The cross-shaped church (Hebrews 13:1-8)

Love’s become something of a “bankrupt” word in today’s society.  Not that we use it too little, but that we use it far too easily and too cheaply.  I can “love” anything.  I love music.  I love tacos.  I’m suddenly thinking of Steve Carrell’s character from Anchorman who so boldly proclaimed: “I love lamp.  I love lamp.”

Yet I sincerely doubt that our affection for music, tacos, or…lamp…should be compared to the love we might cultivate for our families, our close friends, or from God.  And if you’ve spent any amount of time in Christian community (or any community, for that matter), you know that love can often be a struggle.  Love demands personal choice, and it can only be made visible through action.

Think about the way we often “do” church.  We become easily focused on externals—on presentation, design schemes, quality of music.  Don’t misunderstand; God certainly calls us to labor to present excellence before him.  But when Jesus shares his final meal with his followers, he tells them that “if you have love for one another” then “all people will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:35).  Don’t miss that.  He didn’t say: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples: if you have a really great ‘visual brand.’” He didn’t say: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples: if you create really successful Christian films.”  He didn’t say: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples: if you have a great bumper sticker or t-shirt slogan.”  Love is Christianity’s guiding principle.

It’s only fitting, then, that the author of Hebrews turns his attention to the believers of the community.  Previously, he’d spent quite some time explaining what Christian character looks like under pressure from outside; now he focuses on the love that is cultivated from within Christian community itself.  Hebrews 13 verse 1 even serves as something of a summary verse for the text that follows:

Let brotherly love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. 3 Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. 4 Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. 5 Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” 6 So we can confidently say,

“The Lord is my helper;

I will not fear;
what can man do to me?”

7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:1-8)

Biblical writers described love in a variety of ways.  Here, we can see three distinct categories of love—which we can than compare to other writings of the first-century Bible:

  • Love for others (Hebrews 13:2-3): This command comes not just from verse 1, but becomes all the more specific in extending compassion to “strangers” (v. 2). The writer even suggests that in so doing, we might even have extended mercy to God’s “undercover” agents—that is, to “entertain” angels without ever realizing it.  Secondly, the people are commanded to not only “remember” those in prison, but to suffer with them.
  • Love for God (Hebrews 13:4-6): This is a bit more implicit than explicit, in that the author focuses on personal idols, including lust (v. 4)—that is, pursuing sex outside of God’s design in marriage—and greed (v. 5). Why is this important?  Because wealth and pleasure can be powerful forces.  The danger of idolatry is not only that we worship the wrong thing (such as sex and money), but that we fail to allow God to be our ultimate source of comfort, joy, and security.
  • Love for church leaders (Hebrews 13:7): Finally, the writer endorses a love for one’s church leaders. And if you think about this, in the first century world this would have referred almost exclusively to local church ministry.  If you’re like me, you probably can name some pastors that speak to your heart and mind in a way that stirs your affections for Jesus and sharpens our minds for service in his kingdom.  But our affections (at least for church leaders) should primarily rest on the leaders of the local church—not just your pastors, mind you, though we are each appreciative of the support of our folks at Tri-State Fellowship, but also the series of other leaders including elders, administrative staff, community group leaders, the wide array of volunteers that serve inside and outside the walls, and that’s not even to mention the unsung heroes devoted to children’s ministries.

In his book Cruciformity, Michael Gorman uses an elaborate word to describe the church.  The church is “cruciform” he says—meaning “cross-shaped.”   Look at the list again; what do you notice?  Well, love for others is a horizontal relationship.  Love for God is a vertical relationship.  Put them together and what do you have?  The shape of the cross.  Church leaders have a role in helping maintain this shape.  And finally (v. 8), Jesus becomes not merely the object of the Christian faith; he becomes the model of the Christian faith.

I can appreciate the fact that for many of you, the words “church” and “love” don’t seem to belong in the same sentence.  It’s rare for me to meet anyone who doesn’t have some “horror story” of past hurts from their prior experience in a church.  There might be more than a few times when it’s tempting to say you “love” church but don’t even mean in half as much as you might love tacos.  This, I think, is why we need to see Jesus as faithful even when we feel faithless.  United with Christ, I can pray and rely on his power to help me love the unlovely.

At Tri-State Fellowship, we can never have too many volunteers.  Children’s ministries in particular will always have ongoing needs—though there are many other areas as well.  If you’re waiting for a “more qualified” person to step in ahead of you, then I’d gently suggest that you haven’t properly applied the gospel to this area of your life.  If you’re waiting for when “things settle down” in your life, then I’d suggest that perhaps you haven’t properly applied the gospel to this area of your life.  The faithfulness of Jesus carries us through; therefore even if I feel unqualified Jesus is able to show his love through my humility and my weakness.  And even if I feel overwhelmed with other duties, the Holy Spirit supplies me with strength to commit to the task ahead of me—plus, if we all work together we can share in this kingdom labor.

If you attend Tri-State with any regularity, we would welcome and value your service.  Would you consider showing love by serving with us?

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