The mark of a Christian is love. In our gospel passage this morning Jesus parting words are: “I am going away but listen to my final words to you”. His message is kind of like a graduation message to the disciples as they are sent out into the world, and he leaves them this commission: “Remember this above all other things. The new commandment I leave with you is that you love one another. Love one another just as I have loved you. People will know that you are Christians by your love that you have for one another”. (John 13:31-35)
A few of us were at the Cathedral of St. Paul yesterday mid-morning for the ordination of two transitional deacons, Hannah Wilder and Chris Craig-Jones. In the cathedral, as many of you know there are big pillars in certain places in the sanctuary, and because the room was crowded, we had to keep moving over to let more people in. So, here I was, right behind one of these big pillars, and I had to look around the pillar in order to see what was going on up front. It occurred to me that this was kind of like looking in at something from the outside, and it gave me pause.
Suddenly, I quit singing, and had a desire to listen to what was going on inside. The cathedral choir was singing, and I wanted to hear them rather than to hear myself sing. I couldn’t see the brass horns, but I heard them fill the room with wonderful sounds of triumphant joy. I realized that I was in a crowd of peers that viewed liturgy and worship in much the same way as I did. And, in our own limited and human ways we were there to worship God, to appreciate the beauty of the Christian community, and to express thanksgiving to God for adding gifts, new clergy to serve alongside others in this church.
I was thinking as I investigated this scene at the cathedral, that we were not the only expression of Christianity, but we were one part, a part that I seem to fit in with most. It doesn’t mean we do everything right, or that we are always moving in all the right directions. And all of that leave church worship services and go our sperate ways, the liturgy of daily life continues. Our work for the church, and the way we reflect our Church faith is important. And, it does not mean we are always right in our methodology of ministry, because we are not, but we are adaptable to change. At least I hope we are.
We do not own the guidebook about how things should always be done. I’m the first one to tell you that I know I could be doing ministry a lot better than I’m doing, but I am trying to do the best I can, and I know I could do a better job. It’s always going to be that way. We are all students, learning sometimes through books, but often in the school of hard knocks. It’s a difficult curriculum, this school of hard knocks. I do believe that people are not so concerned about critiquing our methodology as they are at recognizing our motives, recognizing whether we care or are concerned about the welfare of others, not just our own interests.
I am reminded of that wonderful song that was written in 1966 by Peter Scholte. The first verse and chorus begin with these words:
We are One in The Spirit,
We are One in The Lord.
We are One in The Spirit,
We are One in The Lord.
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored.
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love,
By our Love,
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
The greatest commandment that Jesus gives us is to love God with all or our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. (Matthew 22:36-40) This is the bedrock of the premise of our faith. Love keeps the balance in the scale that determines “wrong” and “right”. If the scale tips on the side of injustice, then it’s out of kilter with love. If it tips on the side of greed, love gets slighted. If the weight of the scale tips on the side of selfishness, love is left behind. I love that exhortation from Philippian’s: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others”. (Philippians 2:3-4, NRSV)
From the letter to the Colossians we are encouraged to follow this “new worldview “, a continual renewing of our mind and heart. This is another one of those interactive verses in the Bible. You cannot understand what is being said unless you experience it first-hand in your life interacting and participating with Scripture. “If you then be risen with Christ set your affections on the things above and not on the things of this world”. (Col. 3:1-2) Because if you set your affections on the things above your desire will be to please God, and you will want to center your will with God’s will. You will want to center your thoughts and actions with the principles that Jesus talked about, the beatitudes, to love one another, and to treat others fairly. As one of my favorite verses in the Bible says: “Will you know oh man or woman what is good, and what the Lord requires of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God”. (Micah 6:8)
Our message on point is to love one another. This is our mission and our command from our leader, from way above my pay grade, who is right here with us and is saying: Go out into our community and love others. It starts here. Now go out into the community and share that love in magnificent and creative ways.
When I was a student at General Theological Seminary in New York City, I oversaw volunteers and programming at Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen for two summers, between my second and third year of seminary, and then served this church as a first-year deacon right out of seminary. This soup kitchen is the largest one in NYC and the second largest in the nation. I had top-notch security personnel and trained staff and volunteer supervisors to oversee all volunteers, and programming. At times there could be some challenging situations. Often, we had to think creatively and quickly to defuse troubling situations. I remember one situation quite vividly.
I was called on my walkie-talkie to a situation with a guest that was standing in the middle of the lunchroom floor crying, as she held a tray of food. We could tell by the way she was carrying on a conversation with herself that she was suffering from schizophrenia. I asked her what was wrong, and she told me between sobs that the floor was wet, and her friend told her that she was going to fall if she kept walking. I had some staff check the floor, but they could find no wet spots. She would not accept that. So, I had one of the staffers bring a dry mop and mop in front of her to the table. She was still scared. I assured her that this was a safe place and we would help her and her friend to the table and make sure they were safe. She agreed and we did. I asked her later when she headed for the door if everything worked out. She promptly told me that her friend told her that this was a safe place, A church, a place where God dwelt, and there was no more worry for her or her friend. I have many stories like this form those times. Did we do everything the right way? I don’t know. We did the best we could and trusted God for assistance. And, it usually, but not always, worked out peacefully and quietly.
I believe that most of us do our best to share the love of God. Could we do better? Yes, we can, and we are working to improve all areas of outreach, all the time. But this thing I do know. People can sense whether we care for them, and they can sense the love of God.
Jesus says, “my command is that you love one another”. “And they will know we are Christians by our love”. It’s the mark of a Christian.