Colossians Part 3: The fountain of Love and Hope.

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Colossians Part 3: The fountain of Love and Hope. Colossians 1:3-9

When we truly hope for something important, that hope creates fellowship with others who have the same hope. Therefore, when the grace and love of God are poured into us, they create a kind of fountain that first fills us, and then pours out of us into our relationships with other Christians, and then fills the church (our fellow Christians) and pours out into the world. That is God design. If the fountain doesn’t seem to be working, the first place to check is the source: our own connection to the love of God in Jesus.

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By the way, I take all of the five verses above in one piece, because, in Greek, they are on sentence. There is a lot to this sentence (paragraph, in English) but all of the thoughts hang together. The ESV translation captures this quite well. Obviously, as we discussed before, Paul has never met most of the Christians in Colossae. But here he points out that because of their common faith, it is appropriate for Paul to give thanks for them, and it is appropriate for all Christians to love even those believers whom they have not yet met. It is worthwhile to notice that the Apostle Paul often gives thanks when he writes. But we should also notice that his giving of thanks is very specific. He thanks God, the father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He does not thank “the universe,” nor does he just feel vaguely thankful. He is thankful to a specific person, God, that is, the Father of our Lord Jesus (not a pagan god, nor some god-principle). He is thankful to the One the Bible describes as the only true God.

Second, Paul is specific in what he is thankful about. In all his letters, he is especially thankful when he hears that people are putting their trust in Jesus, and receiving the salvation that comes only through him. I think it is often helpful to be thankful for little things, like warm biscuits, and fresh cold water, and good friends and a working vehicle. However, none of those things is guaranteed in life. We can be rightly grateful for them. But we may not always have them. But there is one thing that is guaranteed. One thing, if we want it, is ours forever, and can never be taken from us. There is one thing for which we can give thanks, no matter where we are, or what is happening. That one thing is the love of God given in and through Jesus Christ. Every single person, in every time and place, from a cold dungeon to a sumptuous palace, can thank God for his love given to us in Jesus. God’s greatest gift to us is himself. If God is, well, God, then He is simply the greatest, most wonderful thing in the universe. He gives us many other things, but he also gives us what is best: Himself. He does it through Jesus.

I have said before that giving thanks has real spiritual power. One of the primary ways we can truly “take hold of” some of the “abstract” gifts of God (like love, peace, joy and so on) is to thank him for them. So, one of the primary ways to receive more of Jesus in our lives is to thank God for Him. Paul knew that, and did it regularly.

Paul is thankful for their faith in Jesus, and for the love they have for the saints (remember, that means, all Christians) because of the hope laid up for them in heaven. When we put our faith in Jesus, we gain an everlasting hope. One of the results of that hope is that we learn to love the other people who share it. Not too many weeks ago, we spent time thinking about the hope we wait for in the new heavens and the new earth. This is the hope Paul is talking about. The hope of having our sins and mistakes wiped away beyond memory, and being made perfect, to fulfill every purpose for which we were created. The hope of being completely and utterly known, and still loved. The hope of eternal, abundant, fulfilling, joyful life in the New Creation. The hope of being with Jesus, and our other loved ones, forever.

Hope brings people together. This might surprise you, until you think about it. Have you ever been a fan of sports team, hoping your team will win the big game? When the game is on, and you are gathered with others, don’t you feel a kind of fellowship with those who, along with you, hope for your team to do well? You have a warm fellow-feeling, even with people you don’t know, if they root for the same team. Hope creates fellowship. Also, the more important the hope is to you, the stronger you feel fellowship with those who have the same hope. Elsewhere Paul writes this:

5 This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (CSB Romans 5:5)

Before we move on, I want point something out. Most of the verses in the New Testament that talk about loving other people are written to tell Christians to love other Christians. Now, it is certainly not OK to hate anyone. Jesus himself tells us to love our enemies, and even to pray for those who persecute us. But Christian love begins with love from and for Christ, and moves from there to love for other Christians. If you love those who are not  Christians, but fail to have love for your fellow-believers, something is wrong. Imagine a fountain that bubbles up into a small bowl at the top. The water fills that bowl, and then spills into second, larger bowl below it. It fills up the second bowl, and spills out over to a third, even larger one below that. That might work as a picture of Christian love. The first bowl is ourselves. The love of God is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5). The second bowl is other Christians. The love that God gives us, spills over into love for others who have the same hope. Next, together, the love that Christians have for each other spills out into love for the world – including those who are not Christians.

Now, if we try to take short cuts on that process, it doesn’t work. If our own bowl is not full of God’s love, we will have nothing to give to our fellow Jesus-followers. Our bowl is the smallest. Loving the world is too big a task for individuals on their own. It needs the second bowl – the combined love of the fellowship of believers – to love the world.

