“Keep on loving each other as brothers.” A phrase so simple, so direct, so obvious that we wonder that the writer would even have to say it. If there is anything which ought to come naturally and spontaneously to a Christian, it should be a love for those with whom he shares the bond of forgiveness in the blood of Christ. Right?
And yet, the things that have characterized Christian history are division and disunity, animosity and hatred, backstabbing, slander and malice (have I missed anything?) Oh yes – and a really bad case of selfishness.
And it didn’t wait a couple hundred years to get revved up – it started right out of the blocks – Christians treating other Christians with anything but brotherly love. Virtually every letter in the NT was written to churches who were struggling with keeping Christians unified and loving each other.
Romans – Christians were dividing over eating meat and celebrating holy days. Jews against Gentiles, grace versus legalism.
1 Corinthians – where do you start? Paul writes the entire letter dealing with disputes over leadership, immorality, lawsuits, marriage, idolatry, the Lord’s Supper, worship, spiritual gifts and even the resurrection. If you wanted a fight, just go to Corinth.
2 Corinthians – ultimately they turn on Paul himself and attack his apostleship and Paul defends himself.
Ephesians – slandering, stealing, malice.
Philippians – the church was taking up sides behind two sisters, Euodia and Syntyche, who got crosswise with each other.
1 Thessalonians – they argue over the second coming.
2 Thessalonians – some of the brothers are quitting their jobs and mooching off the church.
Arguing with a Christian is like mud wrestling with a pig. After a while, you figure out the pig enjoys it.
I’m glad that was all back in the 1st century and we’ve grown beyond those kind of petty squabbles! The truth is, we’ve argued over church buildings, kitchens, mission work, song books, orphan homes, pant suits, long sleeve shirts, Bible translations, clapping, color of carpet, shape notes and Sunday school – is there anything we haven’t argued over? We are a contentious people – and it’s no wonder the writer leads off the exhortations in ch. 13 with “love one another as brothers.”
It wasn’t just the Hebrews writer – listen to the Biblical writers’ counterpoint to disunity:
1 Th. 4:9-10 – “Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other.”
2 Peter 1:5-8 – “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Romans 15:7 – “Accept one another then, just as Christ accepted you.”
Eph. 5:1 – “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us…”
1 Cor. 12:31 – “But eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way: Love is patient, kind, does not envy, boast…”
Love is both the highest and noblest Christian quality, and the antidote for disunity and division.
Jesus says it is the one distinguishing quality of the true church – “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Do you know why the world doesn’t take the church seriously? Why the world doesn’t come flocking to the church to find answers? Why the church is looked at with suspicion and mistrust? Because we don’t have first things first. We stand in judgment over everyone with an air of superiority. We tell the world, “Come to us, we can tell you about God’s love,” and they know we don’t even get along with each other. And it all sounds kind of empty.
What does brotherly love look like?
Interestingly, Jesus never said, “God is love.” He never described love in a reasoned, logical definition. But nearly everything he had to say, in one way or another enveloped two themes: Love God, love your neighbor. That God is love was at the heart of nearly every parable he taught. How love acts was at the heart of all of his actions and motives.
Parables: Prodigal Son / Good Samaritan / Shepherd who leaves the 99 to search for 1 lost sheep / The woman who searches for 1 lost coin – all of them focus on what love looks like and how love acts.
It was John who wrote “God is love…”
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:7-12)
So, what does brotherly love look like?
Love is sacrificial
While so much of the world is turned inward and focused on self-awareness, self-promotion, self-fulfillment, the picture of love in the Bible is rather one of self-denial and self-sacrifice.
The ultimate example of love is the sacrificial sending of his Son to earth by the Father – and the sacrificial death of Christ upon the cross. Only in the cross can we really understand what love is and how love acts.
This kind of love flies boldly in the face of the world’s shallow, ego-centered love that centers on what you can do for me. It challenges us to practice love by pouring ourselves out in service for friend and enemy alike.
“No greater love has any man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.”
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:6-8)
“If you love those who love you what reward have you…”
What does love look like? It looks a lot like the Son of God on his knees washing the feet of his disciples, one of whom would deny him and another who would betray him.
Do you love your brothers, even when it costs you something, even when you have to swallow your pride and sacrifice your rights in order to show that love?
Love is accepting
Division and disunity come, not because we have different understandings of the Bible. Even those Christians in Rome were in disagreement over some teachings in the Bible. The solution? Debate and disfellowship? – NO! Accept and forbear. Paul said, love one another in spite of your differences and disagreements. He would write to the Colossians, “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Col. 3:13-14)
During the season of Super Bowl I, the great quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, Bart Starr had a little incentive scheme going with his oldest son, Bart, Jr. For every perfect paper he brought home from school, Starr gave him a dime. After a particularly rough game against St. Louis, in which Starr felt he had performed poorly, he returned home weary and battered late at night after a long plane ride. But when he got ready for bed, there sitting on his pillow was a note: “Dear Dad, I thought you played a great game. Love, Bart, Jr.” Taped to the note were two dimes.
The church is not just a place where we find acceptance only when we do what is right, but even when we mess up – not just when we agree, but even when we don’t see eye to eye. We can’t sanctify our disdain for our brothers just because we believe they are wrong! We continue to love them because unity is more important than being right.
The church is the one place in the world where folks ought to be able to come and find absolute, unconditional acceptance.
What does love look like? It looks a lot like two brothers who disagree with each other, and don’t see eye to eye, but who love each other and are committed to each other so deeply that they would never let it separate them.
Love is enduring
Two weeks ago we talked about the one permanent constant in all of human history – “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
The one quality which so embraces that permanence is love. Love is enduring – Paul writes: Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
It is not a feeling, but a commitment that weathers every storm. Feelings come and go, ebb and flow. They are a wonderful part of the emotional attraction that God created between human beings. And friendship is built in large part upon these warm feelings of common interests and mutual enjoyment.
But love demands that we go one step further – that we commit ourselves to one another for the long haul. That we willingly place ourselves in a relationship that resists the crises that threaten to tear us apart and alienate us from one another.
What does love look like? It looks a lot like an elderly couple, sitting side by side, holding hands, still together after 60 years. But maybe just as much, it looks like a young married couple facing the realization that their partner is not perfect, and those initial feelings that attracted them to one another aren’t quite so strong. But rather than trashing the relationship and moving on, they reaffirm their commitment to each other and stick with each other through it all.
James Dobson tells the story of a 36 year old woman had been feeling bad for months, and finally went to the doctor who referred her on to a specialist, who ran the tests and then set her down to give her the diagnosis – stage 4 cancer, inoperable, untreatable. He advised her to spend her remaining days enjoying herself on a beach in Acapulco. Not ready to give up, she sought a second opinion from another doctor, who offered her the slim hope of a few months to a year with chemotherapy and radiation. But the side effects would be grueling. This mother of three, sat down and penned these words to her children: “I’ve chosen to survive for you. This has some horrible costs, including pain and suffering and moods I won’t be able to control. But I must try this, if only on the outside chance that I might live one minute longer. And that minute could be the one you might need me when no one else will do. For this I intend to struggle, tooth and nail, so help me God.”
That’s what brotherly love looks like. Most of the time, it’s just the rather routine and uneventful process of coming together and being here. But then in a second, everything can change, and we’re not just here, we’re here for each other. It’s like a family – brothers and sisters, ups and downs, disagreements and squabbles – but when one is in need, all that is forgotten and we willing lay down our lives for each other. We choose to be here for each other, because you never know when that might be the moment I need you most and no one else will do.