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Godward Together on Sunday Morning

Posted by Ryan Shelton on

(Originally posted on DesiringGod.org)

Should Sunday morning be more vertical or horizontal?

Many of the churches I have been part of divide our service elements into two neat and tidy categories. Vertical is how we talk about godwardness, transcendence, holy moments, the reverent hush of the sanctuary. Horizontal describes handshakes, exhortations, brotherly affections, the cheerful chatter of the lobby. I am not altogether dissatisfied with these two words as a device to describe elements of corporate worship. But at times I find myself at a complete loss how to divide certain activities in our services.

Which kind of moment is passing the communion bread? Should singing to God build up my neighbor? Can I worship while greeting or ushering?

These two planes intersect in these remarkable words from John:

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20)

John writes his first letter to help readers increase confidence in their faith (1 John 5:13). He weaves together these simple and profound tests for Christian legitimacy. One of the tests is affection for one another.

With a kind of starkness typical to this apostle, the stakes are high. If your heart hates your brother while your lips feign love for God, you lie. John requires a unity between affections and actions, between God and brother. He confuses categories, or rather, shows we were confused to have categorized these two. Your attitude toward your fellow Christian exposes your claims about God.

A Love-Proving Love

But though John is brutally candid, he is no cynic. His writing bears a fatherly affection that assumes the authenticity of his readers’ faith. He writes explicitly to those who believe, so that they can know they have eternal life. Evidently even believers need to have their confidence strengthened.

So where does true love for God prove itself? John recognizes a dilemma; no one has seen God (1 John 4:12). So would not love for an invisible God also be invisible? Apparently not. Liars claim to love an invisible God without loving their visible brothers and sisters. True believers prove their love for God, whom they do not see, by loving their brother, whom they do see.

This illumines how marriages and committed friendships serve our sanctification and assurance of salvation. Every relationship in my life is an opportunity to put my love for God to the test. Do I love God? Then I will love my spouse, my roommate, my employer.

A Love Built on Love

Do not be deceived; we cannot muster up godward affections by teeth-gritted neighborly duty. John has already settled that for us. We can love one another because God first loved us (1 John 4:19), and has put his Spirit in us (1 John 4:13). God’s love was poured out on us before we even knew what love was (1 John 4:10). So John is certainly not suggesting that your love for neighbor is the foundation by which you can love God. You are incapable of loving God or your neighbor until he has loved you.

So Christian, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another (1 John 4:11). But Christian, God has so loved us. He sent Jesus, a love note signed in precious blood. And so all of our horizontal brotherly affection is built upon the vertical cross work of Jesus on our behalf.

The Invisible Love We See

So do not be surprised on Sunday morning if worshiping God makes you want to hug the neck of your neighbor. That is just proof that your love for God is the real thing. Your handshake in the lobby is no less spiritual than lifting that hand in praise. Actually, if you try too hard to separate them, you might be liar (1 John 4:20).

So as you receive the good news that the God you do not see has so loved you, let the natural overflow be love for those whom you see each week, especially those you see every day. In so doing, you will strengthen your assurance that your proclamation of love for the invisible God — visible in your relationships and ministry — is, in fact, true love.

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