How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! – Psalm 133:1
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. – John 13:35
It is hard not to fall in love with numbers. When budgets are balanced and seats are full we proclaim success. When deficits are posted and pews are empty, we mope in failure. Most of the worries of the modern church has can be broken down into two categories: not enough people and not enough money. Numbers are dwindling. Dollars are in decline. We are compelled to add a coda to Julian of Norwich’s hopeful line, “All will be well.” All will be well, only if we have more people. All will be well, only if we have more money. It is true that ministry has more options when we have more resources, but it doesn’t make ministry impossible, especially when we rediscover the guiding principle of all ministry.
“Love one another.” This is the place where the church should measure its success or faithfulness. Yet the annual report that I file with the larger church never asks “What is the level of love?” Again, I sit down with budget reports and usher totals, proclaiming the year a success or failure based on numbers. How would one quantify the level of love in a place?
Jesus begins his ministry satisfied with a dozen and even those dozen struggle to love each other, squabbling about who forgot the bread and who should be in charge and who should count the money. “Love one another” is an easy command to hear, even to begin to comprehend, but it is a challenge to live out and obey. We need only do a cursory reading of 1 Corinthians to know that, from the very beginning, the church has struggled to love one another. Paul didn’t give his beautiful statement on love, “Love is patient, love is kind…” because the people in Corinth understood love and modeled it for one another. He offered this teaching because they didn’t get it; didn’t want it; used the church for personal attention and satisfaction. If we cannot even manage to love in Christian community how can we expect to carry that love into the world?
As I have mentioned before, I see the virtues that I have been discussing as virtues to be learned and in which to grow. Love is a virtue that we as disciples study. The church, the Christian community, is our classroom. We gather together and are united, ideally but not perfectly, apart from considerations of family, clan and national allegiance. We look at a Christian whom we have never met and proclaim, “Here is my sister.” We share the peace and an eighty-year-old says to a toddler, “Here is my brother.” We are united in the love of Christ. We are united through the love of Christ. We are bound by the love of Christ.
In a previous article, I wrote about how learning to love yourself and learning about yourself are part of the process of learning to love your neighbor. We all have individual quirks and triggers. We are unique and we can celebrate that uniqueness as a gift of a loving God. Yet in Christian love, the rubber meets the road when we begin to deal, accept and embrace the quirks, triggers and uniqueness of a neighbor. To love someone fully is to love and respect the pieces and places that are different from you. You may not love all the ideas and actions of this person. But, following Christ’s example, can you simply look at them and love them? Can you disagree without degrading? Can you debate without dominating? Can love be the place where you start and the goal of your interactions?
We are students, learning to love. We will not always get it right. Sometimes we will be dismissive. Sometimes we will be ignorant. Sometimes we will be downright rude. The constant nature of God’s love, the promise of grace, is that we have the chance to try again. We can forgive and be forgiven. We can regret and repent. We can apologize and try to restore our relationships.
It is true that we have number struggles in our churches, struggles that create tension, struggles that distract from our main work and business. The business of the church is not found in numbers, it found in acts of love. The success of the church is not found on balance sheets, it is found in attitudes of love. The hope for the church will never be on quantified because it is infinite; it is the love of God shown to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In Christian community we learn that love so that it might spread beyond us and change the world.