(This post is the text of a talk I gave this Summer with our friends at Westside Church of Christ in Sullivan, Indiana. The stories all come from that church. It’s a great little place!)
“But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many [outsiders] to put a brand upon us. Look, [the outsiders] say, how they love one another, for [the outsiders] are animated by mutual hatred; how [we] are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves will sooner put [each other] to death. And they are wroth with us, too, because we call each other brethren; for no other reason, as I think, than because among themselves names of consanguinity (terms of affection, or sibling love) are assumed in mere pretence of affection.” (Tertullian, Apology 39)
“Our bond, which you resent, consists in mutual love, for we know not how to hate; we call ourselves ‘brethren’ to which you object, as members of one family in God, as partners in one faith, as joint heirs in hope. You do not acknowledge one another, amid outbursts of mutual hate; you recognize no tie of brotherhood, except indeed for fratricidal murder.” (Minucius Felix, Octavius 31)
I wonder if you were bothered by the use of the term “outsider” in the first quotation. That word makes a lot of North Americans uncomfortable…we hate the idea of excluding people. Today, I will tell you some stories about people inside of Christianity. Though it may surprise you, these stories are not normal. Therefore, using words like “outsider” is not an attempt to exclude anyone or say that we should look down on someone who is not a Christian, but is simply an acknowledgement of the fact that it means something to be part of the family of Jesus, and particularly this family of Jesus.
Additionally, a lot of people like to focus on the negative things that have happened in the church over the centuries and focus on how those things have been far too much the norm. While I agree that the negative things are lamentable, today I wish to talk about what is good, because it is the good that points us to what God has always wanted for his people, and it is the good that we are striving towards.
The family of Jesus at its best has always been peculiar. Particular. Odd. Strange. At its best, people have noticed the church and have been able to see the good that is present there, whether or not they have liked or appreciated that good. For example, Roman Emperor Julian wrote to one of his Roman high priests, saying:
“Why do we not observe that it is their (the Christians’) benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done the most to increase atheism (Christianity)?…When…the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”
This emperor didn’t like the Christians because they made him look bad…they cared for his people better than he could. Julian tried to imitate their benevolence in an attempt to stop the momentum that the Christians were building among the people. He started social programs in the empire to take care of the poor, but the end result was that these programs were a poor substitute for the good that the Christians were doing. His effort ultimately failed.
If the church at its best has always looked a bit odd, a bit different from the society around it, then the same is true of this church. A great deal of what happens here does not look like what you would expect to see from any regular group of people. That is why it is important to notice what makes us different, and to notice how that looks like what has made the church different in past generations.
So. I would like to tell you what we have noticed over the course of the past month, the things that help us understand what it means to be part of the family of Jesus that gathers in this building. I want to tell you the stories of your church. Along the way, I will scatter a few more references to the early church. Hopefully you will be able to see the connections, because they are there.
I have heard stories of people helping others find work when they lost their job.
I have heard stories of people helping others make ends meet when that person couldn’t find work…slipping that person a check or some cash when no one was looking.
I have heard stories of a woman drawing on her experiences of life and motherhood to encourage and empower younger women who find themselves in similar places.
I have heard stories of people searching out ways to engage in the lives of kids in this town who are in desperate need of more positive adult attention.
“The wealthy, if they wish, contribute whatever they desire, and the collection is placed in the custody of the president [elder, or overseer]. [With it] he helps the orphans and widows, those who are needy because of sickness or any other reason, and the captives and strangers in our midst.” (Justin, Apology 1)
I have heard stories of over a dozen people from Westside sitting in a waiting room when one of their own was in the intensive care unit, to the point where outsiders started asking questions.
“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 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 receive the same services themselves, for those that were left behind were ever following those that went before. But the conduct of the heathen 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, Ecclesiastical History 7)
I have heard stories of people meeting daily in each others’ homes, sharing life together and bologna, and the bologna was enough because they knew that the sharing is far more important than the sandwich meat.
I have heard stories of someone joining this family because they watched this family, this church, sharing a meal and thought, “look how they love one another.” (Tertullian 39.8)
We have heard many stories, but now Laura and I are beginning to get some stories of our own.
We needed a place to stay. Not only did this church give us a home for the summer, but several people spent hours and days working before and after we got here to make sure that we would be comfortable.
We needed furnishings for our house. Not only did this church completely furnish our home, several people took it upon themselves to make sure that all of our needs were taken care of as well as our wants. One lady even made sure to find out what we were missing and took care of the last odds and ends almost single-handedly, willingly and graciously, saying that it brought her joy to bless others. Some of the younger (and older) men in the congregation drove all over western Indiana helping get all of these furnishings to our house.
We didn’t know where anything was in town, so several people took it upon themselves to take us on tours of their favorite spots.
We didn’t have much art in our house, so one of the young girls of this church drew us a picture to help beautify our home and bring joy and life to it.
We needed a relaxing day, so one of the families invited us to swim and fish in their pond, even teaching Laura how to fillet those fish. We ate those fish that night. And it was good.
Our car wouldn’t start, and someone helped me fix it (that is, he fixed it while I tried to look like I knew what was happening). He would not accept repayment of any kind, because someone at this church had helped him when in a time when he couldn’t repay. Several others had offered to help us in the same way.
Our lawn needed mowing, and the day that we were going to start asking around to borrow a lawnmower, someone (or someones) showed up and mowed the entire yard without us even knowing. That has happened more than once.
We have been invited into home, after home, after home, after home. We have had meals bought for us. We have both gained at least five pounds in the past month. We have experienced beautiful hospitality.
We have watched a young lady move in with her grandparents to take care of them when they needed some help, even though they would never have asked her to do so. She cares so much for them that she even learned how to hang up her grandfather’s shorts so they get just the right crease in them.
We have watched parents, both biological and spiritual, respond tenderly and compassionately to the weakness and vulnerability of the young people of the church.
We have watched this family of Jesus be the family of Jesus.
What, then, does it mean for this family of Jesus to be more the family of Jesus together?
Thinking back on the stories that I have told today, both from this church and from the church centuries ago, I have a feeling that it might look even more peculiar. Particular. Odd. Strange. I have a feeling that not everyone in the world will want to be part of it. But even if not everyone wants to be part of it, I also think that most people will be able to see the good that is present here. That even if they prefer if we fell off of the face of the earth, it is because they see that what we are doing is beautiful and therefore dangerous to the world as they know it. That if anyone has anything bad to say of us, that it will be something along the lines of “look how they love one another.”
“Look how they love one another.” Those words have always been among the most dangerous to the world as we know it. Was it not Jesus himself who said “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”? When we love each other as Christ loves us, when we honor one another above ourselves, when we build each other up, when we live in harmony with one another, when we are servants of one another, when we confess our sins to one another, when we forgive one another, when we pray for one another, when we carry each others’ burdens. When we truly, practically, daily love each other as Christ loves us…that is when the outside world looks at us and says, “look how they love one another.” Some will say this in awe, some may say this in disdain. But regardless how they say it, this is how the world knows that we are the followers of Jesus. This is who we are, and this is who we are called to be.
Brennan Manning once said “The single greatest cause of atheism in this world is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world finds unbelievable.” The opposite is also true. The single greatest cause of Christianity in the world is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and with their life. That is what an unbelieving world will find worthy of belief.
Let us go, then, and be this. Let us be the family of Jesus, vibrantly and beautifully, so that the world looks at us and sees nothing but the love of Christ. Let us show the world the love that our Father has for us, the love of Jesus present among us, the love of the Spirit that resides within us. Let us be the people of God so powerfully that any accusation against us includes the words, “Look how they love one another.”