As I’ve told you in the past, I was raised in a fairly conservative wing of Christianity. Growing up in the evangelical heartland of America, Grand Rapids, Michigan, I came to believe that my responsibility as a Christian centered on my ability to defend the faith—the art of faith-defending we called apologetics.
In fact, I was convinced the highest calling to which one might aspire was apologetics ninja. That is to say, I thought that protecting God from the predations of the faceless hordes of the godless through the proper application of an irresistible theological smack down occupied the most enviable sphere of Christian vocation. I so wanted to be Batman with a bullet—a suitably cross—shaped bullet, to be sure, but a bullet nevertheless.
There was, of course, Josh McDowell, the Jedi master of those who fought for the faith, the author of Evidence That Demands A Verdict, a handbook for those who thought winning arguments about Jesus was the surest sign of a faithful life. He criss-crossed the country applying the intellectual hammerlock for Jesus, beating atheists into submission. Evidence that demands not only a verdict, but a frightened cry of "uncle" from those people who'd been giving God such a difficult time with their fancy scientific and philosophical trickery.
Creationism. The existence of God. Global flood. The problem of suffering. Proof of the resurrection. I was all over it! I was one of the defenders of the faith ... at least, that’s what I thought I was.
Defense against the dark arts—or as I would have called it, secular humanism. I read up on all that stuff, hoping to sharpen my skills, hoping always to be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks, to give the reason for the hope that we have.
I was committed to the idea that the way you show everybody you follow Jesus is by knowing more than anyone else, believing all the right things, and then arguing those things better than your opponent. In short, I was an insufferable twit.
I remember one of my Bible college professors telling us, “You’ll never argue anyone into heaven.”
I’m pretty sure now that he didn’t mean it this way, but I took that as a challenge. Because I was convinced that to the extent people couldn’t be argued into heaven, it was because nobody had been smart enough to come up with the perfect argument, which would overwhelm all the intractable defenses of the godless, and allow the light of Jesus to come shining through.
I wanted to be that man, to see the dawning realization of utter defeat in my opponent’s eyes as I squashed yet another trifling bit of intellectual sleight-of-hand from my secular counterparts.
I have a sneaking suspicion that you’ve come in contact with people like that before. These are typically the kinds of folks who show up at Pride Festivals and abortion clinics with bullhorns and homemade protest signs about the inhospitable climate in hell ... and how they’re perfectly willing to share with you your ultimate travel itinerary for the afterlife.
These are the people you see coming, and you casually walk over to the other side of the street to avoid—since their blessedness feels a little too ... blessed.
Look, I’m not against being right. I try on occasion to do it myself. But I’m all too aware of the impulse among some of my Christian friends and family that prizes having the right beliefs over all else ... as if believing all the right things is the true demonstration of your love of Jesus.
Growing up as I did, knowing the eternal disposition of your soul was extraordinarily important. It was common, therefore, to run into people who spent an inordinate amount of time asking, “How do I know I’m saved?”
Of course, people came by that question honestly, because preachers regularly inquired: “If you died tonight, do you know where you’d spend eternity?” Which is a rhetorically souped up version of the question: “How do you know if you’re saved?”
We were conditioned to wonder whether or not we believed enough of the right things, and stayed away from enough of the wrong things to sneak past St. Peter at the pearly gates.
That’s why becoming a guy who knew all the right answers, who could best the liberals in theological fisticuffs seemed like such an important thing. It felt like the one thing I was good at that would give me an unequivocal answer about whether I loved God sufficiently, and therefore, whether or not God loved me.
But having some kind of sure-fire proof of celestial purchase isn’t a new thing. People have always wanted some kind of extra insight into how their faith positions them in relationship to God.
This question about loving God sufficiently is top of mind for the disciples in our text for today. Our passage comes at the tail end of a well-known crossroads for Jesus in the Gospels. If you look back over John 13, you’ll see that Jesus and the disciples have just celebrated what we now call “the last supper.”
You remember that little fine dining experience ... just hours before Jesus will be arrested by the goon squad, because he has a nasty habit of challenging the empire and all the religious hooligans busy propping it up.
Do you remember what happens in John’s version of the last supper?
After dessert, Jesus got up from the table and started washing everyone’s feet—which, of course, offended the delicate sensibilities of Simon Peter, who told Jesus that there was no way he was going to let Jesus wash his feet.
Jesus responds by saying, “Listen knucklehead, washing feet is what I do. And if you want to follow me, then you’re going to have to get used to washing other people’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
But it’s what Jesus says next that starts them wondering about whether they love him sufficiently. “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.”
Wait, what? Who said anything about betrayal? We’re the good guys. Haven’t we been following you back and forth across the Palestinian backwoods?
