28 Apr 2013
“‘I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.’” (John 13:34) In the name …
A friend of mine that I grew up with in Westfield sent me the following email because he knows I’m approaching yet another birthday. He attached this little note: “We’re almost there too.” The story is called “Why I call him honey.” An elderly lady was invited to an old friend’s home for dinner one evening. She was impressed by the way her lady friend preceded every request to her husband with endearing terms such as: honey, my love, darling, sweetheart, etc. The couple had been married almost 70 years and, clearly, they were still very much in love. While the husband was in the living room, the lady who was visiting leaned over to the hostess and said, “I think it’s wonderful that after all these years you still call your husband by all those loving names.” Her friend hung her head and whispered, “I have to tell you the truth. His name slipped my mind about ten years ago and I’m too scared to ask the cranky old geezer what is name is.”
Appearances can be deceiving. This little story makes clear that love is not about the superficial, and Christian love is obviously no different. Christian love is essential to the definition of who we are as people of faith, and in a way and manner that, I think, we often underestimate. As Christians we tend to define ourselves as Protestant or Catholic, National Catholic or Orthodox. We define our faith by where we worship: I go to Holy Name, I go to Holy Family, I belong to South Deerfield Congregational. But there were Christians long before there was organized church. Jesus says to us today in the Gospel: “‘This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’” (John 13:35) This is how Jesus expected us to distinguish ourselves. People will know we follow Jesus if we love one another.
[Next two day at Genesis Center in Westfield, administered by the Sisters of Providence. The nuns get it. Bumper stickers “I support the nuns.”]
In today’s Lesson we hear about the conclusion of Paul’s First Missionary Journey. He sailed from the Middle East and then traveled through modern day Turkey, founding local churches as he moved from one city to the next. Then he reversed direction and revisited those newly organized communities in order to encourage them to stay the course. Elders were appointed to guide these brand new groups of believers. But this was not an official act of an institution. This was brought about by the prayer and fasting of the community itself, says the Acts of the Apostles. This is church before there was an official church. Christians were not defining themselves by the organization, but by the way they lived. Love was their bedrock, their new commandment. It was their very identity.
On the back of your song sheet, though, is a quote of Mahatma Gandhi, the Hindu activist of India’s independence movement. He is quoted as saying, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike Christ.” Gandhi was peacefully struggling to free India from British colonial rule, and the British were Christians. Gandhi knew what Jesus taught and he respected that gospel, but Gandhi did not see what Jesus taught in the behaviour of the Christians who ruled India. There was a disconnect between what was said and what was done. It’s kind of like the wife who called her husband by all kinds of affectionate terms only because she was too afraid of the cranky old guy to ask his name. And likewise, we can call ourselves Christians because we belong here or there, but Jesus says: “‘This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’”
I think it is remarkable about how little importance Jesus gave to words about faith and at the same time how important He counts acts of love. When we come to heaven’s gates, I don’t think we’ll be asked to explain transubstantiation, consubstantiation, mystery of faith, or representation when it comes to the Eucharist. I think we’ll be judged on how we loved. Words are easy, like the wife calling her husband “honey,” but Christian love leaves a mark. It can surprise, stun and shock a person by what it expects. That’s because it’s not the normal human love that is usually reciprocal. Jesus makes absolutely clear that the new commandment is to love “‘as I have loved you,’” and that means unconditionally. It’s not love that is always earned. It’s love though that is always given. That’s not easy. That leaves a mark.
It’s painful to say, but once again, it has been reported that an act of terrorism, of indiscriminate violence, was motivated by religious belief. The Boston bombers are fanatics and not the norm, but in their perverted sense of righteousness, their god is angry, violent and vengeful, and their own morality is based on terror. Christianity is the complete rejection of such a ridiculous god and such a counterfeit faith. Our defining characteristic has been to love as Jesus has loved. And that’s not as easy as just not being violent. Christian love is not the passive absence of violence. Christian love is the active love that makes a difference, and spurs us to make that difference even when we don’t want to.
For example, an eight-story building collapsed in Bangladesh where inexpensive clothes were made to be shipped to, maybe, stores right around here. The workers reported cracks in the walls and floors of the building, but they were ordered back to work anyway because shipping deadlines were more important. Hundreds died; thousands were affected. Is Christian love reason enough to be willing to pay a bit more for clothes so that these kinds of desperately poor people don’t have to be sacrificed? Rhode Island is going to become the 10th state to ratify gay marriage. As Christians can we talk about this kind of love respectfully and with an open mind for the sake of those families? [George Bush Library. Other Presidents recounted his work to fight AIDS in Africa, to help the people of Darfur. It is the acts of kindness and compassion for which we are remembered.] Love is so much more than the superficial, like the woman calling her husband “sweetie.” Christian love is one of the hardest, but most important, parts of who we are in the faith. It is Jesus’ new commandment. It’s the way, said Jesus, that others will know we’re Christians. So let us be strengthened here by Communion and community so that Gandhi’s quote can be changed so that it’s possible to say, “I like your Christ, and I like your Christians, because they are so alike.” In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo