"Dear friends," writes John, "let us tolerate one another", thereby echoing the great words of Jesus - "tolerate one another as I have tolerated you". Similarly, "by this all men will know you are my disciples - if you try to tolerate one another". No? Isn't that what it says?
So often as Christians we can end up not even tolerating one another, never mind loving one another. Jesus shows us that love is a costly thing. Love means self-giving, putting the other first, making sacrifices so that the relationship can continue. Amazingly, despite all their errors of doctrine, dubious practises and downright disobedience, God did not stop loving His people. Again and again He called them back to Himself and offered forgiveness - and He still does today.
Jesus said ,"greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13, NIV). As Paul writes in Romans 5, God demonstrates His love by the fact that Christ died for us while we were still sinners. Love does not come only after perfection is reached. Love comes to the unlovely and comes at great cost. Love is willing to work with messiness - seeing the potential for something beautiful.
How fundamental is love to the gospel? How fundamental is love to our theology, to our God? "God is love", writes John. God exists in loving relationship and seeks to draw others to Himself in love. It is interesting then that we might sometimes choose to make certain matters so fundamental to our Christian identities and denominations that we use them to override the command to imitate our God and love one another.
It is doubtful whether we can even claim to tolerate one another sometimes. Tolerance requires that we acknowledge that we disagree, but will still respect the other person's view. (Note that contemporary society misses the meaning of tolerance, too - it means learning to live together despite disagreeing). This is not to say that there aren't ideas and theological concepts worth standing up for. But, we do need to recognise and respect differing ideas on aspects of the faith and its practise - we cannot and should not make all Christians think and act the way we do.
Love crosses boundaries. It goes beyond mere tolerance to seek the well-being of the other. Can we be happy for other churches or denominations when they flourish? Can we send one of our own church members to another church because we know they would fit better there or do we try to hold on to them come what may?
Paul's ideas about justification by faith don't just tell us that we can't earn salvation. They also show us that Jewish or Gentile ways of being Christian aren't "better" or "worse". Paul refused to allow the early Christians to impose on one another their ways of following Christ. Gentile Christians did not need to become Jewish Christians. Can we do something similar today? Or, are we too busy trying to make more Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, etc.?
Fortunately, many are already engaged in trying to cross denominational boundaries and respect their fellow-Christians. Seeing that others have put their faith in Christ gives them confidence to view them as a brother/sister. Ultimately, of course, we cannot know for sure how another person stands before God, so this should help us adopt a more humble attitude instead of judging who is "in" or "out".
Working to love across boundaries should equally never become a reason for Christians to think they are better than others. Being more ecumenical doesn't make you a great Christian or better than your peers. We are all falling short and we can all learn to grow. Perhaps it will be easier if we allow each other to come to the table and share the treasures we all have to offer one another. Love can only be learned in relationship.
For the sake of the gospel and our sake as the body of Christ which should resemble its Saviour, may we learn not just to tolerate but to "love one another deeply, from the heart" (1 Peter 1:22, NIV).
© Joe Lenton, June 2012