This is a message delivered to group leaders based on John 13:34-35; 17; 1 Thessalonians 1 & 2; 1 Peter 3:15.
1 Paul, Silas and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you. 2 We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. 4 For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake.
7 …We were like young children among you. Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, 8 so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.
17 But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. 18 For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 19 For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? 20 Indeed, you are our glory and joy.
1 Thessalonians 1:1-2, 4, 5; 2:7-8, 11-12, 17-20 NIV
About two years ago, I read this and other passages like it and found myself left with one really uncomfortable question: Do I love anyone like that?
Do I love anyone like that?
I mean yes, I love my wife and my children, but they’re my family. Paul was talking there about other Christians in the church, but he was talking about them as if they were his own family.
When I first let the weight of this Scripture sit on me and when I faced that question, the honest answer was no. I had no one in my life that I loved like that.
This was Paul, capital “A” Apostle Paul saying that he had spent so much time with his people, been so entrenched in their lives, been serving alongside them, so much that his heart ached when he could no longer see them face to face.
That kind of heart doesn’t come from separating your life from others. It comes from sharing your life with others.
Deep down I knew, based on what the Bible teaches, that this was an area of my life that needed to come under submission to God. That I wasn’t living the way He intended for me to live.
And then it came to a head one night after I had just gotten done teaching a group of 20-something’s about community. For twenty minutes I told them about the loneliness of our modern world, about how we’re more connected yet more lonely than ever. And then I told them what the Bible says about how we should be living.
As soon as I got done, I walked into the infant’s room downstairs, we were in the Grounds at the time, just to get away from everyone for a few minutes, because at that time teaching and speaking in front of people took a lot out of me. (I’ve gotten better about this since then, but it’s still like that to some degree.)
As I was sitting there, God opened my eyes to the reality of my own life. To how lonely I truly was. That everything I had just told that group about the loneliness of modern America was true of me and how I was living.
I remember asking myself how that could be. How could I be so involved at a church, even work at one as the Director of Community, and be so isolated?
I had been in a group before, but I wasn’t sharing life with anyone outside my immediate family at the time.
I had a lot of guys I would call my friends, but none of them that actually knew anything real about me. None of them were up close enough to me to know my sin or know what brings me joy or what brings me pain.
And so that night, sitting right there, I pulled out my phone, typed out an email to the handful of guys I knew best, and invited them to start a men’s group with me.
I wish I could stop right there and say that that was success, but it wasn’t.
We did get a group going, but it didn’t last long before my schedule wasn’t allowing for it anymore and the other guys were having trouble making it. You guys know what that’s like.
But I wasn’t ready to give up.
So I grabbed a smaller group of men and we started meeting weekly. They were sensing the same thing in their lives – that they were surrounded by people, but not really giving themselves to any of them.
And we just kept at it. Week after week. Digging into the Bible and letting it speak into our lives.
But something was different this time. And I’ve been in other groups before too, but something was going on here that was different than anything I had experienced.
We were doing the stuff that most of you do each week – reading the Bible or doing a book study, talking about what’s going on in your lives, that kind of thing.
But it was like we really meant it this time. Like we weren’t just checking a box or going through the motions. We really let each other in. Really shared as much of our lives as we could.
And each of us saw changes in our life like we hadn’t ever seen before.
Unfortunately, we had to stop our regular meetings after several months because of different life circumstances going in with people in the group.
But when that happened, I noticed for the first time in my life a gap like the one Paul talked about in the Scripture I read a few minutes ago.
I was deeply sad all of a sudden. And I found that was I was truly longing to see them again, to minister to them, to encourage them, to share my life with them, in ways that didn’t really make sense.
As I’ve reflected on those feelings though, I’ve realized they make total sense.
In fact, what I experienced in that short season and what I long to experience again is just a taste of the kind of life Jesus meant for us to live.
And that’s what I want you to see. That Jesus is calling us to share our lives with our groups and with other brothers and sisters in Christ in ways you might not have ever realized.
What the Bible tells us about sharing our lives
Because so often we just assume we know what God wants for us without actually paying attention to what He’s told us in the Bible.
