Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
1 John 4:20-21
One of the lasting lessons I took away from a congregational building project is that a church’s facility often reflects its theology. The other day, I was struck by a picture that absolutely crystallized that connection for me. The image to the left is of a colonial-era sanctuary from the state of Maine, and it features one of the 17th century Protestant church’s common architectural elements– the box pew. And looking at this picture, you can tell that a box pew is exactly what it sounds like – a walled-off, closed-door micro-room in which individuals or small families could worship on Sunday mornings. Privately. Without seeing or being seen by other members of the church.
Box pews were prized in their day. They were frequently bought and sold among different families in the church. Some were outfitted with curtains, windows, or their own fireplaces. And, you might not be surprised to learn, they also served as good cover for monkeybusiness during the church service. To quote the Wikipedia page, “Sometimes the paneling was so high it was difficult to see out, and the privacy was used as a cover for non-devotional activity.” In other words, people loved box pews because they enabled people to do their crossword puzzles and check Facebook if the sermon ran long.
Nowadays, there aren’t a whole lot of physical sanctuaries that look like this, but what about the sanctuaries of our hearts? What shape are they? Because – try this on for size – I happen to think that there are a lot of Christians out there who are content living with a box-pew faith. The upward, the Y-axis is open to God – they like knowing that God loves them, they love the Bible, they worship with gusto, they have great prayer lives. But they are boxed off from intimacy with other people. And the horizontal axis, the x-axis, the side of faith that would ask them to love their neighbors as themselves – that one isn’t really their thing. They want to stay in the box.
Loving other people is no picnic. How does the old saying go? To dwell above, with saints we love, O this shall be glory! To dwell below with saints we know? Well, that’s another story.
Loving is hard, even for Christians, and yes, even for pastors. In a sermon several years ago, the great southern preacher Wayne Smith admitted that he had prayed: “Lord, I know it’s wrong to hate anybody but if it ever becomes right I’ve got just the guy picked out!”
So what does real Christian love look like? A few years ago, Van Halen hit the charts with a song that posed that question. “How do you know when it’s love?” the band croons. “It’s just something that you feel together.”
John would like to have a word with the band, because his view – and the view of the Bible in its entirety – is that love isn’t just a feeling. It’s an action. It’s stepping out from the box pew to go, give, and dwell in sacrificial relationship. One chapter earlier, John writes: This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. (3:16)
Those are challenging words. I think that there are many believers that are convinced that Christianity boils down not to who you will lay down for but what you will stand up for. We stand for doctrines, for structures, for principles – both liberal Christians and conservative Christians do – but we are very reluctant to actually lower ourselves and give others the right of way. While we believe that there is something noble about being strong and brave for our ideals (and you can stay inside your box pew and do it!) there is something far less attractive about showing love to poor people, or annoying people, or people who will not reciprocate the love that you’ve shown them.
In the end, how we love on the X-axis will always correspond to our sense of love on the Y-axis. We love as we believe ourselves to be loved. If we believe that it was love for us that motivated Christ to forsake the riches of heaven, then we can give up of the wealth of this earth for love. If we believe it was love that motivated Christ to transcend the barriers that separate the perfect from the imperfect, then we’ve got to cross them, too.
And since Jesus stepped down from the throne of heaven to love and rescue us, we need to step outside the box and do the same for others.