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Badge

April 25, 2016

“Badge” John 13:31-35 © 4.24.16 Easter 5C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

On a recent episode of the crime drama Hawaii 5-0, Special Consultant Jerry Ortega is unhappy because he’s still not an official member of the team. The classic movie characters may have decided they didn’t “need no stinking badges,” but Jerry desperately wants one. It would give him validation, even if he is a crackpot conspiracy theorist and recognition, even if his office is still in a renovated basement closet. But Steve McGarrett, the task force leader, continues to deny him the honor.

Unlike Jerry, believers don’t have to beg the boss for a badge. Jesus has given already given us one. It’s our mark of distinction, our signature, our emblem of commitment and loyalty. Companies pride themselves on customer service or the quality of their products. Artists and singers have a particular recognizable style. Organizations have icons and logos that catch the eye, politicians make statements that resonate with their constituents. But none of these is given a badge by our Lord.

So what is it that marks us as Christ’s followers, the crest that communicates our commitment? Maybe it’s our doctrine, the propositions we believe about God, Jesus, the Spirit, humanity and/or the End Times. There was a particularly obnoxious member of my first campus ministry board in Starkville that insisted that adherence to a list of beliefs was essential to our identity, even requiring such of the Episcopal educator who headed our ecumenical campus ministry at the W. But he was wrong. Doctrine is not what marks us. There is no one set of beliefs all Christians agree on, not even the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds or a way of interpreting the Bible or the meaning of Jesus’ death and certainly not on various social issues. We mustn’t confuse following Jesus, loyalty to Jesus, with affirming a doctrine or belonging to a particular denomination, with reading the Bible a certain way or with where we fall on the political spectrum. It’s something else.

So maybe the sign that we are commissioned and authorized by Jesus is the way we worship. But how do we know what’s authentic and pleasing to God? Some churches meet in elaborate buildings, others in rented spaces or homes. Music ranges from traditional hymns to praise and worship choruses accompanied by a variety of instruments from organ and piano to drums and guitars. Worship leaders may wear ornate vestments or may preach in casual clothes. A worshipper might hear one, two or even three readings from the King James Version or the New International or the New Revised Standard or some other translation. Who may be baptized and how varies, as does the theology and practice of the Lord’s Table. Any and all of that may mark us as members of a particular tradition, but none of it can serve as a distinctive for all Christians.

The same can be said for a certain way of dressing or speaking. Is it the person with the cross around her or his neck or sporting the religious tattoo who is a true follower of Jesus? How about the one whose speech is peppered with “Praise the Lord!” and “Thank you, Jesus?” or who knows religious jargon?

No. If we listen to Jesus, love is “the badge of all our tribe,” to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice). Specifically, love for one another in the community of faith. We shouldn’t hear that as a call to exclude or neglect doing good and caring for others, whoever they may be. The abundant witness of Scripture is that such is our calling. The reason this text from John has Jesus issuing such a specific command, giving us such a distinctive mark, is the impending crisis for the disciples and their need to be strengthened by mutual bonds as the days go on.

This passage is part of what scholars call the “Farewell Discourses” in the gospel of John. Jesus is about to be tried and crucified, and he knows it. So he’s saying goodbye to his followers. The new commandment Jesus gives, which when carried out will mark his own, is sandwiched between the leaving of Judas, who will betray him, and the protestation of Peter, who will deny him. Such actions of trusted men shake the community to its core, and only the love of the disciples can enable them to weather the storm of recrimination and hurt.

The text takes on another level of meaning when read as a message to the church in the author’s day, around 100 AD. By then, Christians had separated from the synagogue, and they were trying to proclaim a distinctive message. Loving one another was essential to their mission. As one commentator has observed: “In the context of John’s church, which was beset with tension both from without and within, this was important and necessary advice.  In order to bring the good news of Christ to the nations, it was necessary that the followers of Christ take care of one another, that in the midst of disagreements about doctrine and struggles in establishing the church, the disciples of Jesus needed to love one another” (Amy Allen, http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-beloved-community-read-through-acts-111-18-and-john-1331-35/).

