About a year or so ago, I was visiting a community of faith in my city. When in the course of conversation it became obvious I was looking for a regular group to fellowship with, one of the leaders there asked me, “So, are you looking for a church?” For some reason, the question bothered me a little – it just felt like the wrong question for me. I wanted to say “No, I’m looking for something else”, but since I knew that would sound harsher than I meant it, I just avoided the question.
The answer that came to me when I got home is, “No, I’m looking for friends.” I suppose I could have said, “No, I’m in search of community”, but the word “community” has become so overused in Christiandom that often it seems to have lost all meaning. We preach sermons on “community” but then don’t model it, and thus in the context of “church life”, community has often come to mean something very different in a than what authentic Christian community really is.
In meditating on Jesus’ last words before His painful and lonely death, He too recognized friendship as central:
“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15)
In context He also said:
“As I have loved you, so you must love one another” – John 13:34, and
“Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” – John 15:13
It is impossible to escape that He was telling us that He desired for us to not only be His friends, but friends to one another. And if there was any question, on the same night He modeled this friendship by deeply humbling Himself and caring for His disciples in a tender and practical way (John 13:3-17). His humility was so pronounced as to be shocking (note Peter’s response).
How did these words and actions impact the disciples? Jesus said to them, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” (John 13:7). And at the time, they truly did not understand. They were still vying for position with one another (Luke 22:24). They had no idea that what they felt for one another was not yet love.
Case in point, when Jesus said “one of you will betray me”, they had absolutely no idea who He meant. I’ve thought a lot over the years about how painful Judas’ betrayal must have been to Jesus, but only recently have I considered the deep impact it must have had on the other disciples. Consider for a moment: all these men had lived with each other for 3 years, and had experienced a tremendous transformational experience together as Jesus turned their collective world upside down. In this atmosphere, Judas was someone they thought they knew. When Jesus spoke of betrayal, they couldn’t even imagine which of them Jesus could possibly be thinking of, nor were they able to take in that the betrayal would be so severe as to lead Jesus to death on the cross. Afterward, I can imagine the other disciples thinking “How could we have been with Judas for so long and been so blind to what was going on inside him?” Surely, realizing they knew Judas so little must have contributed to a deep realization that in the midst of their competitive wrangling with one another, they had failed to truly love each other as Christ had loved them.
How did these events affect this group of friends? They were transformed men. Even before the day of Pentecost, here was the atmosphere among them:
“…Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James…These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.” (Acts 1:13-14)
Was Judas on their mind as they waited in Jerusalem? It seems he was, for their first order of business as they prayed together concerned Judas (vs 15ff). I cannot help but think the disciples were heartbroken over him. How can one read his tragic tale and not feel its pathos. Remember they had all spent significant time together. When Peter stood up and spoke, it was a moment of closure to a painful chapter of their community life together.
Then came Pentecost. So much has been written about the birth of the church on that day, about the tongues of fire and the miracles that followed, but perhaps the greatest miracle of all was a baptism of love that came upon the gathered believers that day. They were filled with a tenacious determination to finally learn to do what their Lord and Friend had asked of them: Love one another. The result is found at the end of the Second chapter of Acts (vs 44-47):
“And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
Yes, the church was born – a gathering of friends who were finally learning the Greatest Love, to lay down their lives one for another. Oh, to experience such a fresh pentecostal baptism of love in our day!