“Walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Ephesians 5:2
If you look at the last part of chapter 3(14-21) where we left off last time at the last conference, we see Paul kneeling before the Father from whom he says the whole family in heaven and on earth gets its name. We see him praying for us that God would strengthen us in our inner being so that Christ might dwell in our hearts through faith. He wants us to be strong in the faith— and for a good reason! So that we would all the more be grounded in Christ’s love. Christ’s love seems to be at the heart of his teaching here! He wants us to understand how deeply Christ loves us! He wants us to understand that Christ’s love for us is beyond human measure! And his prayer for us goes even further than that. He prays for us that in knowing the depth of Christ’s love we may also be filled with all the fullness of God. In other words, he wants us to grow more Christ-like in every way, especially in the way of love! And then he ends his prayer giving glory to God in the Church and in Christ forever. And this seems to be another focal point of his teachings as well— the Church in Christ!
In the following three chapters which we will be studying this weekend, Paul will be talking extensively about the church. He will be giving us an overview of what a healthy church community looks like. This is a key note message, so it will not be possible to state all the elements necessary for a church body to be a healthy church body. But two elements seem to be absolutely essential in having a healthy and thriving church community! Unity and Love!
I don’t want to talk much about unity. But we cannot ignore the fact that love and unity are inseparable. In 4:2b-3 it reads something like this: “Bearing with one another in love making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Paul tells us to make every effort to keep this unity of the Spirit. And he gives us good reason why! In his great love Christ redeemed every one of us into his one body, and joined us together by his one Spirit, drawing us together by one calling into his one hope through one common faith and one baptism of repentance into one precious Lord, that we might belong to one God and serve one Father to whom we all belong. That’s at the core of our unity! It was his peace made through his love and empowered by his Spirit! And nothing else!
Our unity therefore, has nothing to do with ourselves, how we work or do not work, what we achieve or do not achieve, and it has everything to do with the working of his Spirit who bound us together in love into his one body the church— to serve his glory. We must remember this, that our unity is not for our own comfort or benefit, but to serve the church to the glory of God. If we forget this, there are things ready to damage our unity. For example, the way we do things! We don’t all do things the same way. We don’t all carry out ministry in the same way. Sometimes we have different ways of studying or teaching Bible, or of raising disciples, of preparing sermons, even worship. And there’s nothing wrong with being different or doing things differently from each another. We don’t all have to do things the same way! Different is good. The body of the Lord is made up of different parts and each serves its purpose accordingly. But if we quarrel over our differences, where is Christ’s love reflected there? That only strains our unity and cripples the church we are charged to build up to the glory of God.
Another example that strains our unity is expectation— Having expectations that others cannot possibly fulfill, nor should they have to fulfill! Expecting others to be this way or that way, to live this way or that way, to grow this way or that way, to become this or that, is one of the most damaging things to the unity of a church, and it doesn’t reflect Christ’s love either. That’s just not healthy or productive! Sometimes there are so many unreasonable expectations mentor have of those they serve! And this spirit often rubs off on those who are growing under them who in turn learn to expect so much from their own mentors. Expectations damage everyone involved, and eventually even the church. Expectations don’t reflect Christ’s love at all. Rather Paul admonishes us to bear with one another in love keeping the unity of the Spirit. To the Roman church he says the same thing: “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself.” (Romans 15:1-3a) These are just some examples of how we ought to keep the unity we have in the Spirit! Christ’s love is a strong incentive to keep the unity of the Spirit. We should not let anything divide us or strain our unity! So we have to continue growing in Christ’s love. And that brings us to the other essential in a maintaining and growing a healthy church community. Love!
I think Christ’s love is the answer to everything. But Christ’s love is long and wide and deep and high and comes in so many different expressions. So how can we even begin to define it in a key note message? I think that the best expression of Christ’s love is how Paul describes it here! Look at 4:32-5:2. When we are commanded to follow God’s example walking in the way of love, it means that God wants us to practice Christ’s love especially in two ways— the way of forgiveness and the way of self sacrifice, just as Christ did in his amazing love for us.
Walk in the way of love is to practice forgiveness following God’s example. How can we possibly understand the grace of God’s forgiveness? And how can we possibly practice it? I think it’s impossible to fully understand the extent of his forgiveness unless we understand the extent of our sinfulness and the scope of his love for us! How much has the Lord forgiven us? I think each of us has a different story to tell. But fundamentally, we all share the same story. We hurt him, and betrayed him; We spit on him, and tortured him and drove nails in his hands and feet and lifted him up on a cross to suffer torturous hours in agony. Although we didn’t even know the pain he suffered having been cut off from his Father God; although we inflicted such unbearable suffering on him when he had done nothing to deserve it, but bear our sorrows and pains and sins on himself; even though we had done such terrible things to him, things we wouldn’t even do to our worst enemy, Jesus forgave us, and cried out form the cross: “Father forgive them.” This is the nature and extent of Jesus’ forgiving love to each of us. And he continues to forgive us as he intercedes for us from heaven!
This kind of forgiving love is not easy to imitate. Sometimes we are inspired to forgive someone an offense against us, and we feel great, almost heroic! We feel as if we deserve to be counted among the holiest of saints. Maybe Peter thought so when he asked Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” He thought surely Jesus would be amazed at his generosity, stand him on a pedestal and tell all the other disciples to learn from this forgiving martyr how to be a true hero! But Jesus like a good father teaching his children how to take small steps helped Peter take another step towards Christ’s forgiving love. “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22) Christ’s love is like this— forgiveness without count, without limit, generously, willingly, wholeheartedly, without end! Paul tells us, “Follow God’s example”, “forgiving each other”. Always! It’s what it means to walk in the way of love!
