Rev. Dr. Amy Butler
Okay, let’s pretend we’re all Christians here.
We’ll assume for the next few minutes that we have all personally decided to be Christians, that is, followers of Jesus Christ, so let’s now speak frankly about what being a Christian is like in America in 2018.
Most of us know what’s expected when you say you’re a Christian: accepting Jesus Christ as your Savior in just the right way.
And when you do that, you’ll probably do things like: go to church, avoid cussing, read your Bible and pray, try to live at least fairly morally respectable lives, no drinking/no dancing, you know…
In actual fact, we have even more freedom than that, as it turns out. Even those commonly understood Christian behaviors are negotiable if you happen to be an evangelical.
Or the president.
But that’s okay, because don’t forget we’re all individuals here. Each one of us relates directly to God and our faith is a private faith. We gather as community, of course, to share resources and ideas, but in the end we’re each responsible for our own adherence or nonadherence, as the case may be, to God’s expectations. When all is said and done, as we’ve learned in Sunday School, it will all boil down to whether or not there’s a place in heaven for me, personally!
With a good 2000 years of Christian tradition behind us, we certainly know what it means to be a Christian, don’t you think?
But Jesus’ first disciples—the first Christians—didn’t.
They’d been wandering around after Jesus for three years but they hadn’t really begun to build or even imagine an institution that would represent a whole other religion, complete with rituals and creeds and…a Vatican! This was understandable, of course, as up until that time Christianity did not even exist—the disciples didn’t know about the Four Spiritual Laws and the sinners’ prayer and Billy Graham, and they certainly didn’t have 2000+ years of church tradition informing their ideas.
And so, though the disciples had done their best to stick with Jesus, our text today finds them now at the end of their time together, with Jesus seeming rather concerned that they hadn’t heard everything he had to say, that they weren’t exactly clear on what it meant to be Christians.
The disciples didn’t know they still weren’t getting it, and they certainly didn’t know time was short. But, Jesus did. So this passage, closely attached to last week’s passage about a vine and branches, is a kind of goodbye, summing up of the essentials, Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse,” scholars call it. His goal was to condense it all down, to give them instruction for what he knew would be a challenging time ahead of them.
And with some clear urgency, Jesus lays it out plain: it’s not about following a set of rules…it’s how you love. “This is my commandment that you love one another”—radically and fully, completely different than what the world tells you to do—love so deep and strong that you wouldn’t even think twice about giving up your life for another.
In the one moment he had to sum everything up, strangely, Jesus did not even mention tent revivals or the Protestant Reformation or the theological significance of cathedral architecture or even women being submissive to their abusive husbands. He only talked about loving each other—it was the heart of the gospel. It IS the heart of the gospel.
For weeks we’ve been talking about how we often live, even in the light of resurrection, fooled into thinking that the painful realities of our world are the only things that define our lives. Today is a little different, as we think about the one power that can bring transformation, a radical way of living out love–that the world would call foolish…which is, Jesus told his disciples, what it really means to be a Christian.
As many of you know, I went to seminary to learn how to be a pastor. But I really learned how to be a pastor during my first job out of seminary, directing a homeless shelter for women in the city of New Orleans.
You know the kind of place I am talking about—you see big missions like this every Thanksgiving on the news, when movie stars show up, don aprons, and volunteer in front of the cameras. It’s the kind of place where desperation is palpable and hope is rare.
In the hierarchy of services for the homeless populations of big cities, the shelter where I worked was right at the bottom. That is, it was an emergency shelter that took in women who were the most desperate and coming in off the streets with no other options. Our goal was to keep them safe and to move them along to a more stable living situation, to another service provider who could help to address some of the root causes of their homelessness.
To say that I was unprepared for the challenges of this work may very well be the understatement of the year.
I knew this the very first day on the job, when I’d turned up dressed professionally and sporting my shiny new nametag, “Rev. Butler,”—as any newly trained minister would do—ready to change the lives of thousands in the homeless population of the city of New Orleans.
It was an early Monday morning, and I was in the main office filling in paperwork when I got a call from the women’s shelter out back, informing me there was a woman in my office who needed to see a minister.
Well, I was a minister!
So, I straightened my jacket and headed back to the shelter to do whatever it was that ministers did—I couldn’t quite remember if anyone had given me any specifics.
There on the steps to my office was a woman who could not talk. Her jaw was wired shut because it had been shattered by an angry man with a metal pipe. Her right arm was broken too, and her whole body was black and blue. I quickly learned from the others in the shelter that her name was Chloe. She was a young woman—a girl, really—probably in her mid-teens. I could tell she had not slept much anytime recently; her hair was matted, her clothes dirty, even coming straight from Charity Hospital.
I didn’t know what to do, let’s just be clear.
So I helped her into one of the twin cots in the dilapidated shelter and pulled up a chair next to her and I said in what I hoped was a very professional voice: “So, Chloe, tell me how I can help you today.”
I had to fill the silence, I thought.
