Scripture for the sixth Sunday of Easter:
Acts 10.44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5.1-6; John 15.9-17
There’s a song that says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” How do people recognise us as Christians today? There are so many negative stereotypes that attract publicity and attention that we might wonder whether the constructive ways in which we act out our faith, such as the care of people who are in need, are overlooked.
How do we reflect God’s grace? How do we live in God’s love – the love shown in the life, teaching and ministry of Jesus, the one who is willing to embrace us as friends? How will they “know we are Christians?”
The song derives from the words of a Carthiginian priest and writer, Tertullian, who lived at the end of the second and beginning of the third century. He wrote, in support of following the Christian way, as opposed to the pagan practices around him: “Look … how they love one another … and how they are ready to die for each other.”
I’m not sure how many members of Christian communities in the western world today are ready to die for one another. However, we might remember that there are still those whose faith puts them at risk, and perhaps there we might find a modern community that reflects Tertullian’s view of Christianity.
What is remarkable about what Jesus said about his disciples as friends is that no matter how strong friendship might have been, in the first century it would have been rather unusual, to say the least, to do any such thing as laying down one’s life for friends – for family, for tribe, maybe – but what Jesus said and did radically broadened the definition and expectation of friendship. As a result, centuries later the bonds of friendship may in many cases be as strong as or stronger than the bonds of family; we now live in a culture where, for example, friends fill in for family when family is lost.
Jesus came as friend, and yet more than any friend had ever been before (and probably since). He lived in us and among us and, if we are open, he abides with us. In laying down his life, he became, and still becomes, a channel of grace.
In all of the readings for today we are made conscious of this grace and a presence beyond ourselves, a reality we cannot control or direct. We are called to be friends of Jesus in a way that continues the redefinition of the breadth and depth of friendship, and that incorporates an element of challenge: to live and act as friends of Christ beyond comfortable boundaries.
In the reading from Acts, we see the way the Spirit of God changes the lives of everyone present, shattering their assumptions and their limited thinking. We also see a willingness to submit to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, despite the possible cost. The psalm praises the activity of God in human affairs, acknowledging God as judge of all – and encourages us to be willing to “sing a new song,” which is what the disciples had to learn to do.
In the second reading, John reminds us that faith itself is not an achievement on our part but a gift from God. In the gospel, Jesus tells us that his power will give our human love the power to do what he commands – and calls us friends – which draws us into his model and circle of friendship, and quite possibly out of any personal “comfort zone.”
Life in faith is an adventure. We may end up being called to places where we’ve never dreamed of going, let alone living, spending time with people with whom we’ve never really felt comfortable, finding our hearts broken and yet hope rising nonetheless. It’s so simple, really: just extend Christ’s love to one another, regardless of how good or bad, or how similar or different, or how much we may challenge each other. As I know I’ve said before and will again: the church is not a club for like-minded people. Jesus didn’t have to die on the cross to initiate a network of social groups. He invites us to be friends – not servants. Love is a choice that we make, time and again. Following the disciples and John’s early listeners, we are invited to fill in where Jesus is needed. We keep the love alive. It abides – or remains – in us and in our world through us
How will they “know we are Christians?” By our willingness to show and share the love of Christ in and for a world that often undervalues or ignores both the love itself, and the cost of it for the one who truly laid down his life for his friends – which includes us.