A call to worship and witness
What is the most important task for the church today, with declining membership, a swiftly changing culture and a world in great need? Could it be something as
simple as the love of Jesus?
When I was 17 years old I traveled to Kenya with my high school choir. One afternoon, our tour bus took us through an especially impoverished section of town. Overwhelmed by the sadness I saw on the faces through the bus window, I sent up a naïve but heartfelt prayer: “O Lord, show these people your love somehow.” Immediately the following reply resounded in my head and heart, “You show them my love.”
I shared this story with a small gathering of young adult seminarians and church leaders one weekend in November 2009. As we took turns telling our spiritual pilgrimages, we noticed that we all shared a love for Jesus, a concern for the church and a desire to be part of God’s mission in the world. These commitments have come to form the center of our identity as the Anabaptist Missional Project.
But what do we mean when we say we love Jesus? We live in a society profoundly confused about the meaning of the word love. The word slides off our tongues so easily, expressing our feelings about a spouse or family member, our country, our favorite basketball team or even dark chocolate. We equate love with unconditional acceptance or “doing what comes naturally” when we feel attracted to someone.
Can Christians really use the term love and say anything meaningful at all? Or has it become like an old rubber band, stretched beyond any practical use?
One of my seminary professors urges restraint. He invites preachers to abstain from using the word love for at least six months. “If you can’t find some other way of expressing the idea,” he suggests, “perhaps you don’t really know what it means.”
We should probably say the same thing about love that Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon have said about peace and justice: “The church really does not know what these words mean apart from the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth” (Resident Aliens, Abingdon Press, 1989). We must look to Jesus to know what love is.
The first thing Jesus teaches about love is that it does not begin with us. Our love for God is always a response to the One who first loved us by taking on the weakness of human flesh and submitting to death on a cross. But the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross say much more than simply, “I accept you the way you are.”
Richard Hays makes this point in his award-winning book The Moral Vision of the New Testament (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996): “The biblical story teaches us that God’s love cannot be reduced to ‘inclusiveness’: authentic love calls us to repentance, discipline, sacrifice and transformation.” In other words, divine love calls forth a response.
That response begins with an honest assessment of our sinful condition. Love doesn’t gloss over sin. The Son of God loved us enough to unmask our addiction to sin and take its consequences on himself. Jesus confronts personal moral failure and social injustice alike, calling everyone to repentance. We can’t love God if we refuse to admit our brokenness.
Confession and forgiveness are the first steps of response to God’s love. But the journey doesn’t end there. Jesus demands radical commitment from his followers, calling us to love God more than money (Matthew 6:24), our family (Matthew 10:37) or even life itself (John 12:25).
We prove our love for God not merely through promises and deeply held sentiments but also through simple obedience to Jesus’ commands (John 14:15). Chief among these is to love our neighbors and even our enemies, just as Jesus has loved us: truthfully, joyfully and sacrificially.
Jesus names our vocation of love most clearly in his summary of the Law and the Prophets: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (Matthew 22:37-40).
But there is good reason not to start with this command. We too readily assume we know what it means: “Believe in a benevolent Supreme Being and be nice to people, especially yourself.”
If we let Jesus define love, however, it should be clear that this double-love command means something more like this: “Love and serve God with the whole of your being in response to his offer of salvation; and pour out your life for your neighbor (and even your enemy), because that’s the kind of love Jesus lived.”
When it comes down to it, the love of Jesus is really about worship and witness. We worship the God who first loved us in Jesus Christ. We bear witness to that love by sharing the good news of peace with God, neighbor and creation through Christ. Worship apart from witness is empty, and witness without worship is impotent.
What does it look like when we boldly embody the twofold love of Jesus today?
First of all, we worship with other Christians on a regular basis. For followers of Jesus who love God with all their being, worship is not a commodity we consume but a vocation we assume. We gather with other believers to commune with God through prayer, song, Scripture, preaching, confession, Communion and celebration. Together we cultivate the habits of adoration.
This is especially important to remember as we become an increasingly activist church. I fear we have traded Jesus’ invitation to reflect his love for a Messiah complex. We think we’re the saviors of the world. Worship reminds us that the fate of the cosmos doesn’t depend on us. The Risen Lord rules from heaven, beckoning us to join in his reconciling work.
Secondly, we begin our witness at home and in the congregation. Loving our children as ourselves means winsomely sharing our faith with them. We tell them Bible stories about God’s faithfulness and testimonies of God’s people across the span of time and geography. We honor their questions and concerns but remind them that their lives are part of a drama whose central actor is the Triune God.
Too often we try to attract our wayward children through inclusion rather than conversion. It’s not enough for them to embrace Swiss or Russian Mennonite culture. Anabaptism is most centrally about radical faith in Jesus Christ. Love doesn’t substitute potluck dinners for costly discipleship.
Finally, we engage in mission that is specifically Christian. Everything Jesus lovers do, whether meeting human need, caring for creation, denouncing injustice or preaching the gospel, derives from and points toward our Lord. Mission is an integrated endeavor to embody the same love Jesus lived and taught.
We are eager to build homes, feed the hungry or protest militarism. But ask us to share our faith in Christ, and many of us develop momentary aphasia. For those who live by the double-love command, there is no dichotomy between social justice and evangelism.
Jesus issued the double-love command in response to a trick question. “Teacher,” probed the Pharisee, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus’ response is ingenious. The greatest commandment is not one but two: adore God and cherish people. Worship and witness.
The simple elegance of this command does not make it easy to practice. Love demands everything of us. Yet we need not despair that our Lord has given us a charge we are ill-equipped to fulfill. He never expected us to be able to do it on our own. That’s why he has sent his earth-shaking, fire-breathing Spirit to embolden and empower us (Acts 2:1-4, 4:31).
As we seek to live the love of Jesus through worship and witness, let us recall the promise of our Messiah: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).