Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 1 John 4:7-8 (NLT)
As someone who grew up in the 60’s, my first response when I read this verse is to have a “Kumbaya” moment where we all sing around a camp fire and strum a guitar. I don’t think John was humming Kumbaya when he wrote this letter. When John wrote his letter, the church was about 60 years old. From its start in Jerusalem with Peter’s first sermon at Pentecost, the message of salvation from sin made possible by Jesus’ death and resurrection had spread throughout the Mediterranean rim. But it was not an idyllic society. The church was made up of people from different nations, languages, cultures, faith, and race.
I don’t think John would have admonished his readers to “continue to love one another” if they were doing it already. That’s the Kumbaya interpretation of the passage. Instead, John was seeing outside influences break down the gospel message that he and the other disciples had given their lives to spread. The letter covers several important doctrinal issues woven around a framework of love. His conclusion is this, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers.” 1 John 4:20-21 (NLT).
The believers to whom John was writing were not very different from believers today. There were divisions in the church over a new teaching called Gnosticism. There were divisions over race, the religion a person held before becoming a believer, social status, and gender. If John were here today reading the news or social media, he would likely say things had not changed much.
But, as I read John’s letter and reflect on the history of the early church, there is something that seems different and it concerns me. The believers in John’s time seemed to do a better job of applying the simple command to love one another when they disagreed with each other. For example, the first church dispute recorded in the Book of Acts was an allegation that the Greek widows were not being treated fairly when food was distributed among the believers. They were accusing the church leaders of race discrimination. The Apostles didn’t get defensive, issue a press release denying the allegations or kick the Greeks out of the church. They told the believers to do what they thought would make it right. The people selected a group of men to oversee the distribution of food to the widows, all the men were Greek. As far as we know, no one complained of bias and the widows were fed.
Later, when there was a dispute over whether Gentiles could become followers of Jesus, the Apostles talked to people on both sides of the dispute, concluded that Gentiles could become followers of Jesus, and sent a group of Jewish believers to deliver the message.
This new movement cut across many traditional barriers and caused friction and outright disagreement between the followers. The believers didn’t respond with rejection and angry memes. They talked to each other. They prayed. They studied the scriptures. They talked some more. They reached a decision and went on.
My heart breaks when I see how believers are responding to each other today. We have allowed political affiliation, race, gender, wealth and social status to become points of separation rather than opportunities to work through hard issues for the good of Church and the believers. If John were here today, he would resend his letter to us. But he would first underline all the sections about loving each other.
This week, you will encounter someone with a different point of view on a subject that is vitally important to you. Before reacting, take time to talk, pray, study the scriptures and think about your response. Can you use this as an opportunity to demonstrate the love you have received from God and bring healing and not division?
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