Great Themes of the Bible (#24a-Loving One Another)

"Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves."

There are people all around us who are starving for love. For the sake of its absence, people dull their intense pain with drugs, give themselves to sexual predators who persuade them to confuse having sex with being loved, or otherwise try to fill a huge empty hole in their hearts. The church as the Family of God is intended by God to be not only a community of faith but of hope and love as well. With God as our Father, we are brothers and sisters to one another — looking out for one another so that nobody is forced to feel like an orphaned child whom nobody wants.

"Orphaned" and "Unwanted"

Approximately three months ago now, my friend Rick White and his wife, Patty, adopted an 11-year-old Ukrainian girl. We have several adoptive families in this church, but the story I am about to tell you is a bit different yet from any of the stories we know about the precious children God has set down in our midst by adoption.

Rick is Senior Pastor for First Baptist Church in Franklin. He and Patty had been working for months to finalize an international adoption in Ukraine. Olena Morgan's mother and father were both dead, and her relatives had rejected her and said they could not afford to care for her. So they gave her to a Roman Catholic orphanage years ago and never visited her or even did so much as donate potatoes during the annual village drive to provide this staple vegetable for the children at the orphanage.

Rick and Patty learned about Olena during a visit to Ukraine two or three years ago and have since made a couple more visits just to get to know her and start a complex adoption process in motion. Hitting roadblocks at every turn, God gave them a Ukrainian attorney who took the case to heart and set about helping them adopt Olena. In August of this year, Rick and Patty made what would be their final trip to Ukraine to testify in an adoption hearing, execute some legal documents, and bring their new daughter home. Here is what Rick told me took place on that day in court.

With Rick, Patty, Olena, and their attorney seated before him, a dignified judge had Rick to stand. After binding him with an oath to tell the truth, he asked Rick why an American citizen would want to adopt a child from Ukraine into his home and take the responsibility for rearing her. It was a question Rick was prepared to answer. There were other questions, and he was interrogated for twenty to thirty minutes. Then the same procedure was repeated with Patty. Finally, the judge asked Olena to stand and asked her if she wished to be adopted by the Whites, leave Ukraine, and live in the United States of America. After asking his questions and giving grave attention to everything said in response, the judge ended the hearing and promised to return with his judgment. It took about an hour for him to reappear — one of the longest hours Rick, Patty, and Olena ever spent!

With the hearing reconvened, the judge began to read with great solemnity from his hand-written decision. Rick told me that his heart broke as the interpreter translated what was being read over Olena — words that she was hearing immediately in her native tongue. As Rick related them to me, he cried. "Inasmuch as Olena Morgan," intoned the judge, "a citizen of Ukraine who is orphaned and unwanted by any citizen of this country . . ." The reading continued, but the words "orphaned" and "unwanted by any citizen of this country" had resounded in the hearts of Rick and Patty until they wanted to put their hands over a little girl's ears to keep her from hearing them, pick her up in their arms and say it was no longer true, and take her out of that sterile room. But they couldn't interrupt. They had to stand and hear the judge say words whose effect on a little girl they could hardly fathom.

With the legalese of Ukrainian equivalents to our "inasmuches" and "wherefores" completed, the final words of the judge's decree granted custody of Olena to her new parents. Everyone stood. The judge declared the hearing concluded. Then he and his assistant left the room.

"And what did you do then?" I asked Rick. He smiled through the tears that had begun flowing as he was telling the story and said, "We knelt down, put our arms around Olena, and told her that words like ‘orphaned' and ‘unwanted' would never be spoken of her again. Not ever!"

I tell you Olena's story in the hope it will help you to visualize yourself in a similar situation before some great cosmic tribunal. Satan had made you a spiritual orphan in your universe. Then God came to you, paid the adoption price to claim you as his child, and took you to himself. All this so that words like "orphaned" and "unwanted" would never be appropriate to you again. You are loved by him, and the place he has reserved in his heart for you is no less special to him than that of the noblest saint you know. You are loved for your own sake, not for your abilities or deeds or gifts. And you have been set down in a family whose role it is to affirm that to you — and to have you affirm the same back to every other brother and sister to whom you have awakened in your new family. "Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another" (1 John 4:11).

God's Intention

The Epistle to the Romans is Paul's magnum opus. It is in many ways the pinnacle of all biblical literature because of its full and clear exposition of the biblical thesis of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. The theme verse of the book comes at 1:16: "I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile."

The watershed text of the epistle comes at 3:20-24:

No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
That is the gospel. That is the heart of the Christian faith. We have been accepted on the merit of the atoning work of Jesus, in spite of our inability to measure up to the demands of law, righteousness, and good deeds. In this marvelous work of grace, God has both shown himself "just" (i.e., honorable under the provisions of law) the one who "justifies" (i.e., grants right-standing to) all those who believe in Jesus.

Romans 12:1 builds on Paul's explication of the gospel in the first eleven chapters of the epistle and proceeds to show some of the practical outcomes of salvation in a Christian's new world-view and lifestyle. He is not deserting or compromising his thesis that salvation is in Christ and in him alone. The new life of loving obedience he envisions for a saved woman or man is not offered as a way to woo God's favor. It is what Paul had called at 1:5 "the obedience that comes from faith" (cf. 16:26) or "the obedience that is inspired by faith."