So I held her left hand, practically the only part of her that was not bruised and bloodied, and I told her what I’d learned growing up in a conservative evangelical setting. “Chloe, Jesus loves you, and he died for you. No matter how bad you’ve been, his blood can wash away your sins. All you have to do is accept Jesus into your heart.”
Her eyes were begging me to tell her how.
“Repeat after me,” I said…then I realized again that she couldn’t.
What to do? They didn’t prepare me for this in seminary!
So I said to her: “I’ll say the words and you nod to agree.”
And I did.
It didn’t feel right, but…?
About a week later Chloe was strong enough to walk. And she was leaving, to get her life back on track, she wrote on a pad of paper on the desk in my make-shift office.
Check, job done.
A few weeks later I came into work again on a Monday morning, only to find my office cordoned off by police crime scene tape. The body of a woman had been found near the fence of the shelter, the police told me. She’d been trying to climb the fence to get in. The woman—definitely a prostitute, the police told me—had been beaten senseless, her pooled blood spread underneath the fence. They asked, she’s beat up pretty badly, but could you look at the body to try to identify her?
My heart sank because I knew: it was Chloe.
And it was.
On that moment I knew that I had failed this beloved child of God because I didn’t tell her…about love.
I try to tell Chloe’s story and call her name every once in awhile because I don’t want her to be an anonymous statistic from the streets of New Orleans.
But I do it also because I want to remind myself what being a Christian really means.
I sat by her bedside and told Chloe about praying the sinners’ prayer. But I didn’t tell her about love: the vast and all-encompassing love God has for us, and the love we should have for each other.
I wish I had told her about love.
“Let’s pretend that we’re all Christians here.”
That’s how the story Jim Wallis tells in his book Call to Conversion begins.
He says he was sitting in a conference in right here in New York City discussing social justice with theologians, pastors, and other people of faith. A man there stood up and said, “Let’s pretend that you are all Christians here. If you were really followers of Jesus, you would not accumulate the way you do; you would share everything you had; you would actually love each other; you would treat each other as if you were a family. Why don’t you do that? Why don’t you live that way?”
Assuming we’re all Christians here, these hard questions are for us to hear too, because it seems that even despite our smug assurances of our 2000+ years of tradition and convenient and easy cultural reinforcement, it might be we still don’t really understand what Jesus came to teach us.
And…there’s no way we’re going to get the message about what we’re forgetting unless we go back and take a look at what it was Jesus thought critical to remember. That is, if we’re really going to call ourselves followers of Christ. We might just want to take another hard look at Jesus’ words from John chapter 15 and honestly measure our own ideas of Christian faith against the radical message of Jesus.
The truth is, we’re just as bad as the first disciples, and we might be even further from what God had hoped for us.
We imagine a God who’d like us to meet certain moral obligations, to fulfill expectations and to make sure we cover all the bases of what it means to be a Christian. It’s easier that way, to know who is in and who is out! We are fooled by what the world thinks is love.
But Jesus says no…that’s not love. Love is living what you believe. Love is radical. Love is giving up your life for your friend.
And, that might just be a little different than what we thought being a Christian meant.
We talk about choosing our faith, and we’re consumers of the highest order. We choose our churches, we choose the level of our faith practice, we choose how much we let God and all the commitments that come with institutional religion fill up our lives.
But Jesus invites us into a life of faith that changes us and changes the world around us. No more picking and choosing and compartmentalizing our faith practice, but God: engaging us in life-encompassing relationship.
And, that might just be a little different than what we thought being a Christian meant. Fooled again.
In this passage from the gospel of John, Jesus is saying that, despite what our culture tells us, our faith is not personal. Relationship with God is never meant to be kept to ourselves. Instead, being a Christian compels us to love and love and love. It leads us to lives filled with a love that multiplies and spreads to those around us who in turn spread it to others until it covers and transforms the whole world.
Assuming we’re all Christians here, we’ve signed on to follow Jesus, who taught us that God is the one who constantly and thoroughly engages the very core of who we are as people, a God who has chosen us and folded our lives into God’s larger campaign for wholeness and healing and hope in this world. We’re following the one who taught us to love as Mother Teresa said, “until it hurts” and who, in fact, loved us so much that he wouldn’t stop sharing God’s offer of reconciling relationship over and over and over again, against huge odds, until he died because his challenging message made so many powerful people angry.
This love, he wanted to remind us one last time, is nothing contained or respectable or appropriate. No, it was far more unreasonable. It meant that being a Christian pushes us into places of discomfort and radical difference from the world around us.
Not exclusive and bound to cultural practice, but generous and interdependent.
Not consumer driven, pick and choose, but utterly all-encompassing and irrevocable.
Not personal and private and hoarding and scarce, but lavish and abundant with plenty to share, especially for those from whom we traditional Christians have worked so hard to keep out.
If Jesus could be here today, this is what he would say.
This is what he did say.
It’s a good reminder, because if we listen closely we might have some serious changes to make in how we live our lives.
That is, assuming we still want to call ourselves Christians.