… bearing with one another in love
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
“Anyone can love the ideal church”, wrote the late Bishop Joseph McKinney, “the challenge is to love the real church.” It seems to me that the Apostle Paul shares the Bishop’s assessment; “bearing with one another in love”—Paul knows that loving the real church isn’t something that naturally springs from us. The word “bearing” suggests a challenge; note he does not say “hi-fiving one another in love’’, as if the challenge were simply to direct our enthusiasm for one another. Does becoming a Christian make a person instantly loveable and easy to be around? We know better. Relationships rooted in love take effort. Leo Tolstoy wrote: “What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility.” If this is true of a relationship between two people, how much more so in a church community of many people.
1. But why? Why should we bear one another in love? Is it so that church gatherings will be pleasant? Are we to be nice for niceness sake? Some have commented that many bars are friendlier places that some churches. But is this call to bear with one another in love simply so that we will be the friendliest place in town?
The context of the Apostle’s admonition of “bearing with one another in love” is his prayer for the church in the preceding chapter. “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” In short bearing with one another in love is part of comprehending the love of Christ. It is so that we will know real love; the One who is love.
Bishop and theologian N.T. Wright wrote: “I have come to the conclusion that the central symbol of Paul’s worldview is the united community: Jew-Greek, slave-free, male-female: the one family of Abraham, the family for the world, the single family created anew in Jesus Christ from people of every kind.” (Jesus, Paul and the People of God, p.265) There is a lot packed into that sentence by Wright; the point I want to underline with you is this idea that the central symbol of Paul’s worldview is the united community.
This vision of the united community is at the heart of Paul’s admonition of “bearing with one another in love” because it is coupled with the second admonition of “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Why is Paul focussed on this point? The barriers throughout the world that divide humanity and the brutal treatment of each other along those lines is clearly one of the chief ills of sinful humanity. The barriers in the ancient world were as ugly as they are today. The Greeks regarded themselves as intellectually superior to everyone else. The Greek language was considered both the most expressive and the most beautiful sounding of any language. Why, compared to the sound of Greek all other languages had a harsh, unmusical, brutish sound: “bar-bar”. Greek people therefore regarded everyone else in the world as a barbarian.
Utterly unhuman were slaves. In the ancient world the slave wasn’t considered to be a human being in any sense. Slaves had no rights. No less a philosopher than Aristotle had said that a slave was a highly efficient tool that had one disadvantage not found in other tools: the slave had to be fed.
Women did not fare well in this ancient world either. The mindset of ancient Greece is typified by Socrates who maintained that being born a woman was divine punishment, since a woman is halfway between a man and an animal. In the Roman era (following the Greek era) a woman was permitted to accompany her husband socially but was still regarded as humanly inferior.
You can imagine the shockwaves Paul’s teaching would send into that world; in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, salve nor free, male nor female—all are one in Christ Jesus. Our oneness in Christ Jesus is underscored in this text in Ephesians; One body, one Spirit, one hope, one lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of us all. At the heart of God’s project to redeem humanity is Christ’s people loving each other as we have been loved by our saviour. Bearing with one another in love is the practical application of God’s saving work of turning people to himself and then to one another. Our bearing with one another in love is the reversal of humanity’s barrier-making sinful ways.
Note in Paul’s theology that unity isn’t something we create; unity is what we maintain. We have been united together in Christ and we are to live that union in the church.
Consider the love of Christ that Paul has in mind in “bearing with one another in love”. In a few weeks we will be celebrating Christmas (don’t panic still a little over six weeks away). It is the celebration of what we speak of in theological terms as the incarnation; that God became human for our sakes; for the purpose of redeeming humanity from its divisive ways—among other sins. Consider that when God takes on flesh in Jesus of Nazareth—he is fully human—he does so forever. God does not borrow human form for a while and then go back to being God; our redemption requires much more—he is Jesus forever for our sakes.
Would you trade identities with a convicted felon so they could walk free? You might for a loved one; a parent, for example, longs to take the place of a suffering child. Jesus takes on our identity and even suffers at the hands of the ones whose place he came to take. The love of God is indeed beyond knowledge. I invite you to take that idea with you today and reflect on the magnitude of God’s commitment to you shown in the incarnation; forever human for our sakes.
This is the love that unites us—surely, then, we can bear with those who have similarly been joined to Christ.
