Part IV of “I Am a Follower: The Way, Truth, and Life of Following Jesus.”
One of the exercises that I’ve been involved with over the years is the crafting of mission statements. Oh, yes, I can hear some of you groaning right now. If you’re in a company or some other organization, you’ve probably done this exercise of boiling down who you are and what you do into a short sentence—a process that usually involves several pads of butcher paper, a lot of markers, wrestling over words, some moments of frustration, and copious amounts of coffee. A little over a year ago, our Church Council commissioned a Vision Team to present a new mission statement and focus for Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church. It took us a few months (and quite a lot of butcher paper), but at the end of the process we presented what we think is a biblically sound and descriptive statement: “Building followers of Jesus Christ who love and serve God and neighbor.”
Actually, that’s the combination of two different mission statements Jesus gives his disciples in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). The first is the Great Commission from Matthew 28—“Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” The group thought that “making disciples” was a little obscure for the unchurched who may visit us, so we changed it to “building followers of Jesus Christ”—which is really what “disciple” means. The second part of the statement comes from what we now call the Great Commandment. Remember when Jesus was asked, “What’s the greatest of all the commandments?” He answered: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.” All the law and prophets are summed up in this commandment. We mashed both of these into one statement—Building followers who love God and love their neighbors through acts of love and service.
It wound up being 12 words—we liked the symmetry of that. Twelve disciples, twelve words. Of course there are some experts who say that twelve words are too many—that eight is optimal (of course you can find others who say it’s five, or three, or one, or maybe even just a monosyllabic grunt, etc.). Point is that the more to the point the statement is, the better it communicates. Kevin Starr, who runs a company that matches investors with socially minded businesses, told Harvard Business Review that a good mission statement has three parts: the verb, the target, and the outcome. A strong action verb, a specific target, and a measureable outcome make for a focused statement that everyone in the organization can memorize and implement.
Eight words. Well, both the Great Commission and the Great Commandment exceed that word limit, but they do have strong verbs, targets, and outcomes. It’s interesting because in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus tends to state things succinctly. In John, however, Jesus tends to give long speeches, like the one we’ve been looking at in this series—the farewell discourse. What’s John’s version Great Commandment and Great Commission? Well, how about this statement in John 15:12 – “This is my commandment,” says Jesus, “love one another as I have loved you.” There you go, that’s eight words. Perfect! Love (a good action verb) one another (the target) as I have loved you (outcome). Could we wrap the Great Commandment and Great Commission into that statement? Sure, though I think we could flesh it out a little more—the whole witness of Scripture and all that.
Of course, you could go the other direction and just boil it down to one word, “Love.” A lot of people have tried to do just that. Problem is, the verb without the object and the outcome can lead to a lot of misunderstanding which is why Jesus describes the love he’s talking about—the love that characterizes the via (the way), the veritas (the truth), and the vita (the life) of those who follow Jesus. It’s important that we get this love thing right if we’re going to be authentic Christ followers.
Notice, at the outset, that Jesus not only suggests this mission, he commands it. “This is my commandment,” he says, and not for the first time. In 13:34 he says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. But this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Hearing a command to love tends to make us uncomfortable. As 21st century people, we’ve been bombarded with the message that love is primarily about feelings—nothing more than feelings—and you can’t command someone’s feelings, right? Well, the New Testament writers had a different set of vocabulary to talk about love than the single word we use to describe our love for everything from that special person to that special pizza. I “love” them both!
In Greek, however, you had a palette of words you could use—philos (friendship), eros (romantic love), mania (obsession or eros gone crazy), storgy (motherly love), and lastly, the word agape, which is the word Jesus uses most often. If the other words focus on feelings toward the object of love, agape focuses on the subject—the quality of the lover himself. Agape love requires no reciprocation—it is love purely directed toward the other regardless of the response. It’s love as full, willful, outwardly focused, and unconditional. It’s the hardest kind of love because it benefits us the least, which is why Jesus had to command it!
Scripture is full of commands, of course, and some are easier to keep than others. This one is perhaps the toughest—“[Agape] your enemies,” commands Jesus. “[Agape] those who despise and reject you.” We can see such love as a heavy load to bear. It’s like when you were a kid and your mom told you to tell your bratty little brother that you love him and you’re sorry for putting him in a headlock, even though he ate your last Snickers bar out of spite. Chastised by mom, you say through gritted teeth, “I love you and I’m sorry.” But you really don’t believe either statement, at least in the moment.
If Jesus were just commanding us to love as an action—something that we do, then we’d be hard pressed to obey it given our own resources of sin and self-interest. But Jesus doesn’t just merely give us the command, he gives us the ability and the impetus to obey it. “Love one another,” he commands, “as I have loved you.” Ah, here we go…we don’t have to merely drum up the agape within ourselves. Instead, the love we are to project is the product of the love we have received! I’ve seen a bumper sticker around that says, “Love God. Love Others.” Great, but that’s only half the equation. What it should say, however, is “First be infused with love, then love God and love others.” You can only give agape if you’ve received it.