I mean, have you ever asked yourself how God wants us to live as the church just based on what you read in this book? I mean really asked yourself what your life should look like based solely on what you read about in the Bible?
I’ve done that over the last two years, and what I see when I just open this book and take it at face value is that when it comes to how we are supposed to live it’s all about love.
It’s all about love
That’s what Jesus said in the Great Commandments, right?
When asked what were the greatest commandments, what were the most important laws to follow out of all the Old Testament, Jesus replied,
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Matthew 22:37-40 NIV
Jesus made it really simple. Love God. And love people.
That’s it. That’s the simple but profound design for living the Christian life.
But as you keep reading in the New Testament, you see this concept is supposed to be taken even farther in the church.
For most of Jesus’ ministry, he wasn’t telling us anything new. He was simply saying over and over again what Moses and the Prophets had told the Israelites for centuries.
A new commandment
But leading up to the time of his death, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment. And it was about loving one another.
Listen to what he said:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
John 13:34 NIV
What was new about this?
Jesus was now commanding his disciples, his followers, and by extension us, that they are to love one another. And not with some sappy sentimentality, but with the same love that Jesus has for us.
And that’s why we marvel at the early Christian church as we read through Acts, isn’t it? When you read through the history of the early church, what do you see?
Christians loving their brothers and sisters in Christ so much that they were willing to share everything with them. Their money, their stuff, their food – even their lives.
Sharing life in the early church
The most famous passage where we see this happening is Acts 2:42-47:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.
Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Acts 2:42-47 NIV
As I read through that, I always find myself longing to see this happen today. Longing to see what would happen if the church would actually resemble this in 21st century America. What would it look like? How would people respond?
But then the reality hits me.
That even though I say I long to see that, I’m so often unwilling to make sacrifices even remotely like what those Christians were making on a daily basis.
Don’t those verse in Acts stir you? Don’t you long to be a part of something like that? A group of people that would literally give you the shirt off of their backs if you needed it?
Maybe you already are. I don’t want to assume this isn’t happening in your life. I hope it is.
But it’s not in all of ours. And it wasn’t in my own life for a long time. So I know some of us need to hear this.
And maybe the reason it’s not happening with some of us is because we don’t get why Jesus told us to love one another.
The reason Christians are supposed to love one another
And really, that’s been the most surprising thing I learned as I went through all of this – the reason Jesus commanded us to live like this.
Let me go back and read John 13:34 from a minute ago, but I’ll add verse 35 after it, where Jesus tells us the reason why he is commanding us to love one another.
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
John 13:34-35 NIV
Wait a minute, is Jesus saying that the way we prove to the world that we belong to Christ is by the way that we love one another?
Let’s check this against what he said in John 17.
John 17 is right before Jesus is going to the cross, and he’s praying for all those who would follow him through the work of his disciples.
Here’s what he prayed for us in the hours before he was killed:
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
John 17:20-23 NIV
Jesus prayed for us to be one. To love one another so much that we are one in mind and spirit and unity, just like Jesus is with the Father.
So that the world may believe that you have sent me, he said in verse 21.
Then again in verse 23 he says that our unity as a people will be what tells people that Jesus is really from God and that He loves them.
That the way we talk to each other and the way we act towards one another and how we give to one another and sacrifice for one another, will be the way the world knows Jesus is who he said he was.
Do you understand the implications of that?
What this means
Jesus is saying that when the world asks who Jesus is and what he’s like that we should be able to point to the church and show them.
It was supposed to be the one thing we point to to prove Jesus is who he said he was.
But instead, it’s the one thing people point to to prove he’s not.
Why is that? Why is it the church universal so fractured, so splintered, so dis-unified?
Missing the second Great Commandment
My conviction, based on these truths we’ve seen in the Bible, is that it’s due in large part to the church missing this command to love one another. To share life with one another.
To be so close to one another that we’re actually closer than we are with our own families.
See, we got the first commandment, to love God with all our heart and mind and strength. The church has got that for hundreds of years.
That we should know more and more about God, and be ready to have the answers to the skeptics, and know how to grow closer to God in our personal devotional time.