Loving each other in the faith community doesn’t mean we will not have differences or even that we have to like each other. But love overcomes our fear which leads to hostility toward those who disagree with us or who want to change some way of doing things we hold dear or whose experiences and way of living are not the same as ours. Love is our mission; it’s our witness to the world that a diverse group of people can work together and more than get along. They can genuinely appreciate each other.

One writer put it this way: “Love, or having a Godly respect for one another, does not suggest that we ignore our differences; respecting one another includes acknowledging our sincerely held differences. Love means committing ourselves to the messy, frustrating and exhausting work of resolution without destroying one another and the community.

“Our convictions are important, especially convictions of faith. A community which lacks convictions, even differing convictions, lacks integrity. But conviction without respect for community is simply blind passion and easily becomes abusive and destructive. The answers to deeply complex matters are never in political resolve but in the hard prayerful work of consensus building among faithful people. In a community the goal is never simply political victory but the preservation of Christian mission and witness.

“But what a crucial witness we can be to the world to testify that there is a more excellent way to deal with the issues which divide us. Yes, this is hard work and we will make some mistakes and have some failures in the process. But I believe that God is more pleased by the witness we make in struggling to love and respect one another than the battles we wage to gain political victories” (Nathan D. Baxter, http://day1.org/910-what_a_christian_community_can_offer_a_polarized_society). That’s a vital message our denomination and our entire nation needs to hear, a demonstration of humanity and faith people need to see in a polarized society.

Such love is Jesus’ new commandment to us, and when we practice it, we are marked as his own. Everyone will know we belong to him. But how is the commandment new? A central tenet in the Hebrew scriptures, which Jesus affirmed, was and is “love your neighbor as yourself.” So, loving is not new. What gives the call a freshness and novelty is the embodiment of love in one person. We’re told to love as Jesus loved us. Our Lord’s care is what the classic writer C.S. Lewis once called “gift love” as distinguished from “need love.” The latter takes from the beloved in order to enhance and enrich the lover, who gives only to get back. This is a smothering, life-draining, black hole kind of affection. On the other hand, the goal of gift love is to benefit the beloved. The renowned preacher John Claypool summarizes Lewis’s observations about gift love this way: “It moves out to bless and to increase rather to acquire or to diminish. Gift love is more like a bountiful, artesian well that continues to overflow than a vacuum or a black hole” (http://day1.org/464-loving_as_jesus_loved).

But more than a general description of kinds of love, the events of the night reveal what Jesus meant. He had knelt down and washed his disciples’ feet, humbly serving, but also connecting with them in a very personal way. This then is the call to each and all of us.

As the blogger John Pavlovitz has it: “When Jesus’ goodness and humility really take root in us, our inflated egos shrink back to their proper size, the towering facades of self we labor on crumble, and we begin seeking restoration as much as confrontation as we encounter people.

“The ways of Jesus are the movement toward the small and the low places, they are the ways of denial and sacrifice and yielding to another, they are the path of mercy giving and peacemaking” (http://johnpavlovitz.com/2016/04/20/blasted-are-the-peacemakers/).

Another says that loving as Jesus loved us means to forgive and free each other “from below, on the knees, with intimate, unanxious understanding of mutual need. Love has laid itself down at our feet; there is nowhere to follow but cheerfully down to love, serve, and forgive each other” (Paul Duke, “John 13:1-7, 31b-35,” Interpretation, October 1995: 400-401).

Humble love makes a difference in the world, as the classic song reminds us: “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, and we pray that our unity will one day be restored. We will work with each other, we will work side by side, and we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride. We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand, and together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love” (Peter Scholtes).

Love is your badge and mine. Our Lord invites us, expects us, to wear it everywhere.

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