship with Jesus. The qualities Peter lists helps us see this has nothing to do with what we have or will do, and everything to do with who we are; with the kind of character we are developing.
As for what these qualities are, that has been the substance of our conversations. We started with faith and to that added virtue, knowledge, self-control, endurance, and godliness. Each of these builds on the next. Faith pleases God, but only when it is lived out through virtue, which only manifests itself when we have the proper knowledge framework to support it, which itself only remains in place when we are intentional—that is, self-controlled—about keeping it there, which is something that demands endurance when it gets hard after a while. Ultimately, all of this plays out through a gradual increase in godliness in our lives as we pursue fulfilling the duty we owe to God for all He’s done for us. And, while we can only succeed in all of this with the help of the Holy Spirit, these aren’t the same as the fruits of the Spirit. These aren’t evidences of the Spirit’s presence so much as they are the things we do (again, with His help) to increase the impact and effectiveness of His presence in our lives. In other words, this is the life-gardening we do in order to see the fruit of the Spirit grow in us.
The end of all of this effort, as we talked about last week, is love. If we are going to be useful to Jesus, the grand culmination of anything we put toward that goal is going to be the growth of love in our lives, which, if you remember Paul’s list of the fruit of the Spirit, is the first fruit. The rest come from there.
Well, last week, following on the guidance Peter himself gives us, we started our conversation about love by talking about loving in. The first place we should aim our love as followers of Jesus is at other members of the body. If we aren’t loving one another well within the body of Christ, we’re never going to be able to get love right when we start looking outside the body. Or perhaps, to borrow an idea from Jesus, we can’t love others as we love ourselves if we don’t love ourselves well.
But, loving in is never the end of the game. Loving in is always and only a precursor to loving out. This is because that’s what love does. It flows. It flows in, but then it flows out. If it doesn’t do both, it isn’t really love. We can see this from God’s own love. Because our God is a triune God—Father, Son, and Spirit all equally God—He was a perfect community among Himself before the creation of the world. His love for Himself was totally complete. He had no need of any kind to create. But, love doesn’t just stay in; it flows. And so He created the world and everything in it and us uniquely in His image in order for His love to flow. Following the same pattern, when God’s love pours into us, it is never for the purposes of staying in us. It never merely flows in. It always flows out. Loving flowing only in is like water flowing only in. If it doesn’t also flow out it grows stagnant, stale, and eventually deadly. So, this morning, we are going to wrap up this whole series by talking about the last thing we need to add if we are going to be useful to Jesus, which is also the ultimate result of our hitting that mark successfully. The last piece of this puzzle is loving out. So…what does that look like?
Well, there’s no greater example of loving out than Jesus Himself, so it would make sense for us to look at what He had to say on the matter for guidance. Think for a minute about some of the things Jesus said about love. Which sayings are the most well-known and beloved? How about this one: Love others as you love yourself. That’s got to rank at least near the top of the list, right? This saying is so popular it actually has its own name. What’s it called? It’s called the Golden Rule, isn’t it? By a show of hands, how many of you learned the Golden Rule when you were growing up? It’s often sanitized by phrasing it, “Treat others the way you want to be treated,” but in many ways it forms part of the bedrock ethical framework for our whole culture. Doing to other people what we would have them do to us has been the assumed ticket to a happy, healthy culture for centuries.
As a matter of fact—and this may come as a surprise to you—the basic idea predates Jesus by quite a number of years. Moral teachers as far back as Confucius and the Buddha have been espousing something pretty similar. Now, before Jesus, the idea tended to be put negatively—don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you—which is actually a more significant difference than it may seem at first glance, but the basic idea is still roughly the same. The way we expect people to treat us should be the basic measurement for how we treat them. If we don’t do that, chaos is going to be the result. At least, you would think something like that would be foundationally basic. But, moral teachers and reformers have had to proclaim the idea because it isn’t so natural as it would seem it should be. We tend to operate on the principle of, “Do unto others before they can do unto you.” Sometimes we modify that to be, “Do unto others so that they don’t do unto you.” There is also the more vengeful cousin: “Do unto others because they’ve done unto you.” So, as it turns out, Jesus saying this really was pretty important.
Yet even in the form Jesus phrased it, this saying isn’t unique to Him. He was simply quoting Scripture. This becomes really clear in His confrontation with the Pharisees on the matter, recorded in Matthew 22. When asked what the greatest commandment in the Law was, Jesus responded with a two-part answer. He first cites the Shema, but then He adds something else to this: “The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” You notice the extra set of quotes in there, right? Jesus was quoting from the Law. This, of course, just begs the question of which Law He was citing. The answer to that is found back in the book of Leviticus. I know, that Leviticus again. The quote comes from Leviticus 19:18. What was going on in Leviticus 19:18?
