I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.
–Jesus, to his disciples (John 13:34-35, CEB)
The church is supposed to be a place where people love each other. Jesus said so.
Then why do so many people get their hearts broken by the church instead?
Many people come to church hoping to find friends. Parents hope to find good influences for their children. And congregations promote themselves accordingly, promising places to find “fellowship” or even that ever-popular buzzword, “community.”
Imagine a church with a statement like this posted on their website: We are a gathering of broken, sinful people who are trying to love as Jesus commanded, but frequently do selfish and hurtful things instead. We’re working on it. Come join us.
That might get a lot of online hits. But probably not many bodies in the building.
Too bad. Because that statement would at least be an honest portrait of most congregations, including the ones in Scripture.
When Jesus commanded his disciples to love one another, they weren’t having a relaxed conversation around a campfire. He had just predicted that he would be betrayed, and announced that he was leaving them. Peter was so upset that he seems not to have heard Jesus’ words about love at all. Instead, he demanded to know where Jesus was going — and got the shock of his life when Jesus predicted his denials.
There’s nothing sentimental about the command or its context. The disciples’ courage, hope, and loyalty are about to be severely tested — and they will fail in miserable ways. No one would blame them for running away or disbanding under the circumstances. Indeed, their enemies would hope for just that. But somehow, they must stay the course and stick together.
The arrest and crucifixion of their friend and leader left the disciples cowering behind locked doors.
But at least they were cowering together.
Why should love be the mark of having been with Jesus? It’s not because love is the norm. It’s because there’s something about the love between Christians that is unnatural — supernatural! — that needs explaining.
But that doesn’t mean that love oozes from every pore of a believer, nor that believers are even consistently loving. Not even in the Bible. Just as the miracles of Jesus pointed like signs to his origin and identity, so do inexplicable acts of love point to their origin in God.
The question isn’t just why people get their hearts broken by the church. The question is why we would be so surprised when they do. People are complicated, even the ones who have been saved by grace through faith. Beneath the superficial niceness may still lurk all manner of neediness.
But that’s not the whole story. For those who are truly believers, there lurks the Holy Spirit as well. Those who have wounded others may find repentance and resolve. Those who have been wounded may find forgiveness and freedom.
These are the miracles that need to be explained. We know the explanations for the other stuff: we’re fragile, fallible human beings.
But repentance and forgiveness? That’s what makes people say, They’ve been with Jesus.