Love is our badge

Reading: John 13:31-35

It was said of John the Evangelist, that in the evening of his long life, he would sit for hours with his younger disciples. One day, as the story goes, one of his disciples complained to him: “John, you always talk about love, about God’s love for us and about our love for one another. Why don’t you tell us about something else besides love?” John replied: “Because there’s nothing else, just love… love… love…”

John returns to this theme again and again (as does the author of the letters that are named after him). In recounting Jesus’ last evening with his friends, John tells how Jesus gave a commandment that leaves us in no doubt about a Christian’s credentials:

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. (John 13:34-35)

When Jesus told his disciples to love one another he wasn’t saying anything new. The book of Leviticus issued the same commandment: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (19:18) The newness isn’t so much a matter of having never heard the words before. It’s a matter of the mode of this love, the depth and type of love – love one another in the same way that I have loved you. The disciples are to look back on Jesus’ life – on his way of living and relating – and find in it a pattern, an example, of how they’re to live. As they do so, they would see a living for others. Love is all about the other person. It overflows into service.

Keep Calm and Love One Another

Such love is to be what we might call the badge that the Christian wears before the world. The Jews had such badges. They kept the Torah (the Law of God). It was an act of obedience to God, but it was also a sign to outsiders that here were the people of God. The most obvious signs were keeping the Sabbath, circumcision and food laws. These marked them out as holy. Christians soon dropped these signs as badges that displayed their belonging to God. The badge they wore as a sign that they belonged to Christ was the way they kept the commandment to love.
Jesus made such love the one and only badge that outsiders would know that they were God’s people. In essence it said: “If your want to see and recognise a follower of Jesus then look for love – a love that reflects Jesus’ love.”

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another. (13:35)

By our baptism we’ve all been called to be living sacraments of Christ in this world. As one of our Eucharistic liturgies puts it: We are Christ’s body, Christ’s work in the world. The philosopher, Nietzsche, once asked: “If Christians wish us to believe in their Redeemer, why don’t they look a little more redeemed?” That question could be rephrased: “If Christians wish us to believe in their God, who they say is love, why don’t they love a little more?” It’s a question that we need to ask ourselves, because we so easily get side tracked by other issues, which important though they may be, draw us away from this commandment that Jesus gave.

There’s a story, and sadly it’s a true story, which underlines the importance of that question. In the 1920’s, the philosopher of American Communism was a Jew named Mike Gold. After communism fell into general disrepute in the States, Mike Gold sank into oblivion, and he wrote a book, A Jew Without Knowing it, in which he describes his childhood in New York.

His mother had instructed him never to wander beyond certain streets. She couldn’t tell him that it was a Jewish ghetto. Gold tells of the day that curiosity lured him beyond these streets and how he was accosted by a group of boys who asked him a puzzling question.

“Hey, kid, are you a kike?”

“I don’t know.” (He had never heard the word before).

The boys paraphrased their question.

“Are you a Christ killer?”

Again, the small boy responded,

“I don’t know.” (He had never heard that word either).

So the boys asked him where he lived, and when he told them they retorted:

“So you’re a kike; you’re a Christ killer. Well you’re in Christian territory and we’re Christians. We’re going to teach you to stay where you belong!”

They beat the little boy, and sent him home to the jeering litany:

“We’re Christians and you killed Christ! Stay where you belong!

When he arrived home, Mike’s mother asked him what had happened.

“I don’t know”, he answered.

So his mother washed the blood from his face, put him in fresh clothes and cuddled him. Mike Gold recalled years later that he raised his small lips to the ear of his mother and asked: “Mama, who is Christ?”

Mike Gold died in 1967. His last meals were taken at a New York Catholic Charity house run by a woman named Dorothy Day. Dorothy once said of him:

“Mike Gold eats every day at the table of Christ, but he’ll probably never accept him because of the day he first heard his name.”

… And so he died.

For better or for worse, Christ has taken us as his living sacraments in this world. It’s a world that asks who Christ is. It’s a world that can only find its answers in us as Christians. For better or for worse, we are Christ to the world.

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another.

Almost any other apologetic for the Christian faith can be memorised and delivered without effect, except the apologetic of love. Christ commands us to love as he loved us. That love, which in Greek is called agape, is of its essence a commitment to seek only the good of others. It’s a love that’s willing to pay the price of self-forgetfulness. It’s the love that found it fullest expression on the cross.

In our lives this love means a concern for, and an acceptance of those around us whom we’re learning to love. It’s a freely chosen self-giving which may prove to be painful and costly. There’s nothing romantic about this sort of love. It’s a love that requires great motivation and commitment. In a grasping and selfish world, Christians, by their love, are called to stand out as an exception. The Christian, choosing, however imperfectly, to imitate Christ, seeks only the good of others. This love will always be the Christian’s most eloquent argument.

It’s difficult and costly to love like this. Yet Christ stands with us and says:

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another.

The question that hangs in the air for me goes like this: What do others experience when they meet me? Do they encounter love? The same could be asked of each of us. What do people experience when they meet us?

None of us ever fully lives up to this challenge. But that doesn’t mean we need to despair. Jesus called us his disciples, which means ‘learners’. A Christian is someone who is learning to love. We’ll often fall down on the job, but as long as we remember what it is we’re learning, then we know that we’re on the right track.

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another.

Tender and compassionate God,
create in us a love so deep and true
that in this broken world
we may be a living sacrament
of your presence and reality.

Alister Hendery

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