Also, Jesus was very clear – one sign to those who do not know him is that those who do know Him will love each other. People will see quite quickly how we Christians treat one another.

35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (CSB) John 13:35

Think about it. If I see a group that sort of barely tolerates each other, that’s not something I want to be a part of, even if the group claims to love me. If they don’t truly love each other, the moment I become a part of them, I will no longer be loved them. You see? So we must love each other, or we cannot hope to love the world.

9 The one who says he is in the light but hates his brother or sister is in the darkness until now. 10 The one who loves his brother or sister remains in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. 11 But the one who hates his brother or sister is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and doesn’t know where he’s going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (CSB 1 John 2:9-11)

John writes this because if we have the love of Jesus in our hearts, we will naturally love our fellow Christians. The two go hand in hand. Let me be really clear. If we don’t love our fellow Christians, the solution is not to try harder. The solution is to connect more deeply with the way God loves us, and hope we have together in Jesus. The more we really trust how much God loves us, the more real our future hope is to us, the more we will love our fellow believers. The first will cause the second. And the more we love our fellow believers, the better we can together love the world.

Paul mentions that this very thing is happening both with the Colossians, and around the world. As a result, the gospel is bearing fruit. There are two kinds of fruit that come about. The first is inner growth. Paul says that the gospel is bearing fruit and growing in you. That means that it is causing them to grow inwardly. The fruits of the Holy Spirit are

love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. (CSB Galatians 5:22-23)

These are things that grow inside us as individuals, and which we practice in our relationships with each other. I would add, based upon many other texts, that we also grow in knowing what the Bible says, and what it means, and how it applies to our lives. There is also growth in the sense of learning to say to “no” to the ungodly world, the devil and our sinful flesh, while we say “Yes,” to God, more and more.

There is an outward kind of fruit, and that is: new disciples. The gospel makes us grow inwardly, and also it grows outwardly, by adding more people to those who have the hope that is found in Jesus alone. Paul says that all over the world, more people are coming to know Jesus. In fact, as we grow inwardly, that causes to treat people differently, and also to motivated to share with them the grace we have received from God.

Did you know that, just as it was true when Paul wrote it, it has been true throughout all of history, and is true even today? I live in the Western World, where Christianity has begun to sort of “age,” and perhaps show signs of decline. But the fastest growing religion in the world today is still Christianity. Though we don’t notice it in America, there are other places in the world where Christianity’s growth is dynamic. In the past, America, and Western Europe sent missionaries all over the world. Today, many of the places that used to be mission fields have such strong churches that they are sending missionaries themselves. I have personally met missionaries from Korea, China, Japan, Brazil, Angola, Kenya, Ethiopia, Bermuda, Tonga, and probably a few other places I have forgotten. Christianity is not, by any means, in decline, when you consider the worldwide picture.

Paul ends this sentence by praising Epaphras, who was the missionary to the Colossians. It is good and right for them to recognize and honor the one who brought God’s word to them.

Some areas for application: Should we consider making it a regular practice to give thanks to God for Jesus, and our salvation? What kind of difference might that make in our day to day life of following Him? Do we love our fellow-Christians? If we don’t, then answer is not to beat ourselves up, but rather, to dig more deeply into the that hope we share with all believers. Finally, is the gospel bearing fruit in your life? I am not concerned about the amount or “size” of fruit in the lives of disciples. I think the real issue is, is there any kind of fruit from the gospel in your life? You see, God is the one who provides the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7: John 15:4). How much, and in which ways, we grow, is up to Him. So the issue is simply this: if you have truly believed the gospel, there will be some fruit in your life, however small. It is usually best to ask a trusted Christian friend about how they see the fruit of gospel in you. We tend to either minimize, or exaggerate what God is doing.

Pray and meditate on these these things now.

DO YOU LOVE YOUR FELLOW CHRISTIANS?

This post is so important, that I’m reposting. For those in our fellowships, we will discuss this on the week beginning June 18.

I love mankind its people I can't stand full

Loving other Christians is part of what you sign up for when become a follower of Jesus. The idea of becoming a Christian, but not being a part of a Christian fellowship is absolute nonsense, and it is not supported anywhere in scripture. As John says elsewhere: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar.” In this context “brother” means “fellow Christian.” We are supposed to show the love of God to the world by how we relate to each other, and that love needs to be demonstrated in genuine, life-changing ways. 

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2 John #3: Loving Fellow Christians

We’ve been talking about John’s concern for the truth. He is also, obviously, very concerned about love:

4I was very glad to find some of your children walking in the truth, in keeping with a command we have received from the Father. 5So now I urge you, dear lady — not as if I were writing you a new command, but one we have had from the beginning — that we love one another. 6And this is love: that we walk according to His commands. This is the command as you have heard it from the beginning: you must walk in love. (2John 1:4-6, HCSB)

Unfortunately, Christian love has often been greatly misunderstood, and not really practiced.