They start looking at each other. Nobody can quite work up the courage to say it out loud, but in their minds they’re all thinking, “Is it me? Am I the one? How would I know? I mean, I feel like I love Jesus, but am I the weak link here?”
Jesus doesn’t leave them hanging long. He tells them that the one who will betray him is Judas—which is something of a relief to the other eleven. But still, the whole thing had to have shaken them up. I mean, Judas was just like them, after all. Just a guy who’d taken up with Jesus in the very beginning, certain that they were all headed toward some kind of great revolution, in which the shackles of Roman oppression would be cast off.
But now, Judas is going to drop dime on Jesus?
What does that even mean?
You can imagine that everyone’s reeling after they learn that one of their own is going to sell Jesus out. Given the right set of circumstances, they wonder, would they do the same thing?
And if they could betray Jesus, what does that say about their level of commitment?
How do they know what true commitment to Jesus looks like?
Is there some kind of orthodoxy test they have to pass?
Do they need to be able to win arguments with unbelievers?
What’s the true test of whether or not they’re genuine followers of Jesus?
What does Jesus say to them?
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. But this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
In other words, if you want to know what loving Jesus looks like, it looks like loving one another.
Now, on its face, the commandment to love one another seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?
Everybody knows what love is, don’t they?
But do they? Really?
I’ve seen people proclaim their love in some pretty suspicious ways.
I’ve seen women with bruises all over their bodies, permanently scarred on their souls from having been “loved” too intensely by the men in their lives.
I’ve seen homeless LGBTQ kids who’ve been “loved” out into the street by families with Jesus dripping from their lips.
I’ve seen women clothed in shame by people who loudly proclaim their “love,” as these women seek to make decisions about their health, their bodies, and their lives.
I’ve seen people kicked off food stamps by Christian politicians who announce their “love” with words like “personal responsibility” and “incentivizing the poor.”
I’ve seen people who claim to follow Jesus “love” immigrants by putting their children in cages.
Love, at least the way it gets enacted in our world, appears to be a much more malleable concept than we like to believe.
I spoke one time at a unity rally in anticipation of Pride Week here in Louisville. I appeared at the rally as a faith leader in support of fairness for LGBTQ people. In my remarks, I said that since Kentucky is a state with a population that identifies heavily as Christian, and that since much of the violence done to LGBTQ people has been done in the name of Christianity, Christians should be the first to take responsibility for the damage they’ve done. Then, Christians need to raise their voices to challenge the forces that would discriminate against LGBTQ people when it comes to things such as employment, housing, and public accommodations.
The heart of my argument was that religious people should be leading the effort to support and advocate for LGBTQ people—precisely because of their faith commitments, not in spite of them.
Throughout the rally, two guys were hollering about Jesus, and about how “‘these’ people are an abomination to God”—pretty standard fare for a Pride Rally. I noticed them. Everybody noticed them—which, I suspect, is what they wanted.
After the rally, I was speaking to someone in the crowd. About 10 feet away from me were the two guys who were once again shouting about how they loved all “these” people, but that they were in danger of going to hell, which is why the two street evangelists felt it necessary to come out to a Pride rally. “I want you to know that I love you all! God loves you and I love you!”
Just then, the older of the two men saw me and said, “Here’s the pastor I want to talk to.” My immediate reaction was to ignore him. I’ve had these encounters before, and after standing for a couple hours in the summer sun, I didn’t want to spend any more time in it arguing with this guy. I said, “I don’t want to do this. This conversation isn’t going to go anywhere satisfying to either of us. Trust me.”
He persisted. “But I just want to know how you can justify what you said...as a pastor.”
I said, “I don’t feel like I have to justify it. I love these people, many of whom have been harmed by the church—which is to say, by people like you.”
“Why are you judging me?” he wanted to know. “I love these people.”
“Well, then,” I said, “let me give you a little friendly tip: When you have to scream at people that you ‘love’ them because they’re not listening to you, it’s almost always the case that love is the last thing they hear coming out of your mouth.”
He protested. “I’m the one being persecuted here. I’m just here to share God’s love.”
“Well, God needs a better front man then, because you’re certainly not doing God any favors by being here.”
Jesus says, “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.”
Here’s the thing, loving people like you is a necessary but insufficient indicator of your love of Jesus. Anybody can love people who look just like them, who talk like them, who work and play like them. Neo-Nazis and white supremacists have proven that’s not a particularly heavy lift.
But the kind of love Jesus is talking about requires something more: that you wash the feet of people whom you may be otherwise convinced don’t deserve it.
It’s not easy. The powers and principalities killed Jesus for that kind of love.
But if you want to know whether or not you love God, if you find yourself asking, “How do I know I’m saved?” … that’s a pretty good place to start.