2. A 17th century French author François La Rochefoucauld wrote: “we own up to minor failings, but only so as to convince others that we have no major ones.” This author has touched on something that four centuries later has not changed much in human behaviour. We are loathe to admit that we might have foibles that could irritate others; if we have any irksome quirks they are certainly minor compared to way other people act.
When Paul calls on Christians to bear one another in love this actuality is confronted; if the church is going to be Christ’s people then some “bearing with one another” needs to be done. We need to acknowledge that in coming together as a congregation to serve Christ there will be some “bearing with one another” required.
Minor irritations need to be acknowledged for what they are; minor. When Paul speaks of bearing with one another I don’t think he has the minor stuff in mind. By minor I mean the “goes-without-saying” stuff. They are niggling nuisances, annoyances, irritations, to be sure, but we exaggerate if we call them burdensome—see them a something to be borne. Like arthritis in one knuckle only; a husband who doesn’t clean the sink after use; a minister who fails to put the flipchart away after a meeting. Irksome matters. But hardly of the “bearing with one another” category.
Early in his ministry John Wesley wrote, "Resentment at an affront is sin, and I have been guilty of this a thousand times." Here is a man who knows that Christians can harm one another. Hurts are a different matter from minor irritation but still need bearing.
Wesley had the experience of being slandered by Bishop Lavington, an Anglican Church dignitary from Exeter . Lavington poured contempt on the Methodist people many times over, falsely accusing them unconscionably. He maintained that Methodists were stupid, irrational, hysterical, treacherous and politically treasonous. Yet the vilification Lavington heaped on the Methodist people was moderate compared to the vilification he poured on Wesley himself. Years later Wesley found himself at worship in an Anglican church whose communion service that Sunday was administered by none other than Bishop Lavington. Later the same day Wesley wrote in his Journal, "I was well-pleased to partake of the Lord's Supper with my old opponent, Bishop Lavington. O may we sit down together in the Kingdom of our Father.”
I would make this observation with you that “bearing with one another” keeps you from much harm. Do you not find that to wait before you respond to an affront affords the opportunity for better judgement and feeling on your part in dealing with the affront? I was in a committee meeting no long ago populated by Christians—not in this church—and one member began to complain that things were not being handled appropriately and things were “falling through the cracks”—a comment aimed at the chairperson of the committee. I began to imagine how the person in the chair—also a volunteer—might be feeling. Love, said Paul, isn’t irritable. We need a bit of thick skin in these matters—that is if we are “bearing with one another in love.”
At the same time this isn’t to say that insensitivity to one another should be given free reign. The “one another” of “bearing with one another” makes it clear that this is reciprocal business. It is very difficult for one person to do all the “bearing”—this is something Christ calls from each of us for the others. Whenever I am feeling put upon, don’t feel like “bearing with” anymore, I consider all that my Lord bears in me. It is hard to look him in the face and say “I’m not putting up with your people anymore!”
3. I think also this word of “bearing with one another” has other application. The word translated “bearing” is a Greek word that is a combination of two others; “through” and “to hold”. Literally translated in might be understood as “to hold through.” There are times when believers need each other to hold them through some challenge or reversal or problem. In Galatians Paul says this includes times when a fellow-believer is overtaken in a fault—we are called to restore such persons gently—not bail on them.
We Christians are to be people who see each other through. We may indeed feel we lack and in fact lack the resources to fix the problem; to right the reversal; to recover what is lost. I think that one crucial thing we all need from each other is to be borne through. Some debilitations come to us and are unrelieved—don’t abandon. I know that it is hard to go visit a person lost to us in cognitive debilitation by things like Alzheimer’s; it is important to persist with—to be borne through.
Disease has a way of isolating people and their family caregivers. We need to be “bearing with one another in love”. A phone call; a prayer; a meal delivered; an invitation to have a coffee for no other reason than some “human time” together—these kinds of things help people bear what is often otherwise unbearable.
In a publication called Today’s Christian Woman a mother wrote: “One night, while my young son, Ryan, was sleeping, a storm began brewing outside. After a loud clap of thunder, I heard Ryan wake up and run to find me. When I tucked him back into bed, he asked me to stay with him until he fell asleep. As I lay there with him, I realized Ryan hadn't asked me to make the storm go away, but to stay with him. How many times, I wondered, have I asked God to take away the storms of life, when instead, I need to ask Him to stay with me and help me weather the storms more peacefully!
Friends, “bearing one another in love” is to do the work of the Lord through which he enables his people to weather life’s storms more peacefully.