Throughout the New Testament the command to “love one another” is given to Christians, for Christians. It is not a general call to “love the world,” but a command that Christians are to live and act in love specifically toward each other.

I can already hear the indignation coming back at me. After all, aren’t the two great commandments to love God, and love our neighbor? Didn’t Jesus tell the story of the Good Samaritan, to show us that all people are our neighbors? I understand the objections, but I want you to hear me out.

Of course the command: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” applies to all people. Specifically, it is a summary of six of the ten commandments (or seven, if you are Lutheran). We should try to live a “love our neighbors” lifestyle toward the whole world. If we personally encounter someone who needs our help, of course we should help them, regardless of their religious faith, or lack thereof.

But even so, Christians are called to have a special kind of love for fellow Christians. Listen to what Jesus says:

34“I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. 35By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35, HCSB)

Jesus told his disciples to love one another. Jesus says that “all people” will know that we follow Him when they see the love that we have for one another. It is this special love – among Christians – that will show everyone else that we follow Jesus. It isn’t that we are supposed to hate everyone else, but there should be a commitment to love fellow Christians at a deeper level than “loving all mankind.”

There is no escaping the fact that dozens and dozens of verses in the New Testament tell us to love fellow Christians specifically, and how to go about doing that. Jesus repeats himself in John 15:11-12

11“I have spoken these things to you so that My joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. 12This is My command: Love one another as I have loved you

Jesus is talking to his disciples here, not the world in general. Shortly after, he tells them the world will hate them, but they are to love each other. The rest of the New Testament was written specifically to Christians. Paul often writes about how Christians should treat each other:

12Therefore, God’s chosen ones, holy and loved, put on heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, 13accepting one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a complaint against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive. 14Above all, put on love — the perfect bond of unity. 15And let the peace of the Messiah, to which you were also called in one body, control your hearts. Be thankful. 16Let the message about the Messiah dwell richly among you, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, and singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God. (Col 3:12-16, HCSB)

“Therefore, as God’s chosen ones…” In other words: “Since you are followers of Jesus, this is how you are treat each other.” He adds that they are “one body,” which is a metaphor for the church. These verses are similar to dozens of other places in the New Testament. After God’s love for us, the strongest emphasis about love in the New Testament is on love among fellow-believers.

Let’s consider why it is so important for us to love fellow Christians in a special way.

First, because it shows Jesus to the world in a special way. When the world sees real Christian community in action, they will notice it. They will see that there is something different about how we deal with one another. This was the reason Jesus himself gave for his command that Christians love other Christians (see John 13:34-35, above). One of the most attractive things about real Christianity is the genuine, loving relationships between Christians. When those aren’t present, churches become very un-attractive.

Second, Christians are supposed to love each other because love is supposed to be a commitment that has real-life consequences. We are to show the love of God to the world by how we relate to each other (see #1, above) and that love needs to be demonstrated in genuine, life-changing ways. The New Testament is full of exhortations to put love into practice. Here are just a few examples:

14And we exhort you, brothers: warn those who are irresponsible, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15See to it that no one repays evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good for one another and for all. (1Thess 5:14-15, HCSB)

24And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, 25not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Heb 10:24-25, HCSB)

 31All bitterness, anger and wrath, shouting and slander must be removed from you, along with all malice. 32And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ. (Eph 4:31-32, HCSB)

8But now you must also put away all the following: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and filthy language from your mouth. 9Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old self with its practices 10and have put on the new self. You are being renewed in knowledge according to the image of your Creator. 11In Christ there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all. (Col 3:8-11, HCSB)

1Therefore I, the prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, accepting one another in love, 3diligently keeping the unity of the Spirit with the peace that binds us. 4There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to one hope at your calling — 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:1-6, HCSB)

You can’t love “the whole world” like this. This sort of love only develops when there is real community, when people actually know each other, and “do life” together. This is one reason it is so important for every Christian to be a part of a small Christian community – a group of 5-20 other Christians with whom you meet regularly, and with whom you also socialize and spend time with. That is the context of the New Testament church, and so that is the context for true Christian love.

You cannot truly love 1,000 people at once, not in a way that matters. You may genuinely care for that many people, and be concerned about what happens to them, but when you are dealing with that many people, love is mostly an abstraction – something that takes place primarily in your head and emotions; but it doesn’t make much of an actual difference to how you live, or to those you claim to love. It reminds of the old Peanuts cartoon at the top of the post.

Real love, love that makes a difference, can only grow out of genuine relationships in relatively small communities; in other words: in a New Testament type of church.

