By this everyone will know that you are my disciples. These words spoken on the night before Jesus would be handed over to his death on the cross. In the final moments that he would be able to share with his disciples who had followed him down many a weary road to Jerusalem and had seen the miracles he performed and had come to believe in him as the son of God and the Messiah.
I will be with you only a little longer, he tells them and with the little time he has left before he goes out to pray and to weep and to wait upon the soldiers, he gives his first disciples the hallmark by which he says that those who follow him will be known, that which should define them and be the evidence of who they follow. It is the legacy that Jesus wishes to leave before he dies, what he wants to be at the center of the people who will call themselves Christians.
He gives them this new commandment after he has taken on the role of a servant by washing their feet, a sign of humbleness and love. It is a sign that upsets the expectation of power and authority. He is the rabbi and they are the disciples but, as he says elsewhere, the way that authority operates in the world is not how it should operate among his followers, but the greatest are those who serve, not those who lord authority over others in arrogance. He serves in humbleness and tells them about the one thing by which people would know them as his disciples.
But the story is that what Jesus told his infant Church in the pregnant moment before his precious death wasn’t good enough for us. Whether it was too easy or to difficult or just unsatisfying, the Church has decided to invent its own markers for the community, for who is in and who is out. And they have had to do with race and sex and sexuality and wealth and proper and improper belief and supposed purity and imagined holiness. The result has been a pretend Christianity the likes of which would make Jesus roll over in his grave were he still in it.
They are still being surprised by the extent of what Jesus taught in the book of Acts, the record of the baby Church feeling its way forward. The Church was mad at Peter because he had gone and eaten in the house of a Gentile, something a God-fearing Jew would not do. The divide between Jew and Gentile was the difference that made a difference. It was the absolute line between good and bad, between pure and impure, between holy and profane, between those who could expect God’s love and those who should expect from God nothing but judgment and retribution. Yet Peter answers them simply that the Holy Spirit told me to go, and to not make a distinction between them and us.
Peter did not take out his copy of the testament and try to find scriptural verses to support his idea of Gentile inclusion, though he could have found them. He didn’t try to find a proof text that would massage away the tension he had created by baptizing Gentiles. He did not apparently feel the need to populate his side of the argument with any other authority besides the authority of the Holy Spirit speaking to his heart and mind.
Later in the book of Acts there is a conversation about how to manage Gentile inclusion, exactly how much of the Jewish law one would have to follow in order to be considered a Christian. The most important and first mentioned item is that a Christian should refrain from eating meat sacrificed to idols. In a time when most affordable meat had been sacrificed to idols, this would have made most poor Christians into vegetarians. Nowadays it is not much of an issue. If you ask the butcher at the Hy-Vee if your rack of lamb came from the altar of Zeus, I can only imagine that the answer would be no.
At the end of the letter that the apostles and elders sent to the new Christian Gentiles, they explain their decision by saying that it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden. The Holy Spirit told me to go and to make no distinction, Peter tells the Church. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us, the Church tells the Gentiles. When did heeding the voice of the Holy Spirit become not enough? How did we stop hearing that voice long enough to draw any lines between people when we have such a witness in the scripture and in our own hearts to the contrary? Today we celebrate that the Holy Spirit never stopped speaking and we celebrate that we have the courage to act on what the Spirit says. Today seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us. The Holy Spirit fell on them just as it had on us at the beginning. If God gave them the same gift he gave us, who was I to hinder God? And they were silenced.
If they had listened to Jesus before his death, they might have expected that his teaching about how his disciples would be known would go to such lengths. If they had paid attention to what he had done, even to the point of boarding a ship and sailing to the land of the Gerasenes as we heard last week, into Gentile land where Jews were not to go, casting out demons among tombs and swine, bringing order and the praise of God to even this man who would have been quadruply excluded by those considered Holy. The seeds and foundation of complete unity are present even then but, as with Peter and the early Church, sometimes one must simply stand in awe of God’s wonderful action. The Holy Spirit moves and we respond.
By this, Jesus said, everyone will know that you are my disciples, and what he said afterward is reminiscent of what happened to Jacob in the book of Genesis as he waited alone on one side of a river in his travels. Inexplicably we are told that God showed up and wrestled him, wounding him forever after till he walked with a limp from his encounter with the living God. He is tackled and hurt and God changes his name to Israel which means God prevails but also means he who contends with God. It is a strange little story that reminds us that we worship a God who is not above knocking some sense into us when we stray, who occasionally randomly show up and tackles us to the ground in order to help us change our identities for the better. And as Jacob was confronted by God, so we are confronted with Jesus’ new commandment. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. It is a stinging and wounding commandment.
Surely there are far easier ways to define who we are, easier names to take than the one of a true Christian who actually listens to what Jesus actually says about who his people are supposed to be. Or perhaps surely when he commanded us to love he didn’t mean everyone, only the ones I decide he meant. Or maybe when he said love, he meant I could just pretend to love or go through the motions of love and not really care. Or maybe we can do what most of the Church has done for most of the time and just pretend that this chapter isn’t in the bible and therefore not have to deal with the fact that Jesus himself from his own mouth said as basically his last words—unless you count the words he said after he rose from the dead—that his disciples would be known by the fact that we love. The commandment to love contends with all our sinful and divisive inclinations. We wrestle with what it means; we wrestle with how we live it out. But just like God won the wrestling match with Jacob, love has won, is winning, and indeed will win.
May it truly be, that we be the people that Jesus calls us to be. May it truly be that we, his disciples, will be known by our love. Amen.