We encounter Jesus in all different ways, but the "easiest" way to encounter him is through the life of another. Whenever we see and feel Jesus "lived out" through the life of a human being, we connect to him in a manner which we can really wrap our heads around. One of the hopes Jesus had when he left his disciples on this earth to go back to living with his Father in heaven was the idea of close, intimate fellowship with other believers. He knew the power of this closeness - the strength in the "numbers", so to speak. For this fellowship to be really, really good, we need to remember it involves a couple of things like unity, partnership, and participation. Try to get anything done where there is a lack of unity, a working in silos, or a simple lack of disregard for another and you don't get very far. In the most literal sense, Jesus showed his disciples the cycle of believing and belonging. There is something which stems from our beliefs - it is the ability and willingness to belong.
Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality. Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. (Romans 12:9-18 MSG)
In order for us to get the most out of our times of fellowship with each other, it is essential to create a culture where love is free to grow and have its deepest influence in our lives. This is the type of culture Jesus tried to create for those who moved into fellowship with him. It was a culture where people, good and bad alike, were welcomed and felt both comfort and challenge. What are some of the characteristics of this culture of love Jesus created?
- It is a place where people are really loved. There are a lot of excuses for "love" these days, but when you find a place where love is genuine, from the core of another's being, you know you are loved. Jesus had a way of making people aware of his love, not by the words he spoke, but by the actions he exhibited. As it has been said millions of times - words speak, but actions speak louder.
- It is a place where what is truly wrong is really not something we will embrace. I don't use the "hate" word very often, but in truth, a culture of love hates evil. There is not desire to embrace even one iota of evil - wrong. It is not a place of intolerance, but of desire to live untainted by that which takes away from the beauty and wholeness of God's unconditional love.
- It is also a place where we both embrace good and stand up for it. We all have the ability to embrace good - having the ability and willingness to stand up for it is quite a different matter. To embrace something requires empty arms - maybe this is the way we really begin to mesh in fellowship with another. We empty ourselves of all which weighs us down, in order to embrace that which sets us free. Then we go about sharing what has become the basis of our joy.
- It is a culture of honor. If you have ever observed a military graduation, with the parading troops, turned out in their adorned uniforms, all spit-shine and glowing, you have seen an element of "honor". For those who choose the way of military life, there is honor in wearing the uniform of the country they so proudly stand up for. Honor is both standing up for another and standing in for another. It is the willingness to lay down your own agenda in respect for the needs of another.
- It is a place were laziness is not a trend, but a rarity. A culture of love is an active culture - there is continual service toward each other. There is no shortage of the giving of oneself to meet the needs of another - spoken and unspoken.
- It is a place where blessing, not cursing, becomes the way of communicating. Most will agree, more is shared in the unspoken communication of love than in the spoken. Blessing another with your time, talent, and treasure are all ways of where love becomes a means of communicating the grace of God in another's life.
- It is also a place where your life experiences matter. If you have ever shared your tears with another, you know how much that exchange mattered. There is something powerful in sharing both the joys and sorrows of another. Today, I received news the father of a friend we have been praying for received the news of no active disease (NAD) on his most recent PET scan. The cancer is gone! This life experience has been something very tough for this family, but when life experiences have been walked together, the journey is made a little lighter.
- It is a culture where diversity is appreciated, not condemned. We all contribute uniquely in community. Fellowship with others is a way of learning from the diversity, not setting the diverse apart. There is so much to be learned when brothers and sisters learn to dwell together in unity, isn't there?
So, how do we get to this place of fellowship? First, you and I need to individually experience the love of God in our own lives. It is this love which draws us together and holds us in bonds which are not easily broken. One thing we learn from God's example of love through is Son is the idea of being loved as we are, not as we could or should be. Jesus never looked for us to clean up our act so he could love us. He loved us first, knowing that very love would be what would lead to our desire to be cleaned inside and out. I think this is why it is so important we experience God's love ourselves - we need to get our priorities straight. His love is "reaching" - it reaches even the worst of sinners right where they are - not where they should be!
Second, we have to practice God's love. Nothing good comes naturally in life, have you ever noticed that? The really good stuff you have to work a little harder to obtain. You want a nice waistline, you work at it. You want a better career, you work at it. In God's family, the same is true. You want a family where love is modeled and unloving behavior is not the "norm" - you have to work at it. Practice makes perfect is the old adage - so want to begin to love perfectly? Then you have to practice love a lot!
Last, but not least, we have to allow God to love others through us. This may seem like it should go without saying, but in actuality, we sometimes don't want to share ourselves with another. There is something which transpires within us when we are willing to share in the lives of others - community. God is always more evident in the love which is shared than in the love which is spoken. Just sayin!