The idea of loving “the whole world” is a way to shirk the responsibility of loving that dear Christian brother who has an annoying habit of interrupting everyone, and talking too much. If you “love the homeless” you can go serve in a soup kitchen once a month (or less!), spending a couple hours with people that you will never truly share your life with. Then you can go back to church, secure in your “love credentials” and ignore the lonely, social awkward bachelor there who makes you cringe.

Loving each other in the church forces us to actually have relationships with each other. It forces us to confront our own issues and conflicts, and work through them under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Third, we can’t love from the outside in. Love starts within, and grows. Loving fellow Christians provides us with a solid base from which to spread the love. Genuine love-in-action normally spreads – the nature of love is a desire to include others in the joy we have.. But if we don’t have real love going on in our local body of Christ, it will be very hard for us as a group to love anyone else either. In other words, if you want to love “the world” it has to start with loving your fellow believers. If you can’t love them, you won’t be able to truly love the world either, not in any meaningful or helpful way.

So, what do we do with this message? First, we need to accept that when we become followers of Jesus, we join a family of other Jesus followers.

48But He replied to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers? ” 49And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! 50For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven, that person is My brother and sister and mother.” (Matt 12:48-50, HCSB)

Like a biological family, you don’t get to pick everyone who becomes part of your Christian fellowship. Even so, as in a biological family, we have an obligation to love each other.

8Do not owe anyone anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law (Romans 13:8)

Loving other Christians is part of what you sign up for when become a follower of Jesus. The idea of becoming a Christian, but not being a part of a Christian fellowship is absolute nonsense, and it is not supported anywhere in scripture. As John says elsewhere:

20If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen. 21And we have this command from Him: The one who loves God must also love his brother. (1John 4:20-21, HCSB)

In this context, as in most of the New Testament, “brother” means “fellow Christian.” You can’t be much more clear than that. We need to accept that loving our Christian brothers and sisters, and having meaningful relationships with them, is a normal and vital part of following Jesus.

Second, many of us need to get serious about plugging in to real Christian community. It’s hard to develop real community – that is, real brotherly/sisterly love – without spending significant time and energy with other Christians. We need to find a small group of like-minded Christians, and commit to loving them. We need to make it a priority to spend time with them, do things together, worship together, hang out together. Again, this is a normal part of being a Christian.

Third, within our Christian community, we need to put love into action. We’ll discuss more about that next time. Let me just say this: when I first was confronted with the necessity of loving my Christian brothers and sisters, and opening my life to them, I was very uncomfortable. I’m an introvert. I like my nice little, quiet, orderly life. But when I did open my heart and life to include genuine Christian community, I found that in addition to the hassles, I received a real and lasting joy, and also the priceless gift of true, loving friendships in my Christian family. I have never wanted to go back to my compartmentalized Christianity.

I pray that you will  surrender to Jesus in this matter, and experience the joy and love that I have!

LOVE IN ACTION

love-in-action

What Jesus and the apostles consistently taught is that love-in-action should be expressed first toward our fellow-Christians. It can (and should) overflow to our world-at-large, but it will only truly do so if we actually love one another. I realize that this is almost counter-cultural, at least to American Christians these days. But it is unquestionably what the New Testament teaches.

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Matthew #88. Matthew 25:31-46

PLEASE BEGIN BY READING MATTHEW 25:31-46

Our passage for this time is a parable, and parables are usually intended only to make one or two main points. When we get down to it, the points Jesus is making are pretty broad and straightforward.

I do realize that other issues are raised by this story, but I want to start by taking the text for what it is. If we need to, I’ll address the other issues in the next sermon.

First, let’s remember our context. Jesus has been talking about the end of the world, and the fact that his followers need to be prepared for it. In verses 14-30, he tells a parable to illustrate what he means about being prepared: we should use our lives, and everything we have been given as managers. We don’t own what we call our “stuff,” and we don’t even own our lives; therefore we should invest what we have been given in the interests of the Master.

In the next parable – our text for this time – he is now giving us a specific example of what it means to invest ourselves in God’s kingdom. The example he gives is this: we should care for our fellow Jesus-followers.

I think many of us, when we read the passage today, have a certain picture of what this looks like. We think we are supposed to go out on the streets and find people who are hungry, or inadequately clothed, and give them food and clothing. We think we should go visit random people in jail or hospital. If we examine our thoughts carefully, we would find a disconnect between doing those things, and how we live our daily lives. Even at best, most of us probably picture dashing out and doing “homeless ministry” once a week, and then coming back to our “normal life.”

Those sorts of thoughts would have been strange to most Christians in New Testament times, but not for the reasons you might imagine.  Some of you may be a little unfocused, and perhaps you didn’t notice something important about Jesus’ words. Let me say it again with emphasis: this parable teaches us that we should care for our fellow Christians.

