When I lived in Atlanta, a lot of churches had bumper stickers that members would put on their cars as a form of advertising. Other Christians would just put another ubiquitous symbol, the Christian fish, on their bumper. Decorating your car in order to tell the whole world you were a Christian was apparently a big deal for a lot of people.
At about this same time I was getting ready to head off to seminary, and a friend of mine was working as a barista in a coffee shop. She would frequently tell me stories of customers who were rude to her and to her co-workers. These were people who would yell at the staff for minor mistakes, get angry when their orders were taking too long, or complain about prices.
The worst days, though, were when she had to work the drive-thru. People were particularly rude there, perhaps because they felt like they had more distance from the employees and more anonymity. But there’s one thing they couldn’t hide: those bumper stickers on the backs of their cars.
And so one day my friend said to me: “You know, every time someone in the drive-thru line is rude to us, I just look at the back of their car…and it’s always one of your people.”
Ouch. And yet, you can’t argue with what she saw. We all fall short from time to time, but the behavior of those people in the drive thru line who professed to love Jesus so much was a little less than loving when it came to everyone else.
The irony, of course, is that Jesus was pretty clear about this whole love thing, and he was very clear it wasn’t meant to only be for him.
In today’s passage, Jesus tells his disciples “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
In other words, Jesus tells us that the way people will know we are his followers is simply this: how well we love.
It means the measure of who we are as Christians is not what we say on Sunday mornings or whether we wear a cross around our necks or anything like that. We don’t profess our faith by symbols because Jesus says none of those things will identity us as his followers. To put it another way, talk is cheap. So are bumper stickers or Facebook memes or anything else that requires little more than passivity from us.
But action…action isn’t cheap. And it also isn’t easy.
Love isn’t either. Not the kind Jesus is talking about here, anyway. It’s easy to love our families, and our friends, even when they do things that hurt us. It’s harder to love the people we don’t like very much.
Don’t believe me? Think of the political candidate in this presidential election that you most dislike, the one whose values are so antithetical to yours. Now think about loving them.
It’s not for the feint of heart, is it? And yet, Jesus requires nothing less of us. We can disagree with one another, we can think the other is dead wrong, we can find nothing in common with them…and yet, if we are serious about following Jesus, we have to love them.
Now expand that out even further. We are called not to love just people, but whole groups of people. We are called to love this whole world. And in that sense, love is not a feeling alone, but it really is an action. It is our way of relating to the world, and it’s the world’s way of knowing who we really follow.
And yet, too often Christians are not exactly known for their love.
But have you ever noticed that a lot of people don’t trust Christians? I’ve been at dinner parties before where someone, before they knew what I did, made a comment about all clergy being con artists and all Christians being hypocrites.
They talk about all the bad things that have been done in the name of our faith: wars, discrimination, the treatment of women. Even now friends of mine are quick to remind me that new laws aimed to reinforce discrimination in places like North Carolina and Mississippi were authored by Christian.
I sort of understand what they’re saying about the hypocrisy. In a way it’s a good sign, because people know we are supposed to be better than that. People know we got our marching orders from a loving Christ who wanted us to be loving as well.
And the truth is this: we are hypocrites. We are, not because we are Christians, but because we are human. And being human means none of us is always the person we want to be.
But our job as Christians is to try anyway. It is to not only say the right things on Sunday mornings, but to live them out every of the week.
We won’t always get it right. None of us do. We may have the best of intentions, but when the rubber meets the road, it’s hard.
When we actually have to give up our time to go volunteer at the food pantry or anywhere else,we may sometimes find other things to do. When we are asked to open our checkbooks and help out, we might rationalize that we really would rather use that money for something fun. After all, we worked hard for it. When that friend comes to us needing someone to lean on, we might make excuses on why we can’t get together.
And yet, we try. And that’s a noble endeavor, to try to make sure your actions reflect who you say you are, and reflect the love of a Christ who first loved us.
That matters for our life together as a church too. A church should ideally be the kind of community where if someone walked through the doors, without us saying a word about what we believed, they would know we were Christians.
After all, that old song says, “they will know we are Christians by our love”. It doesn’t say, “they will know we are Christians because we say so.”
It means as well that churches exist not just for ourselves, in fact, not even primarily for ourselves, but for others. It means that when we measure who we are as a church community, we should start by asking what we have done for our neighbors, and for those who would hope to see the love of Christ.
That’s not always easy. And yet, if we are going to claim the title of Christian, it’s not optional. The world has plenty of self-avowed Christians. It needs more followers of Christ.
And so my question to you is this: how are we going to be people not of word and speech, but of active love? How are we going to be the people that our world needs us to be?
I think we as a church are already doing a lot to make sure we are not just paying lip service to the Gospel. We have missions we support. We give generously to the greater church. We open our doors to those who ask. And we have more ideas in the works.
But just as our community is always changing, God’s call to us is evolving as well. God is opening new doors to us so we can better serve our neighbors and our world. And as we talk as a community about what comes next for us, as we prepare for the church retreat this Saturday, I’m excited about what God is doing with us.
I know also that God has a plan for each one of us. I know God has brought you here today first for worship, but then also for service. The love of Christ may have gotten you here today, but God doesn’t want your Christian journey to end here in a church pew. God has something greater in store for you beyond these doors.
And so, every week the journey of faith starts here. But this is not where it ends. Think of your pew as your launching pad. Here we say, and sing, the words of our faith, we get ready to become people of loving action. And when you leave here, you go out into a world that needs that action. It’s a world that needs followers of Christ, not just Christians n name only.
The good news is you’re not in this alone. We are a community of people who want to do just that. We want to be people of action, not just words. But we need you, and we need everyone who comes through our doors. You are all a part of God’s call on this church, all a piece of the divine puzzle, and all important. God is ready to do great things in this church. Are you ready for God to do great things in you as well? I hope the answer is yes. For all of us, and for the world. Amen?