It's easy to look at the early church and wonder what advantage they had, that loving one another seemed to come so easily. We see examples of their profound unity in certain parts of Scripture that shine brightly next to the often-fractured and factional church of today: in Acts, the early church lived communally, sharing everything they owned. The Macedonian church donated more money and resources than they could comfortably afford to the brethren around the ancient world—out of love. Paul and Barnabas and other missionaries traveled for weeks at a time just to visit the churches and re-affirm their unity.
While we know that the early church had the advantage of historical proximity to Jesus, they did not have our advantage of the complete Word of God. We do. That is our advantage. And in effect, it all cancels out. Loving one another was no easier for the early church than it is for us. To invert that statement, it is no harder for us than it was for them, so let's not make excuses, shall we?
Scripture also contains examples of strife and conflict between the brethren, but in most cases, that conflict is maturely resolved and brotherly love continues. Take the example of John Mark and Paul: after John Mark got cold feet on a previous missionary journey, Paul was unwilling to work with him again. Call it a grudge or just a bad case of broken trust, but the love between them was strained by John Mark's past mistakes.
Happily, we see evidence in Paul's epistles that this conflict was ultimately resolved; Paul speaks highly of John Mark in 2 Timothy 4:11 and refers to him as a "fellow labourer" in Philemon 1:24. The point? The early church was not without its internal conflict, yet brotherly love prevailed.
Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. 3 Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. ~Ephesians 4:2-3
I came across this verse in Ephesians recently and was struck by the language of effort. Paul doesn't say, "Loving each other should come naturally." He doesn't say, "If you find loving each other difficult, there must be something wrong with you." No, in every line, every phrase, Paul reiterates the effort and diligence required to carry out the call to brotherly love.
Be patient. The good ol' KJV fittingly uses the word longsuffering—fittingly, because we are not easy to love. We're not even easy to tolerate, more often than not. To love one another is to suffer the unlovable in one another—for the sake of unity, remembering our own faults as we bear those of our family in Christ. I love this acknowledgment of how difficult love can be and where that difficulty comes from—us. Our impossible personalities, pridefulness, and shortcomings.
Here's another one: make every effort to be united. There's no escaping the "effort" required in this line; it's right there in black and white, a confession of the deliberate labour that unity requires. It's not easy and never has been—not for the early church and not for us—but Paul doesn't acknowledge the difficulty to give us a way out. He acknowledges the difficulty to remind us that we need to put in the work. We need to make the effort to love one another and we need to stop expecting it to come easily.
If we are struggling to find unity with other Christians, if we are struggling to love one another through our faults and shortcomings, we cannot assume it's because that person is unlovable or just too difficult. More likely, we're not putting in enough effort. We're not showing longsuffering. We're not making allowances for human faults. We're not making every possible effort to love and love and love despite all obstacles. The problem isn't everyone else. The problem begins and ends with us and with the work we're willing to do.
How much work are we willing to put in to love each other against all odds, disputes, differences of opinion, idiosyncrasies, frustrations, and shortcomings? How much effort did the early Christians put in?
Enough to keep loving even when they parted ways. Enough to be an example. Enough to rock the world.
Let's step it up, y'all. Let's love each other not because it is easy but because we flawed humans make it so hard. We need patience, effort, and the benefit of the doubt from others. Let's give 110% to extend that same grace to those around us.