Let’s look at the text:

40“And the King will answer them, ‘I assure you: Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.’ (Matt 25:40, HCSB)

In the New Testament, the Greek word adelphon (“brothers”) can mean, obviously, “male siblings.” Far more often, throughout the New Testament, the word is used to mean, in general, “followers of Jesus, whether male or female.” Now, unless Jesus is talking specifically about James, and Jude (his half-brothers, each of whom wrote a book of the New Testament), he means “my followers.” The context shows us that he was obviously not talking about James and Jude. The “sheep” in this parable are commended for feeding, clothing, welcoming and visiting followers of Jesus, specifically.

One of the great tragedies of modern Christianity is that we have lost this understanding. We think we should do good “for the poor and needy.” Then, we fervently hope that the “poor and needy” are some remote group out there that we can keep separate from our own lives. We have no actual relationship with the poor and needy, and we typically skip over helping people with whom we do have relationships. Far too often people in churches throw money at a problem, or rush out and spend an evening serving food to the homeless, or spend two weeks on a mission trip, but we always go back to a kind of status quo of not really living in meaningful community with one another. We’ll serve food to the homeless, but ignore the lonely single person in our church who would enjoy coming over for dinner once in a while. We pay a pastor to go visit the sick and those in prison, and we thank the Lord that we, personally don’t have to do such things, because we just don’t have the time. We will give money to a homeless shelter, but balk at opening our home to a visiting missionary.

Don’t misunderstand me, I think it is good to give money to organizations that genuinely help to relieve poverty in the world (like Compassion International). I think it is worthwhile to go serve supper to strangers at a homeless shelter. Short term mission trips don’t usually give much real, long-term help to the people in the countries that are visited, but they do have some value in opening the eyes of Americans to different cultures and conditions around the world.

So those are OK. But did you know that virtually every example of charitable giving in the New Testament, and almost every single instruction about such giving, refers to either providing financial support to those who teach the Bible, or to helping other Christians?

What Jesus and the apostles consistently taught is that love-in-action should be expressed first toward our fellow-Christians. It can (and should) overflow to our world-at-large, but it will only truly do so if we actually love one another. I realize that this is almost counter-cultural, at least to American Christians these days. But it is unquestionably what the New Testament teaches. It is certainly what Jesus is teaching in this parable, as I have already pointed out, by saying “to the least of these, my brothers.”

Consider these other verses, which are only a few of many. Bear in mind that “brothers” in each of these verses means “fellow Christians.” I have italicized certain parts to make my point clear. The first is another one from Jesus, found earlier in the book of Matthew:

40 “The one who welcomes you welcomes Me, and the one who welcomes Me welcomes Him who sent Me. 41 Anyone who welcomes a prophet because he is a prophet  will receive a prophet’s reward. And anyone who welcomes a righteous person because he’s righteous will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And whoever gives just a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is a disciple — I assure you: He will never lose his reward! ”

Again, Jesus is teaching the value of love-in-action toward other people who follow Him. Next, John records these words of Jesus:

34“I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. 35By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35, HCSB)

This verse is frequently ignored. The world does not know we are His disciples because we do good deeds for the world, or show the world how much we love them. Instead, the world will see Christians loving and caring for each other, and the beauty of that testimony will show outsiders that we follow Jesus. Trust me, when the world sees Christians fighting, and gossiping and hurting one another, they are not seeing Jesus there. Who would want to become a Jesus follower, if it means joining a group that barely tolerates its members, but tries to show love only toward outsiders? Or who would want to join a “community” where you will hardly get to know each other? The first Christian church grew, in part, because people were attracted by the warm, loving, family-style relationships they found there.

Here are a few more passages:

6 The one who is taught the message must share all his good things with the teacher. 7Don’t be deceived: God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows he will also reap, 8because the one who sows to his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 9So we must not get tired of doing good, for we will reap at the proper time if we don’t give up. 10Therefore, as we have opportunity, we must work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith. (Gal 6:6-10, HCSB)

10Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another. 12No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God remains in us and His love is perfected in us. (1John 4:10-12, HCSB)

20If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen. 21And we have this command from Him: The one who loves God must also love his brother. (1John 4:20-21, HCSB)

14What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can his faith save him? 15If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? 17In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself. (James 2:14-15)

Am I wrong about all this? Aren’t these all commands for Christians to love each other? Don’t you dare say, “Yes, sure, but we must also love the world.”  Don’t you dismiss this lightly! You need to start where Jesus and the apostles start, which is this: love your fellow Christians. You cannot properly love those outside the faith if you don’t love your fellow-Christians.

In fact, the whole point of our text today is that if you don’t love your fellow Christians, there is probably something wrong with your faith, and with the relationship you have with God. Lack of love for fellow Christians may be a symptom of the fact that you are a goat, not a sheep.