So we design classes to teach people more, Bible studies to know more about God, and have conferences and books about apologetics.
All good things. All necessary things.
This is why today when most people say they want to grow spiritually, all they know to do is take a class or do a Bible study.
And a lot of the time it’s with honest and noble intentions, the best of intentions – to help people see Jesus.
And that works. Those things do help with that.
But what did Jesus say?
Did he say that at the end of the day it will be our apologetic arguments or having a gifted speaker win a debate or knowing as much as we can about the Bible that will prove to the world that he’s from God?
No. He said it would be the way we love one another. Which is so counter-intuitive to me.
I mean, really Jesus? The way I’m supposed to prove to people who don’t know you that you exist is by first loving my brothers and sisters in the church?
That doesn’t seem to add up.
But that’s what he said.
See, the first commandment to love God is made practical in the second commandment, to love people.
Our devotion to the second points to our love for the first. Our devotion to loving people points to our devotion of loving God.
If we really love God, we’ll love people. If we really love God, we’ll love each other.
And that love will start to open up avenues of sharing our faith.
How loving others in the church leads to reaching others outside the church
This is what’s going on in 1 Peter when Peter tells us to be prepared to give an explanation for the hope we have. Let me read it, he writes,
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…
1 Peter 3:15 NIV
He says we should expect to be asked about our faith when we’re actively living by the commandment to love each other and to love those around us.
Have you ever wondered why sharing your faith is so awkward? Why it’s so uncomfortable?
Part of that is normal and will always be there. But I have to tell you, I think a lot of the time we have it backwards.
We try to win the argument or make the point before we ever invite someone into our lives to see how we love the people we’re doing life with.
It seems like Jesus is saying that in at least some cases it should be the other way around, where our relationships and the way we love one another brings up the questions from the people around us that don’t understand what’s going on.
On a personal note, I actually saw this happen a few months back in that group I was telling you about.
We would meet in this coffee shop, and we did that on purpose – so that we would be out among people and have opportunities to build relationships.
Beyond that, there was no strategy. No plan. We were just genuine with each other and with the people that worked there.
One lady that worked there was always working when we meet, and we got to know her pretty early on.
We got to know a little about her and her past, her boyfriend’s name, just normal stuff that comes up in conversation.
Then one day, while we were in the middle of talking, she walks up and says,
“I just want to thank you guys for being so nice to me. Most of the people that come in here are either rude or don’t want to be bothered, and they act like I’m not even here.
The first day you guys came in I had my resignation in my purse. I was going to hand it in that day.
But after you left, I decided to stay and keep at it, and it’s because of people like you.
So thank you. But do you mind me asking, why are you so happy all the time?”
Did we mind?!
If you want to share Jesus with someone, that’s what we call a lay up.
Right there, in the middle of that coffee shop, we got to look at her and explain the joy we have in Christ. We got to tell her that we have a Savior who redeemed us and saved us, and if that’s true then we have nothing but reasons for joy.
But things like that shouldn’t surprise us.
A real example from the early church
To circle back to Acts, that’s exactly what happened in the early church.
They were loving one another just like Jesus said, being obedient to his Great Commission and Great Commandments, and as they did that the world didn’t know what to make of this group of people.
I want you to hear one of the most powerful examples of what this looks like from the history of our faith.
This is from a letter written around 260 AD, when the city of Alexandria was being devastated by a plague, and people were dying left and right, similar to what you might picture from the bubonic plague.
The church was experiencing those same kinds of losses, and this letter, written by Dionysius, who was the overseer of the Christian community there at the time, shows us how the church responded.
Listen to this:
“The most…of our brethren in their exceeding love and affection for the brotherhood were unsparing of themselves and clave to one another, visiting the sick without a thought as to the danger, assiduously ministering to them, tending to them in Christ, and so most gladly departed this life along with them; being infected with the disease from others, drawing upon themselves the sickness from their neighbors, and willingly taking over their pains…
In this manner the best at any rate of our brethren departed this life, certain presbyters and deacons and some of the laity…So, too, the bodies of the saints they would take up in their open hands to their bosom, closing their eyes and shutting their mouths, carrying them on their shoulders and laying them out; they would cling to them, embrace them, bathe and adorn them with their burial clothes, and after a little while receive the same services themselves, for those that were left behind were ever following those that went before.