Let’s take a second and find out. Jesus only actually quoted part of Leviticus 19:18. The full verse says this: “Do not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your community, but love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.” Now, that last phrase is important. It is so important, in fact, that it appears quite often in Leviticus. It appears 14 times in this chapter alone. Leviticus 19 is often known as the “holiness code” of the Law. God gives the people a whole series of commands that are all rooted in the controlling command found in 19:1-2: “The Lord spoke to Moses: ‘Speak to the entire Israelite community and tell them: Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.’” In other words, the command to love your neighbor as yourself, is rooted in this larger command to pattern our lives and interactions with the people around us after the pattern of God’s own character.
Now, Jesus’ audience would have known this. When He quoted from Leviticus 19, most of the men standing there listening to Him could have probably recited the entire chapter verbatim. Because of this context, they would have heard Him as talking about loving other members of the tribe. This command, in its original setting, was all about loving in. You see, when you really start to think about it, the Golden Rule begins to look a bit…tarnished (the irony, of course, being that real gold doesn’t tarnish).
Oh, don’t get me wrong: It’s still a really good command. I’m not arguing with Jesus here. I’m just saying…it has its limits. For starters, unless Jesus was reclarifying the context, it really is a “loving-in” command. That’s really good for people within a single tribe—and by “tribe,” I mean a group of people who share a point of commonality that is not universal—because if we don’t go by that, the tribe is going to fall apart. Jesus Himself noted that a house divided against itself cannot stand. But, what about people who aren’t in the tribe? Well, those folks are typically categorized as “enemies,” and treated accordingly. I mean, there’s a reason Jesus had to tell us to love our enemies too in the Sermon on the Mount.
But, didn’t Jesus come to save everybody, not just the people who are like us? You know, the whole “for God so loved the world’ thing. On our own, we just look out for ourselves and forget about everyone else. God took care of that when He told us to love our neighbors. Jesus reiterated the point in the Golden Rule. But the Golden Rule, as good as it is, doesn’t get us to where Jesus was going. His total redefinition of who counts as our neighbor in the parable of the good Samaritan helps us see that and also where He was going. He needed for us to get past loving in to start loving out.
As a result of this, when He was just a few weeks from the end of His earthly ministry, on the night before He was crucified, Jesus looked at all the guys and gave them what amounted to the same speech Dr. O’Brien gave us on the first day of DINC: Remember all that stuff you thought you knew? I’m about to tell you why all of that was wrong. Now, no, that’s not really what Jesus said, but He might as well have because of how shocking and powerful what He was about to say was. John records this for us in the thirteenth chapter of his Gospel. Let’s pick this up in John 13:31: “When he had left, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Children, I am with you a little while longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so now I tell you: Where I am going, you cannot come.’”
Clear as a bell? You’re not alone if it’s not. The disciples heard this and it absolutely baffled them. They didn’t have any idea what He was talking about. Jesus was saying this: “My time is about up, guys. God’s about to do something really, really powerful, and then I’m out of here. And you can’t come with me.” In other words, anything He said after this fits in the category of Jesus’ final words and they needed to pay really close attention. What follows is three chapters of teaching and one long prayer, but all of it falls under the thematic heading of what He says next.
Look at this in v .34 now: “I give you a new command.” By “new” here, Jesus didn’t mean He was adding something to the Law. He was about to fulfill the Law. This was something new; a new command to replace everything that had been in the Law. This one thing was going to be the secret to getting all of that right. Stay with me now: “I give you a new command: Love one another.” That’s it. That is the sum total of all of Jesus’ teachings. This was the thing He wanted them to remember first and most when He wasn’t with them any longer. Love one another.
And if that sounds an awful lot like, “love your neighbor,” with its primarily inward focus, it’s not. Listen to what comes next. Jesus gives us the standard for that love so we know when we are fulfilling the command. “Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another.” There it is. We are to love like Jesus did. That’s the standard. Loving others as we love ourselves is good, but it’s like comparing Gen Chem to DINC. It doesn’t go far enough. The standard then is our love for ourselves and anytime we put ourselves at the center of anything we are setting ourselves up for trouble.
Jesus said that the new standard for life in His kingdom is His own love for us. This is incredibly freeing. All the factors that we might have tried to bring into our efforts to love the people around us—including our own love for ourselves—can be thrown out the window. The only thing that matters is His love for us. We ask: Does this reflect the way Jesus loved us? If it does, we’re good. If it doesn’t, we’re not. Simple.