The church in New Testament times became like a family for those who followed Jesus. Sometimes you fight and wrangle with those in your family. But in the end, you are committed to one another, and you take care of each other.

One reason we have such trouble loving each other is because, by and large, we don’t have these close, family-style relationships with other Christians. The way we engage in church is often a major obstacle to this. Worshipping together is one part of loving fellow believers. But it is only one small part. The first Christians understood this, and they not only worshipped together, but they shared their lives with each other.

8We cared so much for you that we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us. (1Thess 2:8, HCSB)

 42And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers. 43Then fear came over everyone, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. 44Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. 45They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need. 46Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with a joyful and humble attitude, 47praising God and having favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47, HCSB)

Even Christians who were strangers to each other recognized that they were bound together in love and common faith. On one of their journeys, Paul and his companions arrived in a strange city, and sought out the Christians in that place. There they fellowshipped, and stayed with these strangers for a week. Luke describes it:

2Finding a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, we boarded and set sail. 3After we sighted Cyprus, leaving it on the left, we sailed on to Syria and arrived at Tyre, because the ship was to unload its cargo there. 4So we found some disciples and stayed there seven days. Through the Spirit they told Paul not to go to Jerusalem. 5When our days there were over, we left to continue our journey, while all of them, with their wives and children, escorted us out of the city. After kneeling down on the beach to pray, 6we said good-bye to one another. Then we boarded the ship, and they returned home. (Acts 21:2-6, HCSB)

These days, most of us just go to church on Sunday, and then go home. That is not Christian fellowship, and real Christian love doesn’t develop well in those circumstances. In contrast, the Christians of the New Testament walked through life together. They spent time in each other’s homes, they ate together, they laughed together, they fought with each other at times, they forgave each other, they grieved together and celebrated together. If one of them was in need, they helped each other. They lived in real Christian community, and developed real love for each other.

Notice that in the parable of Jesus, the sheep are surprised. “When did I do that?” they ask. This is because when you are in real, loving community with others, good works come naturally. Visiting sick people that you love comes naturally. Visiting prisoners that you love is easy. When someone you love is in need, the normal, natural thing to do is to help them.

Some folks might say, “OK, but in my circle of Christian community, everyone has enough food, clothing and a place to live. So how can I really practice this?”

That’s an excellent question, and I’m so glad you asked it. There are two answers that might be helpful. First, perhaps your Christian community needs to be open to welcoming some Christian brothers and sisters who don’t have it all together yet. In other words, maybe, as a group, you need to include some Christian people who aren’t like you.

Second, I believe that the needs listed in Jesus’ parable can also be understood spiritually. Perhaps there is a person in your group who is not literally a stranger, but who feels lonely. You can minister to them as “the stranger,” in this parable, and invite them to be more a part of your lives. Maybe there is someone else who is not literally in prison, but who suffers from the “imprisonment” of depression. You could make room in your schedule to spend more time with that person. There are all sorts of spiritual and emotional needs that we could minister to, even among those who are physically OK.

If we are to really live as this ministering Christian community, however, several things must happen. First, we must find a relatively small group of Christians with whom to be in community. You can’t have real community and fellowship with a hundred people at once. Second, within that community, we must commit to being vulnerable and open about our struggles. This is an emotional and psychological risk, but we can’t minister to one another if we don’t know what each person needs. Third, all of this takes time. Most people in America probably need to cut something else out of their schedule in order to have real Christian community, and thus to minister in the ways Jesus is talking about. We need to be available to each other outside of Sunday morning.

Now, you might consider all this and say: “Wow. I’m in trouble. I don’t much care for my fellow Christians, and I’m not really in true fellowship or community with other believers.” So what do you do about it?

Here’s my advice, for what it’s worth. First, do not try and fake it. I mean seriously, do you think God won’t know whether or not your love for your fellow Christians is genuine? If your good works do not come from genuine trust in Jesus, and real love for fellow-believers, you aren’t going to fool God.

Second, admit that you have a problem. Confess it to God, and, if it seems appropriate, to others.

Third, ask God for help. Part of this means giving God permission to change your lifestyle. I remember a time when I realized I didn’t really love my Christian brothers and sisters. I also realized that if I was really going to learn to do it, I would have to change my lifestyle, so that I could be in real Christian community with others. I’m an introvert, and that thought was extremely scary. But I confessed my sin, I asked God for help, and I gave him permission to work in my life as He pleased. God responded to those prayers. My comfortable, introverted little life was changed, and to my great surprise, I have been consistently grateful that it did. I feel tremendously blessed by all the people I have come to know so well, and I can honestly say that I love them. I’ve never wanted to go back to the “faith in isolation” that I used to have.

