Christ’s love; Walk in the way of Love
“Walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Ephesians 5:2
In Ephesians, Paul describes what a healthy church community looks like. He recounts many elements that are necessary for a church body to be healthy. For example, he urges us to live lives worthy of our calling, bearing with one another in love, and making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit (2b-3a). This seems to be at the heart of his message! He also reminds us why the Lord has given each of us his gracious gifts. You and I have been gifted that we might use our gifts to build each other up and the church— so that we might all somehow reach unity in the faith, and also attain to the fullness of Christ! What this means is that our end goal should be to become Christ-like in every way, especially in the way of love— that is, Christ’s love! He commands us to put away the old self and the fruitless deeds of darkness and to instead put on the new self that we might live as children of light in righteousness and holiness. He also insists that you and I follow God’s example in walking in the way of love just as Christ did! This is not an advice, but a command to all in the church, to those who love Christ and abide in him.
Of course, of all the elements that make up a healthy church community, there are two that are most essential. There’s unity! And then there’s also Love! These two elements are critical to a healthy church community. And they are inseparable! In chapter 4 verses 2 & 3, the original language reads something like this: “Bearing with one another in love making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Paul tells us to bear with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit. And he gives us good reason why we are inseparably united, and how this unity of ours comes about. He goes on to say that Christ in his great love, redeemed every one of us into his One body, and joined us together by his One Spirit, drawing us together by One calling into his One hope through One common faith and One baptism of repentance into One precious Lord, that we might all belong to One God and serve One Father to whom we all belong. And that’s what’s at the core of our unity— a unity forged by a bond of peace— a peace Christ himself brought about through his sacrificial love and empowered by his Spirit! Nothing else could ever unite us as believers who strive for a healthy church community. And understanding this truth is also crucial to maintain our unity!
Our unity therefore, has nothing to do with ourselves, and it has everything to do with the working of his Spirit who bound us together into his one body the church— that we might serve his glory. We must always remember this— that our unity has it’s foundation in what Christ did, and not the working of our own effort. Another thing we must remember also is that the purpose of our unity isn’t for our own comfort or benefit, but rather to serve the Lord and his church. If we ignore this truth or forget it, many things arise that can damage our unity. One of them is the unnecessary and menacing criticism that sometimes arises to the way each of us are called to serve God! We don’t all serve God and his work in the same way. We don’t all carry out ministry in the same way. Sometimes we have different ways of studying the Bible or teaching the Bible— different ways of raising disciples— different ways of preparing and delivering sermons— even different ways of worship. And there’s nothing wrong with being different or doing things differently from each another. We’re not all called to serve God and his work in the same way. Often enough, different is good! It’s no reason for scorn or criticism which often festers into rivalry, hostility and division. Rather, our diversity should strengthen our unity! The body of the Lord is made up of different parts and each serves its purpose accordingly. But if we spurn each others’ differences, where is Christ’s love reflected here? If the unity is strained it cripples the church— the very church we are charged to build up for the glory of God.
There’s something else that strains our unity. Expectations! That is, having expectations that others cannot possibly fulfill, nor should they have to fulfill! Expecting others to grow in our own image and to our own expectations, rather than to grow in God’s image to serve God’s purpose in their lives! Meeting our expectation is one of the most damaging things to the unity of a church, and it doesn’t reflect Christ’s character either. It’s just not healthy and it’s certainly not productive! Sometimes there are so many unreasonable expectations that we have of our children or of those we serve in the church! I lost many good people in my life because I wanted them to be what God never intend for them to be. And they in turn learned to expect much of me as well, and I couldn’t deliver! Expectations damage everyone involved, and eventually even the church. Expectations don’t reflect Christ’s love at all. Rather Paul admonishes us to bear with one another in love keeping the unity of the Spirit. He says: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Ephesians 4:2) Rather than burden them with our expectations, instead we ought to be humble, gentle and patient, bearing with them in love, and building them up until they grow up to be whatever God has intended them to be in order to serve God’s own purpose in their lives!
These were just a couple of examples of how to keep the unity we have in the Spirit! Christ’s love is a strong incentive for us to do that. We should not let anything divide us or strain our unity, whether differences or expectations! We can do that if we continue growing in Christ’s love. There is no other way! And this brings us to the other essential element for a healthy church community. Love! And particularly, Christ’s love!
I think Christ’s love is the answer to everything. But how can one define Christ’s love? Paul speaks of love repeatedly in this book, all together, 17 times and in different ways. But I think that the best expression of Christ’s love is the way Paul describes it in chapter 4 verse 32 through chapter 5 verse 2. He says: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” God wants us to practice Christ’s love especially in two ways— the way of forgiveness and the way of self sacrifice, just as Christ did in his amazing Christ-like love for us.
First: Walk in the way of love means to practice forgiveness— following God’s example. How can we possibly understand God’s forgiving grace? Furthermore, how can we possibly practice it? I think it’s impossible to fully understand the extent of his forgiveness unless we understand our own sinfulness and the scope of Christ’s love for us! How much has the Lord forgiven us? I believe that each of us has a different story to tell. But fundamentally, we all share the same story. In the terrible sinfulness of our hearts, we rejected him. We betrayed and hurt him. We drove nails in his hands and feet and lifted him up on a cross to suffer in agony. In our sinfulness, we killed the Righteous One though he was innocent and did nothing to deserve it. Yet in spite of it all, Jesus cried out from the cross: “Father forgive them.” (Luke 23:34) This was the extent of Jesus’ forgiving grace and his divine love for each of us. And he continues to forgive us as our High Priest who ever intercedes for us from heaven! Who can ever emulate this kind of love— forgiving love!