But the conduct of [those outside the church] was the exact opposite. Even those who were in the first stages of the disease they thrust away, and fled from their dearest. They would even cast them in the roads half-dead, and treat the unburied corpses as vile refuse.
-Eusebius, Historia ecclesiastica 7.22
According to the church father Tertullian, the only way the world could explain what was happening in the Christian faith at times like that was to say, “See how they love one another and how ready they are to die for each other.”
Could the same be said of us today? Of those of us in this room? Of your groups?
If not, then we need to ask ourselves why.
And then we need to change.
Remember, this wasn’t a suggestion from Jesus. It was a command.
3 ways to start sharing our lives
And the good news is it’s really simple to get started. We can just do what the church did in Acts and throughout history.
There are three really simple things we can do:
- Meet in each other’s homes
- Share meals
- Meet needs.
Meet in each other’s homes
Meeting in each other’s homes automatically makes us vulnerable. It shows people that we’re willing to let them into our lives and share what’s going on.
And it’s hard to let people in there sometimes, I know. We tell ourselves our home should be a retreat where no one can bother us and no one can interrupt us.
But I’ve got to tell you: I don’t see that in the Bible. I see them using their homes for ministry.
And the more I’ve done that in my own life, the more my wife and I get over ourselves and let other people into our home and share our time and space, the closer we grow to them.
Think to yourself, what are you already doing that you could invite other people into?
Is everyone in your group at home watching the Panther’s game alone? Invite them to your house.
Are you a stay at home mom and you take your kids to the park every week at the same time? Invite other moms and their kids to come with you.
Look at how you live your life and see where you can share some of that with other people.
Then consider sharing meals with people, both Christians and non-Christians.
If your group isn’t already sharing meals together at some point, you really should.
There’s no commandment to do it, but we all know that something happens when food’s around that lowers anxiety and gets people to loosen up.
If you never meet with other Christians around a meal, you’re leaving some of the best conversations on the table.
You’ve all had those moments with friends or a spouse or your family where the meal’s done, the night’s settled in, and the conversation just starts to flow.
Share times like that with your group. And do it with serving them in mind.
When our walls are down, we’re much more likely to show you areas of struggle or pain or any number of things that show you as group leaders how you can serve them.
And that’s the last easy way to start sharing your life with others, by just serving them somehow.
That takes attention. Attention to what’s going on in people’s lives, what’s going on in your neighborhood, or in your group.
You’ve probably had several moments in the last few months where you said to yourself, “I should really make a meal for them,” or, “I should really offer to watch their kids,” or something like that.
But did you do it?
Just start doing something
Loving others well, sharing our lives with others, means we have to pay attention to how we can serve them, and then we have to actually do it.
Otherwise acknowledging the need doesn’t do any good.
Now I know that some of that you’re already doing some of those things, but what Jesus is really after is how we do those things, right?
It’s not a list of things we have to do every week, but a heart from which those things flow.
Now, they do have to flow, meaning we do actually need to do something.
This isn’t just some feeling we’re supposed to have in our hearts, but a love that expresses itself through our actions, like we see throughout the book of James.
But again, what Jesus is after, what he’s always after, is our hearts.
We all know you can go to church, be in a group, have friends, and yet still not really know anyone or be known by anyone.
Because that depends on what we choose to let people into. On how we choose to relate to one another.
And that’s where I want to encourage you the most in this coming season.
Find ways to share your life with your group. Find ways to give yourself over to them. To make yourself vulnerable, to meet your group member’s needs, to find ways to embody this command to love one another.
Ask yourself who needs to be served, what needs do they have, and then just do something.
If we want to be a part of something like we saw in the early church, if we want to experience that kind of belonging and see God move in incredible ways, then it starts with loving each other.
And as we do that, we’re promised that the world around us will start to take notice.