Acts 11: 1 – 18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21: 1 – 6; John 13: 31 – 35
This is the homily given at St. John’s, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania by Fr. Gene Tucker on Sunday, May 19, 2019.
“LOVE IS THE MARKER”
(Homily text: John 13: 31-35)
We who are in the Church would do well to ask ourselves this question, now and again: What one word or short phrase would people who are not in the Church use to describe their impression of the Church?
This question allows us to step outside of our familiarity with the Church and its ways to see what others might see. It allows us to rework our witness to the world so that what outsiders know about the Church can be changed.
What answers might those outside the Church offer to describe what they think about the Church? Perhaps this short list might offer some examples: “Hate.” “Judgment.” “A place to get stuff (like help with paying a bill).” “A strange place.”
(If you think about it, perhaps you can add to this list.)
I doubt, for many people who aren’t familiar with the Church and its people, would this answer come up very frequently: “Love.”
But “love” is what our Lord tells us will be the marker, perhaps the chief marker, of those who are His disciples, those who claim the name of Jesus. Our Gospel text for this morning makes it clear: Jesus says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13: 34–35)
The early Church lived out this commandment. The inhabitants of the Greco-Roman world of the early centuries of the Church’s existence often made this comment about Christians: “See how they love one another.”
There are, most likely, good reasons for outsiders to hold onto the impression that the Church is a place where hatred and judgment are commonplace. In many places for far too long a time, the theme that many churches proclaimed had to do with God’s judgment of the unrepentant sinner. (It is still a message that is widely heard.) Faithful proclamation of the Good News (Gospel) of Jesus Christ has to do with judgment, to be sure. But the problem often arises out of an out-of-balance proclamation of that Good News, for the Gospel’s truth is that the God whom we have come to know and love is a holy God, but also a loving God. These two aspects of God’s nature must be proclaimed alongside one another.
Any imbalance in this understanding of God’s nature leads to problems. Proclaim God’s judgment without proclaiming God’s love, and all people are forever condemned. It’s a short step to believing that the Church has little to say except to proclaim hatred and judgment. Proclaim God’s love without proclaiming God’s holiness and righteousness, and the result might well be permissiveness. So these two qualities of God’s nature must be held together in a healthy tension.
I’ve just used the word “permissiveness”. The use is deliberate, for we live in a secular society whose understanding of love has been skewed to the point that “love” is equated with “permissiveness”.
True love, however, seeks the welfare of the one who is loved.
Seeking that welfare sometimes entails doing things that – at first glance – might seem harsh. A good example might be the parent who grabs a toddler’s hand and scolds that young child because the child was about to pull a pot of boiling water down off the stove onto themselves. Grabbing that small hand and issuing a scolding might seem harsh and unloving, but the deeper level of this encounter has to do with genuine love for that child and the child’s welfare.
In life, such an approach is essential. We are called to deal with – even confront – acts which destroy people’s lives. The current opioid epidemic is a good example of “tough love”: The Church must stand against this crisis in our society which is destroying so many lives. The Church is called to stand against other things which also destroy people’s lives. Call it “tough love”. That’s what it is.
Love, however, true love which values the one who is loved, is willing to begin with that loved one’s current state in life. God begins with us at just such a place, accepting us into a relationship at whatever place God finds us. That place might be a pretty awful (may we say sinful) place?
The Church, then, is called to begin with everyone we encounter at just the same place, being willing to accept people in whatever place or whatever state we find them. But we shouldn’t be comfortable leaving them where we find them. We want for all people we encounter that God’s purpose for their lives will unfold. We want for all people we encounter that God’s love will move them into the full stature of Christ.
To do this, we must be willing to get outside of our own (church) walls. The reason is that the society in which we live has changed markedly in recent decades. It is no longer true that people who have little or no experience with the Church will find their way to us on their own. (To be sure, such a thing still happens from time to time, but it’s more the exception than the rule nowadays.)
Personal invitation to give the Church a try is the most effective way to let people know what the Church’s true character is like. That’s the way the early Church grew, by personal invitation to outsiders. And, as we think about the early Church’s growth, we ought to remind ourselves that the Church in those early centuries was ministering to a pagan population that knew virtually nothing about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and who knew virtually nothing about the coming of the Messiah, the Christ, in the person of Jesus Christ. (I submit to you that we Christians, today, are in much the same place as those early Christians were.)
Some churches, those who are known by the title “Seeker Churches”, might have an easier time introducing non-Christians to the Christian faith, for they often tend to use music that sounds familiar to secular ears, and they use images and approaches that appropriate secular ways.
But liturgical churches like ours have a different way of worshiping, one that is unfamiliar (even strange) to outsiders. For those who come to a place like St. John’s, one of the markers they will easily discern about this parish church is that it is a warm, inviting and welcoming place. May we even dare to say that outsiders would agree with the secular observers of the early Church that St. John’s is a place where “Christians love one another”?
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another,” Jesus said.
May that divine love, known in the person of Jesus Christ, be our principal marker as Christians who are part of the St. John’s community.