True life in the church depends on the “New Love Commandment” Jesus gave to his disciples in John 13:34-35: “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.”
Today churches urge their members to focus on their mission to the world. But Jesus, in this “New Love Commandment,” calls us to begin our mission right in the local congregation, the conference and denomination by loving each other. Then as we go into the world, people will listen because they recognize us as true disciples.
A lack of love for one another is destroying the church and its witness. Church splits and conflicts, sexual sins and other misconduct by the clergy and church leaders all cause people to become discouraged and leave the church — and also discredit the church in the eyes of others.
Let’s begin our mission by loving one another so that as we go people will know we are true disciples. From the story of the Prodigal Son and his elder brother in Luke 15 we learn that reconciliation begins by confessing our own sins rather than the sins of other people. When, like the elder brother, we confess the sins of other people, we tend to exaggerate those sins while justifying ourselves. This story also teaches that true reconciliation brings joyful celebration.
A related need is learning how to use Scripture. Matthew 2 illustrates the proper and improper use of Scripture. The Magi, King Herod, the teachers of the law and chief priests all sought in Scripture the answer to the question: “Where is the Messiah to be born?” They had the same information and the correct interpretation. They all believed it to be true. But each used it differently.
The teachers of the law and the chief priests believed it was enough simply to know Scripture, to understand it correctly and to believe it is God’s infallible, eternal word. But they never acted upon Scripture. They never went to find Christ Jesus.
King Herod wanted to use Scripture to consolidate his power over people. Trying to use Scripture in this way, he killed many children.
The Magi used Scripture to go, find Christ Jesus, worship him and offer gifts. Then God gave them an additional message. They acted upon that message, heeded God’s warning and went home without reporting back to King Herod.
The lessons are these: When we use Scripture like the teachers of the law and chief priests — as something to understand intellectually — we gain nothing. When we use Scripture like King Herod — to gain power over people — it becomes a vicious thing that kills our children. If we use Scripture in these ways, our churches will decline, and people will not want much to do with the church and our faith.
But if, like the Magi, we act upon Scripture, go and find Christ Jesus, worship him and faithfully offer our gifts to him, then God will speak to us and give us additional directions to do his will. Then our children and others will delight to walk with us and so build the church.
John F. Murray is a retired pastor from Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference of Mennonite Church USA.