In life we have all been hurt. And we have been hurt in many ways perhaps even severely, even by one another! We say “I forgive you but I cannot forget what you’ve done to me”. That’s not forgiveness. It’s a grudge in disguise! I know it’s hard to forgive. But Christ’s love should compel us to forgive! For a long time I had a problem forgiving those who hurt me. But the real problem was that I lost sight of Christ’s forgiving love in my own life, and became callous and self righteous. These things happen when Christ’s forgiving love no longer moves our hearts. Anyway God helped me in a most unusual way. I used to despise Lot. What kind of righteous soul could this faithless worthless man be, I used to say? One day the voice in my heart said: “Teddy, do you think you are better than Lot?” Then I wept, because I knew I was not! I remembered everything the Lord had forgiven me of in my own life! And from then on, my heart was free to forgive anyone and everyone anything and everything they had done to me! Self righteousness, or pride of heart, or even plain bitterness, or whatever else it is that prevents us from forgiving each other are poisons that war against Christ’s love in our hearts and must be repented of and weeded out! And instead we must practice forgiving love; practice it deliberately, practice it excessively, as the best expression of Christ’s love among ourselves as the children of God, as a family. It’s the best way to follow God’s example. It’s the best way to walk in the way of love and reflect his glory. At this conference, if we believe there may be any grievances among us, please let’s make every effort to forgive and every effort to seek forgiveness.
Walk in the way of love also means to practice self sacrifice, following God’s example. How did Christ practice self sacrifice? “Walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” He gave himself up for us! That’s what Christ did! This by far is the greatest expression of love in human history. But how do you describe it? How do you measure this love? There is nothing on earth to compare it to. Most human sacrifices can be measured. But how can we measure Christ’s self sacrificing love? Surely “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) Christ laid down his life on the cross for us. He did so not because he had to, nor in exchange for some personal benefit, but he did it gladly, willingly, wholeheartedly, out of his grace to undeserving people. For us, he was willing to give up everything, every privilege he had in heaven and on earth, even when it cost him his life so that we may be blessed and build up in our salvation. He also sacrificed himself to give birth to the church which is his body— this one institution in heaven and on earth called to reflect his loving grace. That is the scope of Christ’s self sacrificing love!
Who can practice such a high level of love? Only those who are grounded and rooted in the love of Christ! To practice this kind of self sacrificing love, one must first personally know how much Christ loved them and experience that love intimately. Actually, this was Paul’s prayer for us in the first place to grow in the knowledge of this love, that we might mature into the fullness of love. It was all for this reason— so that we might flourish and prosper and glorify God together as a church. In describing the power to love each other, John tells us the same thing: “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.” (1 John 4:16) And that’s essential! It’s essential that we experience Christ’s love (not just once) but day by day and moment by moment, so that we might also rely on it in loving others day by day and moment by moment in a self sacrificing way. And that in itself becomes for us a way of life; it becomes for us like second nature; so that practicing self sacrificing love among each other is our Christ-like character. When Christ’s self sacrificing love flows in our hearts towards each other— following God’s example, it spills out especially in acts of servantship and in acts of sacrifice, in kindness and in mercy and in acts of compassion; it expresses itself in gentleness and in thoughtfulness towards one another, and in being generous in everything that makes us Christ-like in character. It also spills out over to the world around us as well blessing countless people who are blessed by the unity we have in Christ’s love! Practicing self sacrifice is our hallmark in walking in the way of love. It is surely following in God’s example.
We need to often admonish each other in the practice of forgiving love, because forgiving love is truly more difficult that any other love we are called to practice, especially when things are bound to happen that cause us to hurt each other. But when I think about self sacrificing love, I don’t feel it’s necessary to admonish each other in that area at all. I feel honored to stand among so many self sacrificing servants like you who have personally experienced much of what it is to sacrifice your self for the sake of Christ and others. Most of you here and those in the mission field; you have literally given— sacrificed your lives, your possessions, your families, your futures, sometimes even your retirement in the cause of Christ and the gospel. Most of you are all too familiar with self sacrificing love as you have given your lives to raise disciples, to spend your youth away to pioneer campuses, to give up golden opportunities in obedience to God’s call to raise even one man or woman of God in serving God’s history. Some, after many long years of service to Christ, haven’t retired, but given even more years as silver missionaries at the ends of the earth in obedience to Christ’s world mission command. Others are preparing to give whatever’s left of their lives to do the same. How can we but be amazed at what the Lord has done and is doing among us in the area of self sacrificing love! This I think is at the heart of the church’s health. It unites us in a glorious way because we are all convinced that this is what we are all called for. We are all called to lay down our lives for the Lord and for his gospel, whatever the cost!
But we are living in difficult times and serving our calling is getting harder and harder in this day and age. What shall we do? One thing we shouldn’t do is give up. We know that the word of God calls us to keep the unity of the Spirit and to walk in the way of love. That much we know we have to do. And I think the reason is simple. It’s for the glory of God. I think because the church is God’s holy institution established to serve his purpose. And the church cannot fulfill its purpose if the church is not healthy and we are not in a healthy relationship with one another. I praise God however, that whatever our situation, we all love Christ and we are all eager to do whatever it takes to honor and glorify him in the church. This weekend, we will be studying the final 3 chapters of the book of Ephesians. We will find godly advice not only how to live lives worthy of the gospel, but on how to strive for unity and love among ourselves for a healthier church. Of course, there are divine instructions on how to have a healthy family too, because the church families are like the heart beats of the church. May God bless our conference to bear the fruit of Christ’s love among each other. Let’s commit once again then to walking in the way of love. Amen.