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29 June 2017

Last Word: The hallmark of those who follow Jesus

Last Word: The hallmark of those who follow Jesus

The Talking Jesus research is a major survey conducted by the Barna Group on behalf of the Church of England, Hope and the Evangelical Alliance, which explores perceptions of Jesus, Christians and evangelism in the adult population across England. One of the most fascinating findings coming out of the recent research was what emerged in response to the question asked of nonChristians as to how they would describe the practicing Christians they knew. 

I have to confess, as we agreed that this question should be part of the survey, I feared for the worst. I could imagine the findings - “narrow-minded”, “hypocritical”, “uptight”, “homophobic”, “foolish” - which of course is so often how Christians are portrayed in the media. The results however were the exact opposite. Non-Christians described Christians as “friendly”, “caring”, “good-humoured”, “generous”, “encouraging”, “hopeful” and indeed most non-Christians (67 per cent) actually knew a Christian. As a Church community, we should be really be pleased by these findings because we are both known for our faith and we are liked. That’s a great foundation for sharing our faith. 

So, can we relax? Is everything OK? I suggest not. In the last few hours before Jesus goes to the cross, he is alone with his disciples in the upper room – the crowds have gone, it’s just Jesus with his close friends and he is preparing them for his departure. He addresses the issue as to how the world will know they are his followers. John 13:34- 35: “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” 

What an amazing challenge Jesus gives to us: it seems it’s not enough to know the Bible inside out and to be thoroughly sound in our doctrine, to pray for hours on end, or indeed to be generous with our time and finances towards those in need. Jesus is making a requirement as to how we relate to each other within the family of God, His Church. Loving each other is not an optional extra, it’s a command of Jesus and it impacts on every area of our lives. As I sat down to write my recently published book ONE – an account of my personal journey exploring unity and diversity – I realised if I was serious about the theme, I had to explore what this has meant to me over the years, to myself personally, my own journey with God, my marriage, my family, my household and indeed my Church. 

Some of the stories I tell are painful – hard lessons learnt, mistakes made and forgiveness needed. We all know that in relationships ‘stuff’ happens, but how do we handle it? Do we pretend everything’s OK and that it doesn’t really matter, or do we explode and make things worse – or maybe just walk away and give up? If we’re serious about loving each other, it requires a willingness to work things through, to have the hard conversations, perhaps to admit we were wrong and to seek forgiveness, or maybe to ask for each other’s help to sort this ‘stuff’ out. 

Let’s be honest for a moment – as a Church, we haven’t always been good at our relationships with each other. It was true in the early days of the Church, just as it’s true today. A whole letter from the Apostle Paul is devoted to conflicts and disagreements in the Corinthian church. So it appears to be an issue that we need to continually give attention to and indeed challenge each other about. Perhaps it’s also important that as we are commanded to “love one another”, it’s not simply the likeable people or indeed the people that are ‘like me’. As a Christian community, Jesus’ command to love one another requires us to cross the room and build loving relationships with people who we wouldn’t normally build a friendship with. Maybe sometimes, those who the world might describe as ‘unlovely’. It’s because Jesus first loved us that he commanded us that we should love each other – and it’s a hallmark of his followers, so let’s take it seriously. 

Steve’s book, ONE: unity in diversity – a personal journey, is out now.

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