There’s an old Jewish joke about a man who was stranded for years on a desert island. When he’s finally rescued, he gives his rescuers a guided tour before getting into the boat. He proudly shows them the hut he built to live in, and another hut as a synagogue, and another synagogue… Wait, says one of the guys, why did you build two synagogues when you’re on your own on this island?
The answer was: Ah, this is the synagogue where I worship – and the other is the one I shall never set foot in.
When I lived in Wales I shared this joke with local Christians and was told: Ah, yes, we tell the same story about a Welshman and two chapels…
So it’s not just a Jewish thing – it’s a thing humans do. And I’m conscious that if I don’t watch it, I could very easily end up like that myself.
And yet Jesus commands me to love my brothers and sisters in his body, the church – and that command doesn’t come with a caveat saying: except for the ones who disagree with you about that particular issue you feel really strongly about. Or: except for when they do that thing you are really uncomfortable with.
Not even when that strong view you hold, or that strong discomfort, are ones you feel you got from God himself.
No caveats. No get-out clauses. Jesus said:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
Just as he has loved us – that means a self-sacrificial love, and it means an unconditional love. It leaves me no room for being unloving towards fellow Christians when I think they’ve got something wrong in terms of doctrine or practice.
And it leaves me no room for staying away from church when there’s something going on that I disagree with.
Not that I feel a desire to stay away – no, I feel a strong desire to be there with my brothers and sisters, because God has given me a love for them that is pulling me harder than my disapproval of a particular practice. The Bible uses the metaphor of us being part of one body, and this is something I’ve recently started to feel a lot more strongly – partly through the pain I’ve felt when parts of the body were abruptly removed. Pain can be such a good teacher sometimes!
So last Sunday I found myself doing something I hadn’t done for several years – since that time in 2010 when I came to a conviction that we shouldn’t celebrate Christmas, I had been staying away from church when there’s a carol service, but last Sunday I was there! And I’m really hoping God will help me get up tomorrow morning so that I can get to church, because there’s no evening service (I’m a night owl and mornings are really really difficult for me) and I don’t want to be apart from my church family for too long.
Because this business of being the body of Christ – it’s for real. And the command to love one another – can’t do that without actually, yanno, meeting together.
Love costs. But it cost Jesus a lot more than it can ever cost me, and out of my gratitude to him I must be generous.