“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35 NIV)
If you grew up in the church, just reading the title has probably already put the lyrics of this old song into your head: We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord And we pray that our unity will one day be restored And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love Yeah, they’ll know we are Christians by our love
It’s a great song and a good reminder, but recently I got to thinking, “Why is it so important for people to know we’re Christians?” Is this about evangelizing without words? (I’m looking at you, St. Francis.) Is this about making sure the secular world knows Christians are good people? Why? So that we can win the culture wars?
A few weeks ago, Noah talked about how the early Christians were known as the people who loved and served. They rushed in when others ran out. They nursed the wounded, aided the poor, cleaned up after disasters – not because it was “the right thing to do,” although it was, but because they were so convicted about making sure everyone knew about God’s love. They were so convinced that Jesus would return any day that they, as Noah put it, “considered their lives expendable for the sake of the Gospel.” Looking forward to eternity and their own resurrection at Jesus’ second coming, they didn’t want anyone to suffer or die without knowing that God loves them and that he proved it through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Showing love had nothing to do with their own identity and everything to do with showing the world what God’s identity was. God is the one who came down to earth to rescue his children, who took the brutal punishment we all deserve so that he would never have to be apart from us nor we separated from him. The earthly service of the early Christians was but a poor shadow of the love God had showered down on them, yet it was the best and most effective way they had to communicate the magnitude of God’s love. When you think about it like that, evangelism isn’t nearly as complicated as modern Christians can sometimes make it.
Jesus instructed his followers not only to love one another, but to love their neighbors as themselves. It wasn’t because people’s identification of them as Jesus-followers was important, but so that people who didn’t yet follow Jesus could begin to grasp what love even is. In a world that has, since the dawn of time, come up with new and creative ways to distort the meaning and expression of love, Jesus wanted his disciples to show people what true, sacrificial love really looks like.
Author’s note: You’re welcome for that song in your head.