We recently returned from a weekend at “Easter Camp 2016” in a nearby town called Kadoma. Lest you start conjuring up images of a bunny-themed Summer Camp, Easter Camp is actually an annual tradition in Southern Africa during which local churches either host themselves or gather (usually at a camp-like retreat center) with other local churches for an entire weekend (Thursday-Sunday) of worship, fellowship, prayer, and Bible Study. This was our first Easter in Zimbabwe and thus our first exposure to Easter Camp, and we can now testify to what a blessing this kind of intentional and concerted time of devotion over the Easter holiday can be.
One of the biggest blessings for me (Nick) was being able to share the preaching/teaching load with my supervisor, mentor, boss man, and all-around missionary kingpin Gregg Fort (that’s the title he requires I use :)). As we planned our teaching programme (note the Anglicized spelling, I’m becoming more African daily!) we decided to walk through the Easter narrative chronologically with our sermons. In doing so, it fell to me to preach on the passage known as the “Upper Room Discourse.” This discourse is found in John chapters 13-17 and takes place on the night Jesus is betrayed and handed over for crucifixion. Since this is the last bit of teaching Jesus does before heading to the Garden of Gethsemane and then the cross, I thought it likely that this discourse may contain some important themes. And boy was I right!
As I looked through this passage to analyze its structure, I (with the help of a few commentators) came to see a clear pattern in the text. Some might refer to it as a “chiasm,” but one commentator suggested the more accessible illustration of a target featuring a “bullseye” with concentric rings around it. Whichever image one chooses to use in their thinking, what is undoubtedly clear is that the central passage of this “Upper Room Discourse” is John 15:1-25. And I would argue that the central message of this central passage comes in verse 12, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” In John 1-12, John hangs his narrative on the fenceposts of “the Passover.” We see at least 3 (possibly 4) different Passover feasts in these chapters: John 2, 5(?), 6, & 11. It is no surprise then that when John begins the second half of his book, he chooses to start in the Upper Room during (you guessed it!) the Passover. It’s as though John is presenting Jesus as a New Moses leading His people in a New Passover in preparation for a New Exodus (cf. Lk 9:31). But before this Exodus happens, Jesus (like Moses) delivers a sermon (Deuteronomy anyone?) to guide His people during their wilderness wanderings. And at the center of this sermon, He gives a “commandment.” No, not 10 commandments, not 613 commandments, but one commandment- “…love one another.”
How will the world see the glory of God in this His new people? Jesus says, “all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). How will this new people adhere to all the Law and Prophets which came before them? Jesus says “You shall love the Lord your God…and…you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 22:37-40). As Paul will later say, “love is the fulfilling of the Law” (Rom 13:10). If this commandment is what Jesus chose to make the center of His last sermon prior to the cross and if this is what He says actually summarizes the entirety of the Old Testament, we would do well to consider how this “love” is meant to play itself out.
I normally don’t post exegetical discussions like this on the blog (honest, check and see), but I was compelled to do so after reading a recent post by my friend David Hare. In this post, David asks and answers the question “What is the hardest part about being a missionary?” The answer he gives is not (as one might expect) the separation from family, isolation from home culture, change in climate, sickness, insects, snakes, etc. The answer he gives is simply, “the people.” Theologically we know that wherever human beings are, sin exists. And wherever sin exists, there will be conflict (James 4:1). But nowhere do we see this more clearly than in Gospel ministry. After all, the goal of Gospel ministry is to gather a group of sinful people and shepherd them through sanctification to become a unified people set apart for God’s glory! As Hare points out, trying to bring sinners together in this way is ALWAYS going to be challenging, but there are particular nuances to this difficulty when doing so across cultural lines.
