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“They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love”
John 13: 31-35
May 15, 2022
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Song-writing duo Hal David and Burt Bacharach were working on a recording session, but they were short of songs. They pulled out a text Hal David had written a couple of years earlier, and when they read it, the words hit home. It was 1965. The nation had just marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, the repercussions from which were still resounding. The Civil Rights Movement was in full force, with March 7 being named, “Bloody Sunday,” after 600 peaceful protestors were beaten and teargassed on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. The very next day, March 8, the first American combat troops entered Vietnam, as the conflict escalated. The nation simmered with anger and unrest that more and more frequently erupted into violence.1
The time seemed right for Hal David’s song, What the World Needs Now Is Love. In describing the origin of the text, David, who was of Jewish faith, acknowledged that in the song he was talking to God, the words essentially a prayer for humanity to live out the love that was so needed.2
The lyrics read,
What the world needs now is love, sweet love.
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.
What the world needs now is love, sweet love---
No, not just for some, But for everyone.3
What relevant words for us today. The world continues to grapple with trouble and turmoil, violence and war, and people are longing for a place where they can bring their questions, their fears, their hopes and their dreams, a place where they can be accepted as they are, and supported as they grow. A place of belonging, of community, of welcome, of love. What the world needs now is love.
Today is the second Sunday in our series, “Being a Welcoming Congregation,” and our lectionary scripture from John’s gospel is a perfect text to help us think about how our welcome of others helps them experience God’s love.
In these few, brief verses, Jesus uses the word for love four times, and the phrase “one another” three times! As F.D. Bruner said in his commentary, “So the point is surely clear: The mutually lived-out heart love of Christians for one another will be the single greatest missionary force in the world.” This “heart love” is love born in God’s heart; it is not something that we human beings originate, but that comes from the heart of God. It is love we have already received, Bruner said, and thus we are able to love others with love that has its origin with the Lord. According to Bruner, this command could be translated, “Keep on loving one another out of the well of my love for you! Come on, keep on loving one another!”4
In his book, The Welcoming Congregation, Henry Brinton points out that it is because we have received God’s abundant love and grace that we should offer the same love and grace to others. Brinton quoted Diana Butler Bass: “‘Through hospitality, Christians welcome strangers as we ourselves have been welcomed into God through the love of Jesus Christ.’” “That,” said Brinton, “is the foundation of Christian hospitality, on which all of our practices are built.5
In John chapter 13, Jesus has just demonstrated hospitality to the disciples through a living parable. They have gathered in the upper room for the last supper. Hospitality customs at that time dictated that the lowest-ranking person present should wash the feet of the others. If the household had a slave or servant, the dirty job of foot washing was relegated to that person, but if not, then the task fell to whoever was lowest on the social scale.
The disciples were well aware of this, which was, no doubt, why none of the twelve offered to wash the feet of the others. Who would want to wash the feet of another? Coated with dirt, dust and grime, their feet would not have been a pretty picture. No one wanted voluntarily to stoop that low, so they reclined at the table with feet unwashed.
And so, during the supper, Jesus, arose from the table. He took off his outer robe and tied a towel around himself, and he poured water into a basin, and he, their teacher, their Lord, their friend, knelt at their feet. He went from person to person, one by one, and through his actions, showed them his love. The chapter tells us, “After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you and example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
That leads up to the verses that are our lectionary passage for today. Here, Jesus brings the point home. He tells the disciples again that he will be with them just a little while longer; his saving work is about to be completed; he has been and will be glorified in his redeeming death and resurrection. So he gives a new commandment: not only that they should love their neighbor as themselves, but that they should love one another as Jesus himself loves them!
And how does Jesus love them? He has just shown them in his example of washing their feet. Jesus’ gesture of love, service, hospitality, welcome should be played out again and again in their lives, the repetition a refrain that echoes through the ages: this is how we are to love one another. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus said, “if you have love for one another.”
Our epistle passage reinforces the theme: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God...Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love...Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
We are the picture of the living God, when we love one another.
