Several years ago my wife and I visited a church in northern Mexico. Since our ride was a few minutes late, the service was already in progress when we arrived. Though we had never been to that church before, everything about the scene was just what we expected. The seats were arranged in rows facing forward, the people were standing together to sing a song, a group of instrumentalists led the music from the platform, and the pastor stood at the front preparing to preach. I had been in worship services like this hundreds of times before.
But then something unusual caught my eye. Off to the side at the rear of the room, a woman with a shallow basin of water knelt before a seated man. With a cloth and a towel she was washing his bare feet.
I assumed this was a foot-washing ceremony based on John 13. I’d known of churches doing this kind of thing, but usually the foot-washing is done symbolically by the pastor on the platform where everyone can see it. The purpose of these ceremonies is to demonstrate the love Christ calls his followers to have for each other. In this church, however, no one paid any attention to the foot-washer. When she was done, she simply slid socks onto the man’s feet, gently tied his shoes, and returned to her seat to join the rest of us in singing.
After the service, the pastor explained to me what was going on. The congregation had learned of a family in their city who were facing a tragedy. Carcinogenic waste dumped near their home had caused all the members of the household to contract cancer. The mother had already died. One daughter was gravely ill. And the father, whose prognosis was fatal, was in so much pain that the only way he could sit through a worship service was for someone to bathe his feet. As far as I could discern, the family had not been members of this congregation before their crisis. I am not even sure if they were Christians. The church had simply heard of some neighbors in need and had welcomed them into their midst.
After sharing this story with me, the pastor pointed to a beautiful little girl of about 4 or 5, who was laughing and running around the sanctuary. “Do you see that child?” he said. “She is the man’s youngest daughter. Since he can no longer care for her, she has been adopted by a family in the church. She has cancer, too, and will only live a few years.”
It took a moment for this to sink in. I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to open your home to a child knowing that in a year or two she would die and your heart would be shattered. You would care for her through her illness, sit with her at the end, and then weep when she was gone. It was hard to conceive of anyone having the emotional capacity to walk this path of sacrificial love were they not part of a congregation committed to walking the path with them.
This is the kind of love to which Jesus was calling the church in Ephesus in the book of Revelation. The Ephesian church was a congregation known for their doctrinal purity, their moral integrity, their diligent effort, and their faithful service. Jesus said to them, “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary” (Rev. 2:2-3). But Jesus said he had one thing against them. This one thing was so serious that, if it were not addressed, Jesus said he would shut down their church. What were they lacking? Christ said, “You have forsaken the love you had at first” (Rev. 2:4).
D.A. Carson diagnoses the Ephesians' problem this way:
They still proclaim the truth, but no longer passionately love him who is the truth. They still perform good deeds, but no longer out of love, brotherhood, and compassion. They preserve the truth and witness courageously, but forget that love is the great witness to the truth.
Alexander Strauch, who quotes Carson in his book Love or Die, adds the following:
The one quality … that should beautify every believer and every church, regardless of their giftedness or personality, is love. Thus the thing that should be of utmost concern to every believer and every church is this: Does a Christlike spirit of love permeate the atmosphere of our church?
As the pastor of ACC, I rejoice in the many ways I see the love of Christ demonstrated in our congregation. I see people praying for each other, helping each other, and showing hospitality to each other. I see people serving the needs of our neighbors. These are all expressions of the love of Christ. These expressions of love are amazing, especially when extended toward people outside one’s natural group of friends. I praise God for the many ways I see this happening in our church.
Strauch writes, “The church is to be a family of brothers and sisters characterized by humility, gentleness, peace, forgiveness, forbearance, faith, hope, and love, with love being the supreme, overarching virtue.”
Let’s pray that God will continue to ignite our love – for him and for each other – and that he will keep us from drifting from our first love.
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