When defending the validity of his ministry to the Corinthian church, Paul says that ‘the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power’ (1 Cor 4: 20). Genuine love, which has been poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom 5: 5) and so does not come from our own resources, is a fruit of that kingdom and therefore is also not about words, although we do use words to describe it. Beware of those who say they love us but act with complete indifference to us when we meet!
I believe we can summarise the evidence of love within the church as community. This does not mean staying on after the service for a cup of tea, or being able to make conversation easily, but shows itself in a belonging together that accepts each other for who we really are, warts and all. It means a commitment to all, to stand together because we are in the family of faith and are of one body. I have witnessed people being drawn to such a body without them really understanding why, in spite of their own misgivings, and have watched people being enfolded in the love of the Lord through the witness of His people’s care for them.
When Paul travelled back to Jerusalem from his third missionary journey, knowing that the Holy Spirit was showing him that he would suffer imprisonment on his arrival, he called for the elders from the Ephesian church to meet with him on the way. They met at Miletus, some 30 miles from the city, and the emotional parting can be read about in Acts 20. Paul had previously spent at least two years with them (Acts 19: 10), and their bond was not just that of work colleagues but of those who really loved each other, for ‘they all wept as they embraced him and kissed him’ (Acts 20: 37).
It is as the Church emphasises this sort of commitment to each other that the world around begins to take notice, because community is buried deep in the heart of all people (perhaps because humans are created in the image of God). For various economic and technological reasons, most of the traditional communities in our land are fading away or have already disappeared, and very little has been raised up to replace them. Only the power of God’s Spirit can stand against these forces, which in themselves are neutral, and this power is demonstrated by the Church.
While the foundation of the church community must be love, I am convinced that such love can be expressed in many different and creative ways. Take praise and worship as an example. It is one thing to meet on a Sunday to go through a routine in order to keep the doors open and the witness alive, but it is quite another to be in the presence of a church when they are in such accord with each other that they can praise God freely, without caring about how small their numbers are or how dire their circumstances might be. In a safe place they can throw their inhibitions to the wind and tell God how much they love Him without fear, and in whatever way they choose. I think that God loves this even more than they do.
But it is not just in ‘normal’ church activities that community is expressed, and I hope to suggest how becoming the people of God can and should go much further.