When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
I’m amazed at this text in John. The author depicts this as happening during the Last Supper and Judas has just left to betray Jesus to the authorities. Jesus will be dead in less than 24 hours. And right after this text, Jesus informs Peter that he, Peter, will deny he even knows Jesus. This text is bookended by denial and betrayal.
So here’s what Jesus has to say to his disciples in the midst of all this: “Love one another. People will know whether or not you’re my disciples by this one thing—your love for each other.”
That’s it. That’s everything. Nothing about avenging his death, nothing about condemning Judas, nothing about watching out for the likes of Peter. No. Just that the sign of being a disciple of Christ is loving each other.
When it comes to this sign of being a disciple, I gotta tell you, I think LCM is starting to rock that house. For quite a while now, as I’ve heard anyone in this congregation talking, it’s been overwhelmingly expressions of care, love, support, and concern.
I experience more of you sharing parts of your personal stories and trusting the people around you to love you with some intimate aspects of who you are.
I hear you checking in with each other, remembering details about some painful situation mentioned a long time ago just to see how that’s going. Out of love.
I see you reaching out to those who are lonely or sick or grieving, just so they don’t have to endure those things alone. That’s what love looks like.
I watch as you take an authentic interest in people here that you don’t know—listening to their life stories, and welcoming them without any judgment or condition. We love you just as you are.
There haven’t even been whispers about people who go to the other worship service for a good while now. Quite the opposite—I hear people defending, speaking well of, and sometime even participating in the worship service they don’t usually go to! Rather than being a competition, our worship has become an expression of love for each other.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.” And I think we’re owning this identity: that we are a church that loves one another. And it is making a difference. At least it is for me.
I want to tell you one way this has been affecting me.
It’s no secret that I have a significant problem with the far-right wing of Christianity. I’ve been quite outspoken about my disagreement with the self-righteous, hypocritical, judgmental, anti-Jesus fringe of the church that hates, divides, and condemns. And that I do so because of the Bible, not in spite of it; because I follow Jesus, not in addition to him; because I’ve experienced God’s unconditional love, not because I deserve it.
When I meet someone and, in the course of the conversation they ask me what I do for a living, I’m so concerned about being judged as “one of those Christians” that I often dodge the question. I do this because I’ve experienced, over and over, especially as a straight, white, middle-aged, Protestant preacher, the assumptions that I’m automatically “one of them.” And conversations close off. And potential relationships die on the vine. And walls of defensiveness go up as the other person assumes I’m condemning them for some self-righteous reason.
I’ve become so focused on trying to reframe to the whole world what I believe a Christian is, that actually being a Christian has taken a back seat. I’ve spent so much energy proving what I’m not that I don’t always live what I am.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you prove to them that you’re not a judgmental hypocrite.” No, Jesus says, “if you have love for one another.” It’s less what you don’t do, and more what you do.
All this came to a head when I was watching TV one night. I was watching a show that included a small group of people being shown around a small town, which included a little church building. And one person who was on the tour stopped and couldn’t go inside. He physically couldn’t go in. It came out later that as a gay man he had endured such pain and hate and condemnation at the hands of the church that he actually couldn’t go through the doors. You could see on his face and in his posture all that pain resurfacing.
As I watched this, my heart just ripped open for him. And through the tears that were dripping down my face I heard myself say—out loud, to him, as if he could hear me on this show that had been recorded two years ago—I groaned from the depths of my soul, “Oh! Please come to my church so you can be loved.”
And as I heard myself say it, I knew those words were true. In my church you’d be loved.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.”
What the love of this congregation is doing for me is helping me be what I am instead of trying to prove what I’m not. Rather than being clear that I’m not one of those judgmental, self-righteous, hypocritical, condemning, right-wing fundamentalists, instead I’m being clear that I am a disciple of Jesus Christ which means that I will do my best to love you as Christ loves you: without condition, without judgment, just as you are.
Because that’s how this congregation seems to be loving people. With God’s absolute love. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” For Jesus, and for us, that’s the bottom line.