“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” [John 13:35]
That verse is so simple, and such a minefield!
Just start with the word “everyone”. There’s no doubt that the world judges Christianity as a whole, and within that specific denominations or local churches or individuals, on the basis of how closely we do or do not live up to the ideals of Jesus. There’s no doubt that we judge each other by that same standard. We may even apply it to ourselves. And we inevitably fail.
I hate that, especially when it’s used as a pretext for criticism from people who at the same time claim not to care about faith at all. It begins, often, with someone whose behavior or worldview is called into question by Jesus’ words or by the ideals that the Church espouses becoming defensive, and going on the offense in response. “Who are you to criticize me? Look at how you people live!” Then follows a laundry list of sins and failures and reminders about famous Christians who have done some terrible things.
I get that. I really do. Only a fool would try to excuse all that has happened in the past two thousand years. If it’s any consolation, I would just point out that we’ve never claimed to get everything right and, at our best, we have had the grace (by which I mean the help of God) to listen to critics both inside and outside of the faith community and to say, “Thank you. We need your input to stay honest.” I would point out that the Bible itself talks about the temptations that come when we are anything less than genuine about our witness. The book of Acts tells how the earliest Christian community included a couple named Ananias and Sapphira who wanted everyone to think that they were the most selfless and sacrificial of givers, whole-hearted supporters of the work of the Kingdom. When Peter saw through them, he declared,
“You did not lie to us but to God!” [Acts 5:4]
Ananias was suddenly struck down dead and then about three hours later so was Sapphira. You would think we’d get the message about trying to make ourselves look good by means of religion, but it still goes on, though without the sudden divine punishment. The only way you can exonerate the Church from sin is by ignoring the Bible and history and probably the witness of your own eyes and ears.
Any attempt to put the Church up on a pedestal is a form of idolatry. Of course, when the Church’s critics do exactly that, they are setting up an idol of their own, but doing it so that they have an idol to knock down rather than one to worship. Whatever the purpose, though, it involves making a false claim that replaces God in someone’s heart or mind.
So I would say that one of the best things we can do in answer to our critics is to pay attention to them when they have a point, and otherwise to ignore them. Otherwise we get drawn into a game that we have neither the expertise nor the time nor the energy to play when we have more important and better matters in front of us. Specifically, there is this whole business of loving one another.
So let’s be clear about a few points.
There’s a difference between liking each other and loving one another. Liking often has to do with the sense of having something in common. We find that we are “alike”. We find the same things sad or funny. We enjoy similar activities or have similar interests. Our cultural backgrounds are similar. We share the same references. I can ask, “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen sparrow?” and you know to respond, “African or European?” If you don’t get that, all I have to do is say, “It’s a joke from Monty Python,” and you know to roll your eyes.
Loving has to do with appreciating another person for being different. For the most part, men and women fall romantically for someone who works on a vastly different emotional system, influenced by hormonal differences that they learn to manage within their relationships but managing is probably the best they will ever be able to do. You know that a man is truly in love with a woman when he lets her choose the movie on date night. You know that a woman is truly in love when she does not suggest that a man use his GPS. These are stereotypes and generalizations, I know. Everyone has their own examples, though.
Non-romantic love works the same way in that it appreciates and honors those who are not in the same column as we are, sometimes in very important ways. That is where Jesus really puts it on his disciples when he said,
“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” [John 13:34]
When he assembled his inner circle of disciples he consciously included people who were very unlike one another. Simon the Zealot was from a group dedicated to wiping out people like Matthew the tax collector. John had tremendous faith, and Thomas needed to see things with his own eyes. They had support from women like Mary and Martha, two sisters who got on each other’s nerves because Martha was a workaholic and considered her sister lazy.
Once the Holy Spirit got the Church going, the original disciples, who at least all shared a religious and cultural background as Jews, found themselves trying to figure out what to do when Gentiles wanted to join in. These were people who did not speak their language or have any idea what they were talking about when they referred to people from the scriptures, and who didn’t much care about what happened in Jerusalem.
We still deal with that kind of challenge. How do you – how do we – incorporate into our life people who don’t go all gooey when they hear “Just As I Am” or know why we have all kinds of committees or wonder what the connection is between green-bean casseroles and the kingdom of God? (And, yes, there is a connection, which is a whole different sermon.) How do people who come down on different sides of political or social issues – MAGA people and Bernie Bros – find themselves required by Jesus himself to love one another?
Again, we’re supposed to love one another as Jesus loved us. His love was a costly love. It wasn’t about what he got out of it, but what he put in, and that was his entire self and his entire life, and ultimately it meant going all the way to a cross. When we have that kind of love, the trivial stuff drops away.
Let me read you part of someone’s commentary on that kind of love, a commentary that’s often mistakenly applied to romance.
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” [I Corinthians 13:4-7]
When that kind of love is there, people see beyond the immediate and obvious faults and flaws that we have. They know that we are limited, and if we are wise we also admit that. Instead, they see a deeper and fuller reality that outlasts the rest. They see a whole that is greater than its parts. They see a Savior who is bigger than the institutions built by his followers.
“Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” [I Corinthians 13:8-13]