Jesus said, “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.”
A friend of mine married into a family with a large philanthropic presence in the Midwest. She told me of a conversation among the family as they were reading through grant proposals for an upcoming funding cycle. Several of the non-profit organizations seeking financial support were churches committed to social service and advocacy in their communities. “Why on earth would we fund Christian organizations?” a younger family member asked. “Right,” replied another. “The last thing the world needs is more Christians.”
My friend, herself a faithful Christian, was heartbroken, as was I when she told me this story. Yet we both knew then what we all know now: there is no shortage of Christians acting so poorly as to give the entire Jesus movement a bad name. While examples abound of Christians who nobly embody the love of Jesus, in public perception the damage done by destructive expressions Christianity almost always overshadow the good.
As I visit the congregations of our diocese, I sometimes feel that shadow hanging over us. “We don’t want to be like those Christians,” we say to ourselves, either silently or aloud. As a result, Episcopalians often have an easier time articulating what we don’t believe rather that what we do.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has called to us, as the Episcopal Church, to explicitly and intentionally follow Jesus in his way of love for the world. Specifically, he has invited us all to commit, or recommit, to faith practices that make for a Jesus-centered life. Doing so, he says, will help us become Christians who actually look and sound like Jesus, Christians through whom the love and mercy of God shines.
What difference would it make to others and to our world if more of us who identify as Christians made it our daily intention to grow in Jesus’ ways of love?
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has reflected on that very question for many years. Two years ago he gathered up his thoughts in three short books: What is Christianity? A Little Book of Guidance, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, and Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life. If you’d like to dip into his writing without reading the books, I commend this short piece to you: What difference does it make?
Williams suggests that one of the tests of true faith, as opposed to bad religion, is simply whether it keeps us from ignoring things. “Faith is most fully itself when it opens our eyes and uncovers for us a world larger than we thought.” Following Jesus in the way of love, then, involves, among other things, “a process of educating our vision so that we understand how to see that we don’t see, how to see behind surfaces, the depth we are not going to master.”
Williams goes on: “The story of Jesus is not just an epiphany – a revelation of glory and no more – and it’s not just a commandment or a set of instructions dropped down from heaven. It is a manifestation of radiant beauty that lands in our world in the form of a profound moral challenge, because it’s a showing of active love that dissolves fear.”
Eyes to see as God sees. Active love that dissolves fear.
I, for one, am persuaded that the world needs more Christians. The world needs more people committed to Jesus’ way of love. Honesty compels me to acknowledge how often I fail in my efforts to be such a Christian, how I depend daily on God’s grace and forgiveness. That’s why each day, as his followers, we begin again and return to the practices that keep us open to Jesus and his love.
My thanks to all who responded to the questions I posed last week. As I prepare to preach and write this fall on the Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-Centered Life, I would love to hear from more of you in these last summer weeks.
A final note for your calendars: this fall, Archbishop Williams will be in Washington, D.C. and he has graciously agreed to give a talk based on the works I referenced here. He will speak at St. Alban’s Church, on Thursday morning, November 8th, from 10:00 – 11:30 a.m. All are welcome, free of charge. We will record his talk for those unable to attend in person.