One time Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Perhaps Peter thought he was being generous almost heroic. But Jesus had something to teach Peter that day— the essence and extent of Christ’s forgiving love. Jesus said: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22) Christ’s love is like this— forgiveness without count, without limit, generously, willingly, wholeheartedly, without end! Paul tells us, “Follow God’s example”, “forgiving each other”. Always! It’s what it means to walk in the way of love! But we can’t walk in the way of this kind of forgiving love unless we remember and rely on his grace of forgiveness in our own lives.
In life we have all been hurt. And it’s inevitable that we’ve been hurt many times and in many ways by each other in the church. It happens even between husband and wife, sometimes even between father and son, mother and daughter! We say “I forgive you but I cannot forget what you’ve done to me”. This isn’t forgiveness. It’s a grudge in camouflage! It’s really hard to forgive. I really had a hard time forgiving those who hurt me. And I found out why. It wasn’t because it’s hard to forgive, but because I forgot how much Christ had forgiven me. We tend to become callous and self righteous when we forget God’s forgiving grace! Anyway God helped me in an unusual way. I despised Abraham’s nephew Lot. How could God consider him righteous when he betrayed both God and Abraham. But one day the voice in my heart said: “Do you think you’re better than Lot?” Then I wept, because I knew I wasn’t. I remembered all the sins the Lord had forgiven me of in my life! And from then on, my heart was free to forgive anyone and everyone anything and everything! We can never afford to forget the grace of God’s forgiving love in our lives. This is the same love that compels us to forgive each other! Self righteousness, or pride of heart, or bitterness, or whatever else it is that prevents us from forgiving each other are poisons that war against Christ’s love in our hearts! These things must be repented of and weeded out! And instead we must practice forgiving love among each other, in the church, in our own families, and even toward strangers. As God’s children we must practice it deliberately and excessively as the best expression of Christ’s love towards one another. It’s the best way to follow God’s example. It’s the best way to walk in the way of love and reflect his forgiveness.
Second: Walk in the way of love also means to practice self sacrifice— following God’s example. How did Jesus practice self sacrifice? “Walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” He gave himself up for us! That’s what Christ did! This by far is the greatest expression of love in human history. There is nothing to compare it to. Most human sacrifices are conditional and can be measured. But how can we describe or measure Christ’s self-sacrificing love? Jesus said: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) Christ gave up every privilege in heaven and on earth to rescue us from darkness. He gave up his life on the cross for the sinful and the ungodly. He did it to bless the unworthy that we may inherit salvation. He did it to give birth to the church— this holy institution that inherited his loving grace to share with a dying world. That is the scope of Christ’s self sacrificing love!
Who can practice such self-sacrificing love? It seems impossible! But we can— if we’re deeply rooted in his love. We should know how much Christ loved us and experience it in our own hearts and lives. Actually, this was Paul’s prayer for us as he wrote to the Ephesian church— to grow in the knowledge of his love— and mature into the fullness of Christ’s love— and to flourish in this love together as a church. The Apostle John described this power to love one another when he said: “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.” (1 John 4:16) So, it’s essential for us to experience Christ’s love in our hearts and lives— not just one time, but every day moment by moment— that we might also rely on it in loving each other in a self-sacrificing way. When we experience his love time and again, then this Christ-like character becomes for us like second nature in “walking in the way of love” as we follow God’s example. When Christ’s self-sacrificing love flows in our hearts towards each other, it also reflects in the way we relate to each other in the church— in our homes— in our marriages— between husbands and wives— with our children— with those we serve— and even with the stranger! When Christ’s self-sacrificing love flows in our hearts, his love spills out of our hearts in every conceivable way! We don’t criticize or condemn each other. We’re not quick to gossip or malign each other behind each other’s backs. Rather we’re quick to bear with one another in love. We speak the truth to one another in love. We also build each other up in love. When Christ’s self-sacrificing love flows in our hearts, we express it in acts of servantship and acts of sacrifice— in acts of kindness and mercy and compassion— in the gentleness and humility of Christ. We do so in our church and in our home— with our husbands and our wives— with our children and with those we serve and mentor in Christ. Practicing self-sacrifice is the seal and mark that we belong to Christ, and that his love flows in our hearts. It’s the evidence that we are following in God’s example, and walking in the way of love.
We need to often encourage and spur each other on in the practice of love, whether it’s forgiving love or self-sacrificing love, because neither is easy to do. It’s a joy, however, to know that in a community like ours, God has called many to pour out our lives in self-sacrificing love for Christ and for his kingdom work. Many have sacrificed possessions, families, future, sometimes even retirement in the cause of Christ and his gospel. Many spend their youth establishing God’s work on campuses, even giving up worldly opportunities all in obedience to the great commission. Many labor hard to plant the word of God in God’s precious flock. Many are familiar with the self-sacrificing love needed to serve them and to raise them up as his disciples. Many don’t even retire from this blessed work but give even more of their years as silver missionaries at the ends of the earth. And there are many among us even now who are being daily convicted to sacrifice themselves in reflection of Christ’s loving sacrifice for them. How then can we but be thankful for what the Lord has done and continues to do among us in his love! It’s the kind of thing that unites us in a glorious way because we are convinced that Christ called us to “Keep the unity of the Spirit” and to “Walk in the way of love.” So, whether we are a small house church or a large ministry, this is our calling and this is God’s will for us. May God bless and prosper each one of us to bear the fruits of Christ’s love in our lives. Amen.