Christlike love is the answer to the great problem of our age the pervasive mood of meaninglessness and worthlessness that afflicts so many in our society. Why do so many people feel insecure and worthless? And why do they try to hide their insecurities by boasting and seeking status symbols and scrambling after success? Because, deep inside, they feel rejected and unloved. They are seeking a kind of love and acceptance they can't understand, and in the words of the old country-western song, they are "looking for love in all the wrong places."
God offers the most complete love anyone could ever know. It is agape love, unconditional love, a love which does not demand performance or beauty or intelligence or anything else. It loves without asking anything in return. It loves even the unlovely and the sinful.
When our love is like that of God, people see God through us. They feel loved and accepted. They learn that they no longer have to prove themselves or earn God's love. Our message to the world is, "God loved you so much He sent His Son to die for you. You are precious to Him. He wants to affirm you, make you whole, and give you back your humanity." People respond to that love. When they find that kind of love, they want to know Jesus and love Him back.
Not only does Jesus command us to love, and tell us how to love, and exemplify love, He goes on to say what that love will look like. Certainly, there is more to agape love than mere words. There is more to love than joining hands on a Sunday morning and singing, "They will know we are Christians by our love." The love Jesus commands is a love that is manifested not only in words and song, but in deeds.
"Greater love has no one than this," says Jesus, "that one lay down his life for his friends." Those words are inscribed on the headstone of Dawson Trotman, founder of the Navigators, who drowned while saving lives after a boating accident in upstate New York. To lay down your life is to love to the uttermost. You cannot demonstrate any deeper love than that.
That kind of love was demonstrated by a British explorer, Lawrence Oates, during Robert Scott's disastrous expedition to the South Pole. As the Scott party was returning from the Pole, they encountered a raging blizzard. Due to the bitter cold, Oates' feet became frostbitten. As they trudged on, his frostbite turned to gangrene.
"Leave me here," he begged his companions. "Save yourselves." But the other men refused to leave him, and they struggled onward for another day. The party pitched a tent for the night, and the following morning Oates said to his friends, "I'm going outside. I may be some time." He walked out of the tent and never returned.
Oates' act of self-sacrificing love is known only because it is recorded in Robert Scott's diary of the journey. Scott and the rest of his party died before reaching their base camp. Even though Lawrence Oates' sacrifice did not succeed in saving the life of his friends, it was an act of love to the uttermost, the kind of love Jesus talks about when He says, "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends."
But there is even more to what Jesus is saying than that. He is not only talking about dying on another person's behalf, because death is a once and for all event. Jesus was talking about love as a lifestyle. He was talking about laying down one's life as part of a continual process.
Jesus goes on to say, "You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you." Notice how He elevates these men from the level of mere servants, who must obey in order to avoid punishment, to the level of friends who want to obey because they have been admitted into the inner secrets of another person's life.
What is the difference between an acquaintance and a friend? Acquaintances are people who know us on the outside, on the surface. With friends, we share what we are going through joys, hurts, failures, the secret places of our lives. Jesus has let these eleven men approach Him, closer than the level of servants, closer than the level of acquaintances, all the way to the innermost level Of friends. He has shared His secrets with them. He has shared the secrets of the Father's nature and of His plan for the world. More than that, Jesus had shared His own struggles, His pains, His emotions with these disciples. Very soon, as they enter the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus will say to Peter, James, and John, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death...Stay here and keep watch." That kind of honesty and openness is love the sharing of yourself with another human being, the act of removing the facades and exposing the reality of your heart. Jesus loved His disciples with that kind of love.
One way we can express this kind of Christlike love is by being open and honest in sharing ourselves with others. I don't mean that we should tell our secrets to everyone on the street-corner! Rather, we should expose the reality of our hearts with a few trusted believers in a small group setting, just as Jesus shared Himself with the Twelve.
I believe all Christians should be in small groups, studying the Bible together, worshiping God together, fellowshiping together, serving Jesus together, sharing their lives together. Small groups were the essential building blocks of the first-century church, and they are the essential means to transcend the bigness of big churches today. If you have never been involved in a small group Bible study, I urge you to find one or start one right away. Find a few like-minded believers and agree to meet together on a weekly basis, agree to do some ministry together, agree to spend time sharing yourselves with one another, learning about God together, and really loving one another as Jesus commanded.