Let the Lord speak to you about this right now.

FREEDOM, OR LICENSE?

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Loving others is another antidote for the flesh. The flesh is focused on itself, on getting what it wants. But love is focused on others, on serving, encouraging and honoring them.

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Galatians #17 . Chapter 5:13-15

For you were called to be free, brothers; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love. For the entire law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. But if you bite and devour one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another. (Gal 5:13-15, HCSB)

Picture a man who is addicted to drugs. He lives for the high that comes from the drugs. He hates the low that comes afterwards. But love it or hate it, he is a slave to it. He has to have it. Now, imagine that God came to this man, and set him free from his addiction. He doesn’t have to have it any more. He’s free from the need. He doesn’t have to have the high anymore. He’s free from the awful lows. He’s been saved and healed from a life of slavery to the drug. He didn’t do it, God did it for him. There’s nothing he could have done to earn it. His relationship with drugs has been broken. There is no more connection between this man and drugs.

Now, picture the man, full of gratitude for his deliverance. He says, “I’ve been set free! I can do whatever I want now. The impact of drugs has been removed from me!”

After considering for a little bit, he says, “Since I’m free, I’m going to go celebrate by getting high!”

How foolish that would be! God delivered him from slavery to drugs, but he’s going right back to it. He’ll end up addicted again, enslaved again. He’s throwing away what God gave him. What’s the point of being freed from drugs if he’s just going go back and become enslaved all over again?

Paul is shifting his thoughts from explaining the freedom that Jesus got for us by dying, and moving to some ideas about how to live in that freedom.

His first concern is that the Galatians do not use their freedom in Christ as an “opportunity for the flesh.” We need to consider what Paul means by “flesh.” The Greek word is sarx and it just means, essentially, “meat” or “muscle.” The apostle John uses it as a neutral term, generally meaning physical body. Paul sometimes uses it that way also. But more often, and certainly in Galatians, Paul uses “flesh” as a special theological term. He usually means basically, an orientation that is based upon outward things, and is turned away from God. There are several important things to understand here. First, Paul sees that orientation as coming from your physical life; and from a focus on your physical life. He doesn’t mean that your body is evil. But he means that once you are in Jesus, the most common pathway for sin is through your body and your physical mind. We’ll get into this in greater depth in a week or two, but listen to what Paul says about the flesh a few verses later:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I tell you about these things in advance — as I told you before — that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal 5:19-21, HCSB)

Obviously, these things are sinful. They drive a wedge between us and God. They hurt ourselves and others. Ultimately, they separate us from God completely – but we’ll talk about that next time. For now, we just need to understand that these are typical works of the flesh. They aren’t the flesh exactly, but they are results of allowing the flesh to have its way.

So, Paul is saying, “This freedom that we have in Jesus is not an excuse to indulge the flesh. Don’t let the flesh use this as an opportunity.” It’s like the drug addict who was freed from addiction. It makes no sense to use your freedom from drugs as an opportunity to take drugs. You are just entering into slavery to drugs again. You might as well not be free in the first place.

Now, sometimes, I understand, you don’t feel completely free from sin in the first place. Something in you still seems to want to sin. So are you really free? Listen carefully: that “something” inside you that still wants to sin is what Paul calls the flesh. If you are in Jesus, you are free from sin in your spirit. The deepest part of you doesn’t want to do it. The penalty has already been paid for it. You aren’t an addict anymore. Your deepest, most true identity is “New Creation in Christ.”

The flesh will say, “we must have this. We need it.” Paul recognizes that when we first hear that in Christ everything has already been accomplished for us, the flesh will say, “We are now free to satisfy ourselves however we want.” But it’s a trick. First it is a trick, because indulging the flesh never actually satisfies you. There may be a moment or two when you think you are satisfied, but it doesn’t last long, and there is always something missing.

Secondly it’s a trick, because if you follow that road, you will eventually end up enslaved to sin again. Note my words: “follow that road.” We all screw up from time to time. I’m not talking about that, and I don’t think Paul is either. What Paul is talking about is a deliberate, long-term pattern of indulging what the flesh wants, and choosing that consistently over what the Holy Spirit wants.

Paul wrote about this elsewhere. So did Peter and Jude:

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, so that you obey its desires. And do not offer any parts of it to sin as weapons for unrighteousness. But as those who are alive from the dead, offer yourselves to God, and all the parts of yourselves to God as weapons for righteousness. For sin will not rule over you, because you are not under law but under grace.

