‘Love one another deeply from the heart’
The temptation is to move in ever-smaller circles of fellowship and choose the company of those who agree with us in every detail of faith and practice. This may mean we have little contact with other evangelical Christians.
Yet the reality is that we are eternally united to all who are in Christ. We are brothers and sisters. And our understanding of this has inevitable consequences for here and now.
Good Christian relationships matter, because they please God. Our Lord specifically prayed for his disciples and those who would believe in him through their testimony. He had seen how the disciples argued amongst themselves and followed their own agendas.
So, as the shadow of the cross loomed large, he prayed for those who in future generations would believe the words of the apostles, that they: ‘may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me’.
Another important petition in that same prayer was: ‘Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth’ (John 17). In our Lord’s heart there is an essential link between truth and love. Our sanctification is worked out through active engagement with the Word of God, in fellowship with fellow Christians.
Then, good Christian relationships matter in times of opposition and persecution. We are involved in a spiritual battle for the truth. In the UK we are reminded every day that we are a marginalised minority, which is sometimes barely tolerated.
Absolute truth is not popular. Error is proclaimed with great authority and many people are being led astray. People desperately need to hear and believe the truth if they are not to be eternally lost.
In the face of those who oppose us and the gospel, we need to stand together. Mutual respect and affection are so important at a time like this. Differences between Bible-believing Christians can easily be exploited by the enemies of the gospel, with the result that we and the message we proclaim are discredited.
Then also, good Christian relationships matter because they authenticate the message we proclaim. Our unity as Christians is an essential element in witnessing to the peoples of the world. The way we relate to each other is a validation of the truth.
As our oneness is seen, people around are more likely to believe in Jesus and know that he has come from God. This is especially important in reaching younger people. We are making little impact amongst young adults and need to consider urgently how we can reach them for Christ.
Younger people are relational. They spend time together. Through mobile phones and social networking sites they maintain contact with each other and their friends. They are in constant communication.
It would be easy to dismiss these relationships as superficial and unreal, and see them as virtual relationships rather than real face-to-face human relationships. But they really do invest time in these relationships and make them a priority. They are always available and often tell their friends that they love them.
This is a challenge to us. How real is our fellowship within our local churches? How much do we know about each other? Do we spend quality time together and communicate regularly? Would we be able to find the homes of other church members without using a sat nav?
When did we last offer practical help to a fellow Christian? Are we there for each other and do we really love each other?
Relationship building takes time, and many of us seem to be short of time. It requires personal commitment. We cannot build relationships between Christians simply through attending a Sunday morning service or an occasional small group meeting.
The amount of quality time we spend together is frighteningly small. We communicate little about ourselves even in requests for prayer, and may seldom express our love for each other verbally or in practical ways.
Inter-church fellowship also needs to be fostered. The independence of some evangelical churches today is extreme. Too often, our own church programme takes all our time and energy.
We need to stand together in proclaiming the truth to a lost world and a generation growing up with little contact with gospel people. We need to take practical steps to demonstrate visibly our glorious unity in Christ.
While we are not all the same and may differ somewhat in our understanding of the Word, we still rejoice in each other and in our common experience of the love and grace of God in Christ.
Our divided world desperately needs to see the transforming power of the truth, which unites us in a love reminiscent of the love of the triune God.