On the basis of God's mercy experienced in Christ, we offer ourselves as living sacrifices to him. Energized for new ways of thinking and behaving by Holy Spirit- presence in our hearts, minds, and bodies, we see ourselves as belonging to God and eager to give him glory with whatever giftedness he has entrusted to us. Specifically, as he also says in one of his epistles to the church at Corinth, love is the greatest of spiritual gifts and is our first calling to demonstrate newness of life in Christ.

Love must be sincere. To this point in Romans, the noun agape has been used exclusively of God's love for humankind (cf. 5:5,8; 8:35). Now, however, this same word is called on to describe the "debt" redeemed persons owe to our fellows. Agapemeans getting outside oneself for the sake of another. It is giving of oneself in order to make another's situation better. It is sacrificing for the sake of someone else. It is learning to love one another as God has loved us.

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:8-10).
Christian agape is sincere, without pretense, free of hypocrisy. The new Spirit- presence in a saved person purifies motives and makes love absolutely authentic and genuine.

Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. In distinguishing vice from virtue, falsehood from truth, a Christian has his or her priorities settled. Instead of mimicking holiness while secretly longing for and dabbling in wickedness, the person energized by the Holy Spirit hates evil and pursues good. In the context of speaking about sincere love and honoring one another, the strength of this appeal must surely be more relational in scope than private ethical behavior. That is, it isn't simply that Christians cultivate good personal character by refining their affections in times of personal spiritual wrestling but that they look out for one another, hate things that hurt their fellow human beings (rather than see an opening to take advantage of them in their weakness), and attach themselves to such things as promote the general welfare. Sincere love has made them unselfish toward others in their world.

Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Within the Christian community itself, there is to be a particular bond of closeness and devotion — not only self-giving agape but family-affirming philadelphia as well. Paul put it this way in another place: "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers" (Gal. 6:10). Outsiders who see the familial devotion of Christians say, as they did in Tertullian's day, "Look how those Christians love one another!" That isn't a weather report. It is heartfelt yearning for the same thing in their own lives — and a powerful incentive for them to hear the gospel.

Honor one another above yourselves. Christians honor others by treating them with respect and dignity. The spirit of humble service is natural and easy for them, and it does not come across either as condescending piety or self-righteousness. The humble are exalted, and the wealthy and powerful are servants. The church reveals the mystery of God's upside-down kingdom and startles the world (cf. Luke 9:46ff).

We Need Each Other

The teaching article in last week's Love Lines seems almost prophetic now. It was prepared a week ago Saturday and e-mailed to the office from McAllen, Texas, where I was teaching in a weekend seminar. Its title: "We need each other."

None of us knew last Sunday what an ordeal of a week this would be for us — and I'm not talking about a still-too-close-to-call presidential election. Last Sunday we were celebrating the birth of Dan and Lyndee Harrell's baby boy, Hudson. This Sunday we are still reeling from Lyndee's sudden death in the wee hours of Tuesday morning. Know what Lyndee's death has showed Dan? We need each other.

This week Dan and his three daughters — Haley, Holly, and Hattie — experienced the same sort of shock Ann Maddux had to absorb in Leather's death during surgery, to which Joy Mercy was subjected when Scott was killed in a plane crash, and which others of us know from heartaches of various types. If you don't have something strong to hold you up and to hold you together during those tragedies, you collapse and die on the inside. You never get beyond being a shell of a person again. You can lose your will to live.

Dan stood in this pulpit Thursday to testify that it was his spiritual family that was making it possible for him to function. The people in Dan and Lyndee's small group were the first ones on the scene Tuesday morning. (This is one of the reasons we think small groups are so important to the life of Woodmont Hills!) Some of them were at the Harrell home before Dan was able to get back there himself from Chattanooga, where he was working! They have covered the bases with ironing, cooking, and taking care of children. They walked Dan through making funeral arrangements. Gid Fox, Tim Easter, and Pat Flynn flew to Lubbock yesterday to be with him at Lyndee's burial. They and the larger church family here are seeing to it that the financial blow of funeral, travel, and other needs are met — fully, completely. The Love Lines article said:

By virtue of God's presence and activity within it, the church is greater than the sum of its human parts. It is the living body of Christ. His spiritual body? Yes, but his fleshly presence as well. He has no eyes to see, feet to approach, mouth to speak, or hands to serve this generation of humankind, unless we see them in their true situation, go to them in their distasteful settings, speak to them with our stuttering mouths, and serve them with our inept hands. Occasional flashes of brilliance or showing up at just the right time or doing something that genuinely makes a difference will be God's activity through us.

And that is why we need each another.
I believe those words now more than when they were written. I have seen them lived before my eyes this week. You made them come alive. Even from the inside, you can't explain it — except as God's presence among his people; from the outside, you can't understand it — but know it would be wonderful to experience.

Conclusion

Olena Morgan, you will never be "orphaned" and "unwanted" again. God has given you a family! The Harrells don't have to "muddle through alone" without a wife and mother. God has given them a family! And our ongoing challenge as a church is to be God's family for one another — until we are all safe at home with our Father in heaven. So let's be sure our love is sincere, that we hate anything that would hurt our brothers and sisters and love what builds them up, devote ourselves to one another in brotherly love, and honor the image of God in each other.

This is God's will. It makes the difference for us in our crisis moments. It bears witness to God's love before a watching world. It draws lost, hurting, starving-for-love people to the community heaven created for their redemption.

Audio - Rubel Shelly | Audio - John York

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