You’ve heard the phrase, “wearing our heart on our sleeves.” According to Smithsonian Magazine the origin of the phrase dates back to middle ages, when a knight in a joisting match would dedicate his performance to a lady, and would tie something of hers, like a handkerchief, around his arm. Thus the phrase: wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve.2 The article said, “We use the phrase...to mean exposing our true emotions, making ourselves vulnerable.”6
As Christians, we are called to wear our hearts on our sleeves. Because we have received God’s love, that love must be outwardly visible. Everyone who sees us should see what is in our hearts by our actions. If we are filled with God’s love, then that love will overflow in the way we treat others. There should be congruity between what is in our hearts and the way we live our lives.
What the world needs now is love, and love is what we who are God’s people have to give. In his book, Henry Brinton said that worship is the gateway of Christian love and hospitality. For people who are seeking Christ, worship is usually the first place they encounter the church. He gave the example of the National Cathedral, which he calls “one of the most prominent landmarks in the nation’s capital, riding the crest of a hill....high above the Capitol, the White House, and even the Washington Monument.” I know that many of you have visited the National Cathedral and experienced the beauty of worship in that soaring sacred space. Brinton wrote, “The goal of the cathedral community is to meet people where they are and walk with them into a deeper experience of Christian faith. Many new members are coming to the cathedral with no church background or with an experience of separation from the church that has lasted eight or ten years. For them, worship is the gateway---it engages them and connects them to a sense of community.”7
If worship is the gateway, how can we make sure that what people experience when they come on Sunday mornings is a true demonstration of God’s love?
There was a pastor who was concerned about a family who had not been in church for several weeks. Normally the mother, father and little boy were very regular in their attendance. So the pastor called to check in with them. The father answered the phone and explained apologetically that the family had decided to leave the church. “You see,” he said, “one morning we were sitting in the sanctuary before worship, and a woman came in and told us that we were sitting in her pew. Then that week at the Wednesday dinner, we sat at a table all by ourselves; no one came to sit with us. The next Sunday, our son was a little restless during the service, and the couple down the row from us kept giving us dirty looks. We just decided we didn’t feel welcome there.”
How sad! My guess is that the people who made that family feel unwelcome had no idea the harm their actions caused. There are habits, patterns of behavior, that may seem small to us but can have big consequences.
Our gospel passage calls us to think about how we are following Jesus’ commandment to love one another as Jesus loves us: a love marked by service, humility, and always putting others above ourselves.
At the last Deacons meeting, we were discussing the book and the theme of being welcoming, and one of the Deacons shared a story that I want to share with you. She was greeting people in the narthex one Sunday morning when a guest came in for worship. He asked if the church had a clothes closet, because he said he needed a belt. She said that one of our male Deacons was standing there, and without hesitation, he took off his own belt and gave it to that man.
What an act of selfless welcome and hospitality! I can think of many selfless acts from members of this church who give of themselves generously to share God’s love with others. Some are behind the scenes so that many people never see them: who give their time every week to mow the lawns and tend the grounds so that our church is a welcoming place for the hundreds of people who come here throughout the week. Those who recently repaired the front doors so they work properly. The people who make sure the thermostats are set so the temperature is comfortable are part of being welcoming. And then there are the people we do see: People who serve as worship volunteers to welcome everyone with a friendly smile. Those who make coffee and prepare refreshments so that we can share hospitality after worship. And all of you who take the time to notice the people who are new, to introduce yourselves and find out who they are, to let them know how glad we are to see them, to welcome them as if you were welcoming Christ himself.
Despite the fact that studies show worship attendance in the U.S. is 30-50% lower than it was pre-pandemic,8 God is continuing to lead new people to our church. We are in the midst of a tremendous mission field. In recent months, I have met people who have moved here from other places and want to connect with a community of faith, people who have been away from church for years and are longing for a stronger sense of God’s presence in their lives, and even people who have never set foot in a church before. We have the great joy and privilege of being able to share the love of God that we have received. What the world needs is love.
The song, They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love, also was written in the turbulent 60’s--in 1966 by a Catholic priest on the South Side of Chicago. The youth choir he led was scheduled to sing for a series of interracial and ecumenical events, and he could not find a song that he was right for the theme. So, using this passage, John chapter 13, he wrote the words that still ring true today: We will work with each other, we will work side by side. We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.9
May it be so for us, my friends, as we love one another as Christ loves us. They will know we are Christians by our love! Let us rise in body or in spirit and sing these words together.
Rev. Dawn M. Mayes
Manassas Presbyterian Church