There’s an App for That
FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER, May 15th, 2022 JOHN 13:31-35
Wouldn’t it be interesting if there were some sort of app for your phone that could tell you a person’s beliefs. You know you could walk into a train carriage and your app would make little crosses hover over people’s heads if they were Christians, and other religious symbols for people of other faiths. I can think of some uses for that app. Sadly it doesn’t exist, but give it few years, and so we have to depend on other things to tell us if someone is a Christian or not. Thankfully there is a world of Christian consumer kitsch out there that, if you purchase it, will proclaim to the world that you are a follower of Christ. So, for example, you can buy bubble gum with the Bible verse, “Give, and it will be given to you” printed on it. There are Testamints, as the name suggests, mints with Bible verses on them. There are Christian golf balls with John 3:16 stamped on them. I think if I had a Christian phrase printed on my golf ball it would have to be ‘I once was lost but now I’m found.’ But all this seems positively tasteful when you compare it with the cuddly Ten Plagues of Egypt toy. Now your 3 year-old can go to bed peacefully comforted by plush locusts, dead cattle, oozing boils, and the severed heads of the first-born.
Actually, we don’t need an app and we don’t need to examine people’s shopping baskets to find out who is a follower of Christ. Jesus himself gave us the one, solid, guaranteed tell in today’s Gospel lesson. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have fish magnets on your cars.” No wait, that’s not right. I misread that. ‘If you love one another.’ Everyone will know you are my followers if you love one another. When I was a student, we used to sing a folk song called “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” It was fun to replace that last word ‘love’ with ‘quiche’, but to do it so quietly no one would hear.
But if quiche is not the bag you’re into, you could replace ‘love’ with anything. They will know we are Christians by our broad smiles,
by the shiny crosses on our lapels,
by our church attendance,
our modest dress,
our conventional haircuts,
the words we say when we hit our thumbs with hammers,
our perfect marital histories,
our clean criminal records,
our yard signs,
our bumper stickers that turn complex moral issues into dishonestly
our opinion of the Supreme Court,
the people we disapprove of,
the books we ban,
the comedians we cancel,
anything really. It doesn’t matter what you put there in the place of love, except for one major drawback. These things don’t tell you who a genuine follower of Jesus is. They can’t, they won’t. Anyone can slap on a bumper sticker or wipe on a smile, but it is the love we have for each other, and that love alone, that will tell the world that we are followers of Jesus.
Someone should be able to walk into church or into coffee hour or a church social event and observe us for a while and say “these people are the real deal. No doubt about it. There’s genuine love in the air. The way they treat each other and talk about each other, the way they rush to each other’s help, the care and concern that goes beyond mere friendship or the affinity that comes from being part of the same social circle – it is costly, sacrificial, humble, unselfish.” By this everyone will know that you are my disciples. Just the way we relate to each other should be magnetic to people who are outside the church. They should see us and think, “wow. This stuff about God and Jesus – there must be something to it because look how these people treat each other.”
I must admit I can be a little unrealistic in my expectations of churches. I think that we shouldn’t need stewardship campaigns because if everyone loved God and loved the church they’d just give – no need to ask; it would just be natural. And the same with sharing our faith with others. In the perfect world we wouldn’t need an Evangelism Committee or a Welcome Committee, because we’d all be living such loving lives that people wouldn’t be able to keep themselves away – folk would just pour in. I know I’m hopelessly naïve. But I hope you’ll admit I have a point. If Jesus is correct, and that by our love for each other the world will know we are his followers, then churches do not need beautiful buildings, or thriving programs, or a big budget, or wonderful music, or gifted clergy. In fact we could all probably name famous churches that have all these things but are quite unhealthy. No, by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
This is why the kind of welcome we give guests is so vital. When you walk into a church for the first time you can tell within a few minutes if these people really mean it. For all their fine liturgy and gifted ministers, what will really make it or break it for the visitor is whether they feel loved – or if not loved then at least respected and welcomed, that there is a place for them here, there’s a community that will embrace them as they are. Maybe love might come on the second visit. But if you visit a church and people are gossiping about each other, or you detect conflict in the atmosphere, if people are using harsh words behind each other’s backs, then you’re not going to come back. Whose idea of fun is sitting in someone else’s family fight? “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
We’re very aware, painfully so, of Jesus’ command to love our enemies. But it can be just as hard to love Christian brothers and sisters. Doing something compassionate for someone on the other side of the planet or reaching out to a person we see only occasionally doesn’t require great emotional investment. But when it comes to members of our parish, people we see up close and interact with frequently, it can be a different story.
So the challenge to those of us own the name of Christ is simple – simple but difficult – love each other. And that includes on social media also. Tim Kreider writes this in the New York Times, “The most devastating cyberattack a diabolical mind could design would not be on the military or financial sector but simply to make every e-mail and text ever sent universally public. The fabric of society would instantly evaporate, every marriage, friendship and business partnership dissolved. Civilization, which is held together by a fragile web of tactful phrasing, polite omissions and white lies, would collapse in an apocalypse of bitter recriminations and weeping, breakups and fistfights, divorces and bankruptcies, scandals and resignations, blood feuds, litigation, wholesale slaughter in the streets and lingering ill will.”
His name is Jim. Actually, it isn’t, but we’ll call him that, and I had unfinished business with him. It was 2013 and I hadn’t spoken to Jim or seen him for eleven years. I had no reason to. Our paths never crossed and were never likely to. But this day in 2013 they did. We were going to be in the same place at the same time. We both knew it and we both had months of warning, weeks to get ready for our encounter. Eleven years earlier Jim did something that caused me a grievous injury. It was so severe that it couldn’t be overlooked, or forgotten, or minimized. And for eleven years I had been able to avoid both Jim and his actions. Burt not that day. He actually came up to me and started making small talk, as if nothing had ever happened between us. How could he want to chat about sports? So, after making sure no one else could hear us, I reminded him of what he’d done eleven years earlier and how it felt. And … he apologized – sincerely. And I said, “I forgive you”. And he let out a sigh of relief like I’d never heard before; like he was dropping a vast weight on the floor. And he said, “That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard.” In the nine years since that meeting I haven’t spoken to Jim or written, or texted or anything. Our paths still don’t cross, and I’m OK with that. But here’s the point … if I’d have seen Jim one, two, three, four, five years after the injury I’m not sure I would have found the grace to say the words “I forgive you”. But after eleven years, by the grace of God I could Because it’s comparatively easy to forgive someone you haven’t seen for 11 years.
It’s not hard to have compassionate feelings for someone in a magazine or on a TV screen. It’s a piece of cake to apologize to someone you’ve never met. It’s not difficult to assume good motives in someone you don’t have a relationship with. But all those acts of grace are harder when you have to see the other person regularly. CS Lewis once said, “It is easier to be enthusiastic about humanity with a capital “H” than it is to love individual men and women, especially those who are exasperating, depraved, or otherwise unattractive. Loving everybody in general may be an excuse for loving nobody in particular.”
This is risky because when we love we open ourselves to hurt. But I think it is impossible to truly love without running that risk. Lewis again: “to love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one. Wrap it around carefully with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
And so as we continue emerge from pandemic slumber, rub our eyes in the new light, and try to find our way back to engaging with our St Paul’s community let us have this one big, hairy, audacious goal – love one another.