Our family was fortunate enough this March to take a trip to Florida over Spring Break to escape what we hoped then was the last throws of winter. Boy were we wrong. While we were there, I noticed the throngs of people who, like us seemed to be escaping from somewhere cold. You could tell because of the way everyone seemed to squint at the sun as if they hadn’t seen it in months. The red noses, freshly burned. And, then I began to notice, these were not just folks from colder climes – these were Minnesotans. You can always tell Minnesotans abroad, because we like to wear clothing branded with our state. There were Gopher t-shirts and Surly Brewing hats, and lots of Twins paraphernalia. These were actually my people, freshly deposited Minnesotans from the frostbitten prairies, here on the very same Spring Break. Minnesotans are perhaps an easier people to spot abroad. Or, perhaps we are uniquely trained to identify and notice the telltale signs of our own particular tribe or group. Sometimes too, groups have ways of signaling to others who they are, what they do, or what it is they practice and believe.
As our family traveled through India on sabbatical, we became accustomed to noticing the external trappings and identifiers of the faiths of others. India is a place as we all know, with a vast and diverse religious landscape. We noticed the Muslim boys with their knit caps, Hindus with a tell-tale red dot on the forehead, Buddhist monks with tangerine colored robes, Sikhs with their glorious turbans, and the pilgrims traveling, each with a banner hoisted over their shoulder identifying the god or god’s their journey was meant to honor. I have always been fascinated by the adherents of other faiths, in part because on the inside, the familiar and well-worn customs and traditions of my own faith can often seem bland and mundane in the shiny light of the new and different. I remember marveling the first time I watched a cab pull to the side of the street in New York, and the cabbie retrieving a rug from the trunk and after getting his bearings and orienting himself aright, unfurling it so he could kneel in prayer on a bustling 10th avenue sidewalk. I wanted that, to be so devoted to prayer, to be able to stop everything to pray, to be known for prayer, to be seen and identified because, five times a day I interrupted everything to point myself toward something sacred, in front of God and everyone.
I recall as well, as I think I have shared in this pulpit before, touring the city with my grandfather from rural Ohio, himself a deacon in the Southern Baptist Church who had a deep theological fascination with Judaism but had never, to his knowledge, actually met a Jew. I recall his delight and my embarrassment as he noticed yarmulkes and the tassels that hang from the belt of Jewish men. When we returned to the seminary he loudly reported to the first seminarian we saw, “We saw two Jews today, Jim!” I could have died. But, these were things he had never seen before.
All of this noticing left me wondering, as perhaps it has you too, what is it that identifies Christians as Christian in the world. Ours is a faith without many visible identifiers. Sure we can wear crosses around our neck. But, with the ubiquity of the cross as jewelry, even that is not a surefire identifier. I recall a brief period in my teen years when Evangelical Christians were encouraged to wear bracelets with the letters WWJD on them, with the implied question, “What Would Jesus Do?” But, even that fad has gratefully died out. Sure there are places and parts of the world where Christian adherents dress a certain way – head coverings for the women, for instance. But, more often than not, Christians are invisible in the world. In an anonymous 2nd century letter, known as the Epistle to Diognetus, an observer writes, “Christians are not differentiated from other people by country, language, or custom…they do not live in cities of their own, or speak some strange dialect, or have some peculiar lifestyle.” From the earliest centuries, Christians have been a people connected by something other than these things. Which begs the question, how are Christians to be identified? As if in answer to this question comes today’s gospel lesson.
Today we import the scene of the last supper into this resurrection future, post-Easter, and we hear again Jesus’ new commandment. Jesus is at table with the disciples, they have eaten together in what they will only realize later is a final meal, and Jesus gives them this teaching – “love one another.” he says, “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 love for one another.” Notice that he does not say, “if you love the world,” or “if you love everyone” then everyone will know you are my disciples. No, as important as love of the world is, as much as Jesus taught and exhorted us to love everyone, he says here that our identifier, our unique differentiating factor, will be our love for each other.
Oh how we have struggled and failed at this new commandment. As we well know, like a broken family, Christianity is riddled with divisions and betrayals, fights and exclusions. Even individual faith communities, individual parishes, have histories of brokenness and hurt, of generations-long battles for power and control. No, we have not as a church done so well with this commandment to love one another. Some days I look out at the church and I wonder how it is, after betrayals and attacks, how it is that we still have people who come here at all. We struggle mightily to love one another. Heck, like most families we struggle just to not fight with and offend each other. And, the love that Jesus speaks of here is a love that intensifies the difficulty of loving one another. You see, we would like to love each other as “we” love. But, Jesus’ command is that we love as “he” loves us. This is a love that has just been modeled when Jesus rose from the table, took off his outer garment, tied a towel around his waist, and washed their feet. Love here, especially from our vantage point after Holy Week, with all its suffering and betrayal, love here is a love that empties itself, to the point of death, even death on a cross. Love here comes after Judas, the betrayer, has stood up from and left the table. We are called to love one another, just as Jesus loved each of us, including the betrayers in our midst.
Theologian Frederick Niedener writes:
“Jesus loved truly by giving himself away, by losing himself. Genuine love always means losing oneself — in another’s arms, in another’s laughter, in another’s tears. But more, to love is to lose oneself and thereby to find oneself, to find one’s true humanity. Such was and is the love of Jesus. He lost himself when he gave himself up for us. And now, risen, he lives. He lives in us who are his body, the baptized who are animated by his Spirit. In us he has found his place for loving. … in that losing ourselves, the Risen Christ promises us, we shall find ourselves. We shall live, and we shall find our real selves, loved, forgiven, and seated again as friend at the table with one who has betrayed me, or whom I have betrayed, one with whom I had lost the capacity to share humanity.”
Can we be Christian without loving one another, without loving even the betrayer? Perhaps. But, we cannot hope to truly be known or even to know ourselves until we lose ourselves in this love that Christ has for us. By this you shall be known, says Jesus, if you have love for one another just as Jesus will always love us, just as Jesus loves you!
Poet and pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes writes:
The path of faith
is not just to believe in God
but to live as if you do:
to love the loveless; to pour yourself out as light;
to forgive fearlessly; to listen deeply;
to be humble, knowing you are held
in the highest regard in the halls of heaven,
This is your banner over the shoulder, your team colors, your badge of honor – this is how you shall be known as Jesus’ disciples – love one another.