And, oh my, has that agape been offered to us. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” says Jesus to his disciples, and a short time after he says it he goes out and does it. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” Jesus told Nicodemus. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love,” he says earlier in chapter 15. In fact, I invite you to go back and read all of John 15. Jesus says he is the vine and his disciples are the branches. His love flows through us on it’s way to someone else. Disconnect from the vine of his love and you are destined to whither away. “Apart from me, you can do nothing,” he says, and that includes loving one another with deep, abiding, unconditional agape.
Joe Dongell, who was one of my favorite professors at Asbury Seminary, put it to us like this, “Belovedness produces holiness. No holiness means we have not received God’s love. God’s love produces mission. Any Christian or church without zeal is insufficiently filled with God’s own love. If God’s love drove Jesus on a mission, it is God’s love that will drive us as well.” Infusion leads to profusion. We love because he first loved us.
Notice, it’s not love that we initiated. God loved us even when we didn’t respond. As Paul puts it so powerfully, “God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” He gave up his life for his friends, even when they acted like enemies.
“Love one another as I have loved you… You didn’t choose me, I chose you,” Jesus reminds us. We’ve been appointed to “bear fruit that will last”—the fruit of love that is only made possible through us if it’s present in us.
What’s our vocation as followers of Jesus? Love—love of God and neighbor; love from God toward neighbor. Love that transforms us from the inside out.
I’ve been reading a new reprinting of John Wesley’s, “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection” during my devotions each morning, and one of the things that I have noticed over the years is that whenever you are reading Wesley, whether it is in his sermons or in his letters or other writings, the one dominant theme that emerges is love. Indeed, Wesley defines Christian Perfection not first in terms of actions—that we are perfect in our performance, simply obeying orders—but rather in terms of love. Listen to how he defines it:
“Christian perfection is neither more nor less than pure love; love expelling sin and governing both the heart and life of a child of God.” A Methodist is a follower of Jesus Christ who “has the love of God shed abroad in his heart.” It’s the love of God that begins to expel sin, rebellion, and hatred from our hearts and enables us to love God, to love one another, to love our neighbors, as we love ourselves. This is “the sum of all religion” according to John Wesley.
We display this graphically next to our mission statement. On the left side of the circle are acts of loving God—worship and devotion, while on the right side are acts of loving neighbor—compassion and service. Put all of these together and you have a complete picture of a disciple of Jesus Christ who loves God and neighbor in both public and private ways.
Notice that this is not the kind of love of God and neighbor that equates to the flat, popular notions of “spirituality” on the one hand, nor “tolerance” or “acceptance” on the other. This is love that transforms. It’s love that lifts people out of sin and brokenness to wholeness and new life. It’s not merely being “nice,” it’s being truly compassionate and sacrificial in service.
Someone asked me awhile back why I’ve been so intent on leading Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church to be so, well, Methodist. This is why. It’s not as though this vocation of love is unique to Methodists—it’s a command to all baptized Christians regardless of denomination. What motivates me, however, is that emphasis on holy love was the catalyst of movement that changed the world in its day and I believe that it can do so again. Tri-Lakes has the opportunity to be at the forefront of leading the revival—a revolution of love in a world where people have little experience of it. I spend every day thinking about how we can better build up people as followers of Jesus who know just how much they have been loved by him and then, infused by that love, how we together might offer that love to the world around us. That is, after all, what we Methodists have traditionally done best.
There are a lot of easier ways to do church, mind you. We could focus on getting as many butts in the seats as possible. We could focus on building a bigger building up here on the hill—one that someone might actually see from the road. We could focus on the moralistic therapeutic deism that is packing some of the country’s largest churches today with a message that says that the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself, with no obligation or commandment keeping necessary. We could take the opposite tack and spend our energy railing against the sin and evil in the world, like those college campus preachers who scream hell and damnation at passersby. We could cater to the narcissistic individualism of the culture, becoming a distributor of religious goods and services for religious consumers. We could focus on the way church used to be in “the good old days” or pine for what the church could be in the future. Or…we could actually obey the command of Jesus: “Love one another as I have loved you.” That’s hard, but it’s the way of life we’re called to by the One who is the way, the truth, and the life. Can we build people up here in the love of God so much that it overflows in their relationships with others? Can we push aside all the other stuff—our expectations, our preferences, our desires—and strive after perfection in love? Can we invest our life together in that mission?
Next week we’re going to share with you some of the great things that have happened in this past year as we’ve focused on the mission of building followers of Jesus Christ who love and serve God and neighbor, and we’re going to invite you to invest yourselves and some of your resources in this ongoing mission. I really do believe that Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church can be a catalyst for revival, spreading Scriptural holiness and love abroad in our neighborhoods, our workplaces, our families, and, yes, maybe even in our denomination. We need not follow someone else’s script—we are followers of Christ.
But it all begins with you and me. So let me ask you: Do you know how much God loves you today? Have you experienced that love? If not, let me tell you—this much—enough that he had his arms nailed wide open to receive you. Do you have trouble loving others, particularly those people who don’t reciprocate your love? Yeah. He loves them this much, too, and calls us to love them, too. It’s all about the agape.
That’s our mission: Love God and love neighbor. Love as he has loved us. Verb, object, outcome. Amen.
Dongell, Joe. “A Wesleyan Manifesto.” Lecture given at the Newroom Conference in Franklin, TN. September 17, 2014.