I liken Christian small groups to a flock of sandhill cranes those great long-necked birds that fly south every winter in a majestic V-formation. A bird-fancier once told me three remarkable facts about these birds and their aerial migration habits. First, there is always a leader to the V-formation. That leader sets the direction for the entire formation. Second, it is never the same leader! These birds instinctively share the leadership among themselves, taking turns being out in front and setting the course for the group. Third, whenever they fly, the rest of the birds encourage the leader, honking all the way: "Honk! Keep it up! Honk! Good going! Honk! Lead on, MacDuff!"
To me, that's what a great small group ministry is like. That's what our Lord is describing here to His eleven remaining friends. He is telling them that mutual sharing is a form of love.
(Ray C. Stedman, God's Loving Word: Exploring the Gospel of John, Discovery House, Grand Rapids, MI., 1993)
October 27, 1993
A CORE Group is a men's Christian fellowship gathering which differs in several important ways from (a) a Bible study which has one teacher and several students and (b) a traditional discipleship group which consists of a discipler and one or more disciplees.
The following general guidelines have been found to be helpful by our Palo Alto area Men's Core groups. As of this writing seven groups are meeting, all derivatives of a parent group which came into being about six years ago.
1. Pick a specific meeting night, say Monday evenings from 7 to 9 PM. Start on time and end on time. Members who can't attend on a given evening should phone another member and let the group know. Members who are irregular or erratic in attendance should be placed on an inactive list. Otherwise their lack of involvement holds the group back.
2. Start with a small number of men, (less than six) and don't expand by adding additional members without unanimous group consent. Each member should be committed to come as regularly as possible. Visitors are welcome to come and observe and participate. CORE can be thought of as standing for C = Commitment to Jesus and to each other, O = Openness and transparency before one another, R = Reliance on the Bible and the Holy Spirit, and E = Enlargement to include and influence others outside the group.
3. From the start make sure everyone understands that "no one is in charge." That is we gather as brothers, equals, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We come expecting Jesus to guide us, teach us, speak to us-through one another. Jesus said, "You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them and their great men exercise authority over them, (top-down authority and management). It shall not be so among you (Christians). Whoever would be great among you must become your servant and whoever would be first among you must become your slave, just as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many." This principal is ignored by virtually all churches today!
4. A rotating monthly chairman can be appointed just to be sure the meeting starts on time, ends on time, covers an agenda of important items, and stays reasonably free from rioting, boredom, or the domination of any one member taking up too much time with unimportant matters. Yet even with a "chairman", all members are brothers and Jesus is the Lord of the meeting. "Where two or more are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of you."
5. Devote about half of a typical meeting to Bible study. Rotate the responsibility of teaching around the group either weekly or periodically. Critique the study and encourage those who clearly have teaching gifts. Every Christian receives something uniquely his own, from Jesus, and this needs to be shared for the edification and encouragement of all the other members.
6. Be sure to allow adequate time for sharing around the room, and for lots of prayer. Don't allow the prayer time to be shortened to the last five minutes. Start the meeting with prayer. It is a good idea to stop and pray for members as they share. Some evenings a given member may have little to report, on other occasions the concerns of one member may dominate the discussions and prayer time. Watch the overall balance and treat the weekly meeting as very important. Give the time together a very high priority. "Redeem the time because the days are evil." Members need to learn to listen and tune in to the others as well as sharing and giving.
7. Risk being open and vulnerable. "He who seeks to save his life will lose it and he who loses his life for my sake and the gospels will save it." Make friends with fellow group members socially. Schedule some group social times such as a BBQ, a half-day or all-day retreat at the beach or in the mountains, special social times with wives and girlfriends and visitors, etc.
8. Every Christian has one or more different spiritual gifts. Try to help each other find these gifts and use them more effectively. As the group deepens in Spirit, individuality will blossom and the effectiveness of the members in the world will be noticeably increased. Love for one another and a great sense of joy and expectation will highlight the meetings.
9. Do some outreach things together. Go to Mexico, visit East Palo Alto, hang out on campus. Team up in witnessing efforts your brothers are involved in their home, work, family life.
10. Include some singing if desired from time to time. Each member should at some time give his own personal testimony of faith in Jesus as well as sharing current needs and struggles.
CORE groups are the means of rediscovering the church as the Body of Christ. We are all members of Christ and members one of another as Christians. "If one suffers, all suffer. If one rejoices all rejoice." Stick with the group and work things out until the deep bonds of our common life in Jesus are discovered.