Please don’t read me as saying that some cultures are inherently more sinful than others and thus more difficult to minister among. I am not saying the sins of other cultures are more, but simply that they are different than the sins of the missionary’s home culture, and thus more difficult for the missionary to adapt to and address. As human beings, we say we naturally prefer to group ourselves among those with whom “we have the most in common.” Often we assume this means the people who are interested in or enjoy the same things as us. This may be partially true, but I think at least one of the reasons we group ourselves the way we do is because we prefer to be around those whose sin patterns are more “acceptable” to us. And the reason these sin patterns are more “acceptable” to us is because they are most closely aligned with our own. I won’t belabor this point, but would simply point out that this is likely the reason we have so much division along racial, economic, generational, and even niche (read cowboy, hipster, biker, traditional, etc.) lines in our churches.
When you cross cultures to engage in ministry, however, these types of cultural dividing lines are exacerbated. Sure, the freshman missionary inevitably goes through a period of romanticization (which we have just recently finished). The sentiment is, “Ah, these people are so simple, pleasant, joyful, thankful, and welcoming, etc.” Well of course they seem that way—as does anything new for the first few weeks! But what happens when you settle in among these people to begin doing ministry and life together? This is when the cultural divisions really begin to show themselves. And while I do not have the level of insight or experience my friend David has, as we have only been on the field for a few months now, I can I can testify along with him that this is one-hundred percent, without a doubt, the most difficult part of being a missionary.
All this to say, our family has officially entered into the well-known phase of missionary life known as “culture shock.” While this is the most commonly used term, I think the term “culture fatigue” is probably more accurate, as there is little that actually “shocks”me about the culture or its customs. What the culture does do, however, is simply wear me out! Its not the newness or surprising nature of how things are done here that affects me, it’s the fact that it is so deeply and consistently different! Any group of sinners is hard to engage with the Gospel. But this is especially true when that group’s pattern of sin is so far removed from my own. Again- not more sins, just different ones! Yet, it is in the face of these mounting divisions and frustrations that the Lord has kindly been reminding me of Jesus’ command to “love one another.”
In David’s post (which, again, I cannot recommend more highly) he addresses “why?” we ought to love one another. In what follows, I’d like to briefly address the “how?” from the structure of Jesus’ “Upper Room Discourse.” How do we love unloveable people? Particularly when the unlovely things about them are so different from our own unlovely things? I think the target structure emanating out from the “bullseye” passage gives us three answers to the question, “How?”
1. The Spirit Will Help You (14:25-31; 15:26-16:15)
The first concentric circle surrounding the command to “love” is filled with what is perhaps the most dense collection of teachings on the Holy Spirit in all of the Bible. Jesus says when the Spirit comes He will “teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (14:26). He will “take what is mine and declare it to you” (16:14). He will not speak on His own authority, but “whatever He hears, He will speak” (16:13). Jesus says the Spirit will be with us as a continual teacher and reminder of the words Jesus spoke. And if the center of Jesus’ teaching (as it seems to be in this message) was “love,” it stands to reason that one of the chief things the Spirit comes to lead us in is “love.”
Small wonder, then, that Paul lists the first characteristic of the fruit of the Spirit as “love,” (Gal 5:22). In fact, if you think about it, nearly all of these characteristics must be fleshed out in the context of community. One cannot “love” by oneself. The same is true for exercising patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control, etc. These things describe the characteristics of those who are living in community while walking by the Spirit. Paul points out something similar in Ephesians 5:18ff and Colossians 3:12ff. While urging the churches to “put on” kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (Col 3:12) and to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21), he also provides the “how?” In Ephesians he says, “be filled with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18). In Colossians he says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col 3:16; cf. Jn 15:7). In short, this is not something that comes naturally to sinful people. If we are going to live in community with other sinners (especially those whose sins are different than ours), we must walk in dependence upon the Holy Spirit, Who alone can guide us in the path of peace and love.
The second “How?” Jesus gives in His “Upper Room Discourse” is…
2. The Father Will Reward You (14:1-14; 16:16-33)
The second concentric circle in the target surrounding the “bullseye” is yet another “infamous” passage about the reward awaiting those in Christ. Jesus tells His disciples prior to going to the cross “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (Jn 14:2). He picks up the same promise of reward from the Father later in chapter 16 when He promises, “the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me” (16:27) and “A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me…because I am going to the Father” (16:17). Jesus grounds His command to “love one another” not only in the reality that the Holy Spirit will be with us to help us, but also in the reality that the Father loves us and promises to give us whatever we ask in Jesus’ name (16:23). Jesus speaks here of the future reward for those who have loved and believed in Him. And consistently, Jesus uses this future reward as an encouragement to “take heart” (16:33). How can we carry out the command to “love one another” in the midst of a world full of sinners? Because we know something better is coming!
