While I served a church in western New York for several years, I had many conversations at the church playground with neighbors. As I worked in the yard on a Saturday, neighbors arrived with their kids to play. When they came, I would brush dirt from my hands to offer hospitality and conversation.
In one of those Saturday conversations I heard the following statement: “They didn’t even love one another!” The woman who spoke was describing her experience growing up in church as a child and teenager. She was a neighbor of ours in New York. My kids played with her daughter on the church playground and around our rural neighborhood.
The woman had more to say about growing up in this unloving church. “They needed one another to keep the church going and to maintain their fundamentalist ideals, but they didn’t love one another.”
This woman’s negative early exposure to a church caused her to question what they were teaching her as a child and teenager. She concluded that what came out of their mouths couldn’t be trusted.
I often wonder how many congregations function this way, and I wonder how many people have been “turned off” to the ministry of the local church by a congregation that is not a reflection of God’s love. This woman’s church experience leads us to pause and reflect upon our relationships with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
What do your neighbors experience when your congregation offers a hand of hospitality? Do they encounter the unity that is inherent to the nature of God? What are your children experiencing as they are raised in the fellowship of believers?
Jesus is concerned for our unity as his disciples. This is why he prayed, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11, ESV).
Unity is difficult for us to maintain. Jesus knows this—that’s why he prayed for it among his disciples. Jesus knows our default disposition as sinners is to turn inward toward our own desires. As sinners we think of ourselves before we consider God or our neighbor. So relationships are strained and broken. People are at odds with people. Neighbor fights neighbor. And yes, church member attacks church member. And it hurts—especially when disunity and poorly managed conflict enter the Christian community. Division within the Body of Christ is not a reflection of Jesus.
How can we maintain unity within our congregations? The only answer is that we be kept in a right relationship with God. Our relationships with one another are directly linked to our relationship with God. If a person’s relationship with God is broken, relationships with others cannot experience the unity that is inherent to God’s character.
Jesus prayed, “Keep them in your name.” The only way a church can remain united is to be kept firm in God’s name. A name gives identity. We are kept in his name only through remaining in him through the Word. The Holy Spirit, working through the Word, is the power through which we enter right relationship with God. When we are kept in his name, we are in the place we were created to be—with the Father through faith in Jesus, by the unity of the Holy Spirit.
How do we enter into this right relationship with God? This answer is also found in the name of God. In John 17, Jesus uses two names for God that are not found anywhere else in the Bible: Those names are “Holy Father” (v.11), and “Righteous Father” (v.25). What does it mean to be kept in the name of Jesus? It means that by the death and resurrection of Jesus we have been declared holy and righteous. So Jesus also prayed, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (v.17). To be sanctified is to be made holy, or to be set apart for a holy purpose. We have been made holy and righteous by God. As those who have been sanctified and are being sanctified, we are to be a holy reflection to one another of the unity of the triune God. This means living with others as a reflection of God’s holy name.
Love is the ultimate reflection of God’s holy nature.
In 1 John 4:7-12 (ESV), we read, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.”
Few things are more damaging to our faith than a church in discord. Nothing is more beautiful than living in a community of faith that reflects the holy and righteous nature of the Father, who has made us holy through his Son and is sanctifying us by his Word in the power of the Holy Spirit.
I pray that your conversations at the playground or around the neighborhood will be a holy reflection of God’s nature. I also pray that our congregations will grow to be an even greater reflection of God’s unity to the communities we are called to reach. May it never be said of us, “They didn’t even love one another.”
Rev. Adam Jensen is Pastor of Maple Park Church in Lynnwood, Washington.