What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Absolutely not! Don’t you know that if you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of that one you obey — either of sin leading to death or of obedience leading to righteousness? (Rom 6:12-16, HCSB)

Live as free people, not using your freedom as a pretext for evil, but as God’s slaves. (1Pet 2:16, NET)

For certain men have secretly slipped in among you – men who long ago were marked out for the condemnation I am about to describe – ungodly men who have turned the grace of our God into a license for evil and who deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 1:4, NET)

Fighting temptation is tough anyway. But don’t give the devil another weapon by saying, “Well, if I’m truly free in Christ, I can do whatever I want, can’t I? And what I really want, is to get drunk.” Fill in whatever temptation you have for “get drunk.” See that’s the thing: It’s your flesh that really wants to get drunk (or whatever your temptation is). It isn’t the deepest truest part of you. It isn’t your redeemed spirit. It isn’t Jesus living in you who wants that. So Paul says, “Deny your flesh. Don’t give it that excuse.” The trick is to listen to the truth of God’s word, and pay attention to that, while at the same time, ignoring the insistent loud cries and desires of the flesh. God’s word says now, you are holy.

You still fight with the desires you used to give in to. You still fight with the ways you learned to sort of satisfy your flesh. But that truest, most authentic part of you is not your flesh – not anymore, if you are in Jesus Christ. So let the flesh whine, and ignore it as much as possible. Focus on the truth that in Christ you are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Look at it this way: your flesh dying. That’s right. It’s your flesh that is doomed to die. If you are in Christ, your spirit and your soul will live on, and you’ll get a new body that is free from what we call “the flesh.” The flesh is dying, so let it go ahead and die. All that noise and temptation and activity is just the death throes of the flesh.

Now, we have been focused on one half one sentence: don’t use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. The second half says this: “but serve one another through love.”

Loving others is another antidote for the flesh. The flesh is focused on itself, on getting what it wants. But love is focused on others, on serving, encouraging and honoring them. Paul repeats something here that Jesus also said: “For the entire law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:14). I spoke last week about how this is sometimes generalized to become almost meaningless. This isn’t some vague principle about “as long as what I do is loving, it is righteous.”

Love always honors and seeks the very best for the person that is loved.

Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not conceited, does not act improperly, is not selfish, is not provoked, and does not keep a record of wrongs. Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1Cor 13:4-7, HCSB)

In fact, let’s cut to the chase. The main thing everyone wants to be free to do, is to have sex with whomever they want. Isn’t sex loving? Doesn’t that make it OK?

Sex outside of marriage is not loving. Yes, I just wrote that. Why not? Because there is no permanent, unconditional commitment to the highest good of the other person. If there is no marriage involved, ultimately, the message is, “I am keeping my options open. I may be committed to you for now, but I’m not ready to commit to you in lifelong love.” Marriage is supposed to be the declaration of a lifelong, unconditional commitment. It is that decisive, unchanging commitment that is true love. Feelings are great, but they aren’t love. Love is commitment. Of course, our society has mostly ruined marriage, and it doesn’t really mean that to most people. But it should still mean that to people who are in Christ.

Sex in any other context is physical and emotional bond that falls short of true love. Because sex is so powerful, entering that bond without true love (commitment-love, that is marriage) ends up scarring people emotionally and making them harder; eventually it makes people less able to love in a commitment relationship.

Of course, Paul isn’t only talking about marriage when he talks about love. He is talking about Christian community. How about affirming others? Isn’t it always loving to affirm other people in whatever choices they make? Let’s go back to the drug addict. Which is more loving:

  • a. Telling the drug addict that he’s special to you, and you support whatever choices in life he wants to make, including destroying his life with drugs.
  • b. Telling the drug addict that he is wrong, and you will not encourage him or support him or give him comfort as he destroys himself.

It’s hard, but option b is almost always the more loving choice.

Loving others also means getting involved in their lives. It’s hard to love someone you don’t see very often. You can’t really have community with people you don’t know at all. Paul is saying, don’t focus on indulging yourself. Focus on valuing, honoring and blessing others. Be in community with them. Commit yourself to the good of those in your community.

Early Christians all correctly understood that one of the first places for this Christian love to play out was in their church community. Typically, they met in small churches in the homes of their members. They shared their lives and struggles with each other; their joys, hopes and disappointments. Their love for each other (which Jesus commanded) was supposed to spill out, and show the world what Jesus is like. Real love does that. But it started in the church community.

The call is to really love each other. This doesn’t mean we just endorse each other, or lie to each other that we think everything is great. It doesn’t mean everything is OK, as long as we can slap a “love” label on it. This is a commitment to honor and value one another; to keep the real best interests of others in your church community at heart.

If we can learn to love each other, I think we will naturally learn to love others outside of our community as well. In fact, that process is a reflection of the nature of God. God exists in three Persons: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. They love each other. There is true loving community at the heart of God’s nature. But his love couldn’t be contained there. It spilled out to create and love the universe and all its creatures. If we welcome his love in our midst, it will spill out and bless others also.