The NT consistently ties commands to “love” and “unity” to the promise of Christ’s return. Hebrews 10:25 warns us not to neglect “to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” In Romans 13, Paul urges us to “fulfill the Law” through “love” and grounds this command in the fact that “the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Rom 13:10-11). Similarly, when Peter speaks of our awaiting the “new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13), he concludes by urging “Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace” (2 Pet 3:14). The consistent teaching of the NT is that our promise of future (and near!) reward ought to drive us to a present peace and unity as the people of God. After all, what sin can your brother commit against you that will have even the slightest significance five trillion years from now? Therefore, in light of the coming Kingdom, we must strive to “love one another.”
And finally, Jesus tell us that we are helped to love one another by the reality that…
3. The Son Serves You (13:1-38; 17:1-26)
The third concentric circle surrounding the central “bullseye” passage contains two of the most paradigmatic episodes in the Bible illustrating the ministry of Jesus to His people. In the first passage (13:1-38), Jesus physically acts out the servant posture He came to earth to assume (cf. Matt 20:28; Mk 10:45). When Jesus removes His outer garment and stoops to wash the feet of His disciples, this is a visual picture of the fact that He willingly refused to cling to His “equality with God” but rather “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Phil 2:7). This is the picture that lies behind His command to “wash one another’s feet” (Jn 13:14). Far from implementing a third “ordinance” for the church, Jesus is instead giving a much greater challenge- that we would imitate His example of serving one another out of love. Similarly, Paul takes up Jesus’ example of service as grounds for His command to “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4). The Son first serves as an example of His command to “love one another.”
The second way the Son serves to help us obey this command, however, is through prayer. In what is sometimes called the true “Lord’s Prayer” or the “High Priestly Prayer,” Jesus intercedes on behalf of His disciples as well as those who would believe on account of their message (Jn 17:1-26). This prayer for His disciples can be broadly summarized under two requests: 1) that they may be sanctified by the truth (i.e. God’s word) (17:17), and 2) that they may be one (17:21, 22, 23). This sounds strikingly resonant with what we saw earlier regarding the Holy Spirit guiding us into all truth, which leads us to love. Similarly, this resonates with what we saw in Paul regarding being filled with the Spirit (or “word of Christ”) as the grounds for putting on love, gentleness, meekness, humility, etc. The summary of this prayer, then, seems to be the same thing Jesus has already said the Spirit would accomplish—namely sanctifying us with the word to the end that “the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (17:26). The difference here is that we actually see JESUS praying these things for us! Don’t skip over that sentence. Jesus PRAYS these things for us! So not only does Jesus put this commandment at the center of His teaching and live out the quintessential example of obedience to this command for us to follow, The Righteous Man actually prays for us that these things would be so in our lives (cf. James 5:16).
I apologize that this post has become so lengthy, but I needed to review these truths for myself as much (or more!) than I hope some of you needed to hear them as well. I know it is easy when missionaries are sent to have an initial phase of engagement and interest followed by a phase in which they fade into the background of the thinking of those who send. I am writing this post to plead that you not allow the rope to slip on us now. Honestly, the early phase in which much interest and involvement is expressed is perhaps the period in which it is needed the least, as most missionaries are still “honeymooning” and experiencing the “romanticized” view of the culture. For us, it is now, when the “culture fatigue” is really starting to hit, that we most desperately need your prayers and encouragement as the people of God. And we don’t just need generic or token “prayers” or “encouragements,” we need to be encouraged and challenged anew by these words of Jesus. That the central message in His commandment given to guide us through this wilderness is so simply stated, but through such difficulty obeyed—“love one another!”
Pray for us as we seek to navigate this new culture and learn to truly “love” as Jesus loved!