Okay, but how did Jesus love? For the answer to that, we just need to look at the context of this command. Look at the section titles in your Bible. What happened at the beginning of this chapter? Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. In fact, John tells us that He washed their feet—the most menial service possible in that culture, making it something a superior would never do for a subordinate—with the full knowledge of who He was and what He was about to do. Knowing all of that, Jesus willingly debased Himself; He embarrassed Himself, and did what was unthinkable: He served them. In other words, loving like Jesus looks like serving others from a place of utter selflessness.
The next important thing that gives us a clear picture of loving like Jesus came right on the heels of the meal. Jesus revealed that one of the disciples was going to betray Him. This was obviously like a bomb going off in the room, but Jesus won’t tell them directly who it’s going to be. Mysteriously, though (to them, not us), the very next thing He says is to Judas, to who He says: “What you’re doing, do quickly.” Hindsight is clear on what was happening here. But the point I want for us to see together is that even though the disciples didn’t understand what was happening, Jesus knew what was going on with Judas. He knew what was going on, and He didn’t do a single thing about it. He just let it happen.
Think about that. Jesus knew what Judas was about to do…and He didn’t do a thing to stop him. He didn’t berate Him. He didn’t embarrass Him. He didn’t sic the other guys on Him. Nothing. He just let Him go. This no doubt broke His heart. He was surely inwardly rooting for Judas to stay put and go with the group to the Mount of Olives, but even as he left, Jesus was kind to Judas. He brilliantly put His call to love our enemies on display here. Loving like Jesus looks like being gracious with those who aren’t gracious with you. It looks like being kind to those who might be best characterized as your enemies.
But, if that is a pretty big idea, what comes next just blows the whole thing into the territory of radically new ideas. What happens after Jesus says all of this to the disciples? Well, they talked there for a little while longer. Then they went to the Mount of Olives. They made it from there to the Garden of Gethsemane. Then the wheels fell off. The mob, led by Judas, came to arrest Jesus. There was a brief scuffle, during which time Jesus scolded Peter for trying to defend Him. Jesus was taken to a sham, illegal trial in the home of the chief priest and finally to Pilate early the next morning. By 9:00 He was hanging and dying on a cross on the outskirts of town. The Lamb of God was taking away the sins of the world. This was what loving like Jesus looks like most. It looks like being willing to sacrifice even up to your very life for the sake of seeing people who are wildly undeserving have an open pathway and invitation to become fully who God designed them to be. When Jesus commanded His followers to love like Him, this is the only limit we need be concerned about keeping. If we haven’t reached this point yet, we can keep right on loving.
As a matter of fact, His example of love is so extreme that anyone who even approximates it in their life will be immediately recognizable as one of His followers. Jesus Himself was explicit about this: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” You see, this loving one another thing isn’t just a command. It’s a nametag. It’s an identity. For folks who would profess to follow Jesus, it’s the only way we will really ever be known. Or perhaps to put this in terms that will make sense given what we’ve been talking about for nine weeks now, loving one another is being useful to Jesus. Loving one another is being useful to Jesus.
The reason for this is that Jesus came to earth with a mission. He had a very clear goal in mind: To open the doors to the kingdom of God and into invite anyone interested to enter it with Him. And the method He used was love. No one was or is to be forced into the kingdom. You can’t be forced in. You can only come in willingly. Love is the key to this happening. If we are going to be His followers, then we need to be fully on board with His mission and His method. If we aren’t loving one another into the kingdom of God, then we’re actively working against Him. And if we’re actively working against Him, then we aren’t really following Him at all, are we? Loving one another is being useful to Jesus.
And so we serve. Selflessly. We serve when it’s not convenient. We serve to meet needs both felt and actual. We serve regardless of at whom our efforts are aimed or how menial the task may be. We serve and we are kind and gracious. We are to be known for our kindness in fact. We are kind with people who are like us. But we are also kind with those who are not like us. We are kind with those who don’t like us. We are kind with those who actively work against us and harass us and persecute us. And in our kindness, we sacrifice. We sacrifice our time, our talents, and our treasure—even our very lives—to create opportunities for anyone who wishes to connect with the God of life through Jesus His Son. We do this because Jesus did, and we want to be useful to Him. Loving one another is being useful to Jesus. Loving one another is being useful to Jesus.
So then, let me put all of this to you as a very simple question: Are you being useful to Jesus? If you are someone who would claim the mantle of “Jesus follower,” are you being useful to Him? Or perhaps I could put it another way: Are you loving one another as Jesus loved you? Because: Loving one another is being useful to Jesus. There’s just no way around that. Let us, then, commit together to being a place that loves well. Let us be a place where people connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom because they know they’ll be loved here. They’ll be received as they are and moved intentionally in the direction of who God designed them to be. Loving one another is being useful to Jesus. Let’s be useful.