John 13:31-35

April 24, 2016


Two men from the United States were riding on a train in Britain. English trains have compartments where six or seven people can be seated. In the compartment with these two men was a very distinguished looking gentleman. The two Americans were quietly discussing this gentleman between themselves.

In a very low tone one of them said, “I would wager money that he is the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

The other man said, “I don’t think so. I’ll take that bet.”

So the first man approached the gentleman and said, “Sir, would you mind telling us, are you the Archbishop of Canterbury?”

The man turned and said, “You mind your own blankety-blank business! What the blankety-blank difference does it make to you, you blanket-Blank Yank?”

And the first American turned to the other and said, “He won’t say whether he is the Archbishop or not.”

Well, I would hope that they would know that the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual head of the Anglican church, wouldn’t address them with a string of curse words. But it started me thinking, “How does one identify a Christian?”

The Rev. Timothy Kennedy tells of traveling by bus throughout Israel one summer. On one part of the journey, the bus driver placed a big white signed by the passenger side windshield. Since it was in Arabic, Kennedy asked their guide to translate. The sign said, “This is an Arabic bus, owned and operated by Arabs. Please do not throw stones.”

When they got close to Tel Aviv, the driver pulled another sign from behind his seat, and replaced the first sign in the windshield. Since it was in Hebrew, Kennedy asked their guide to translate again. The new sign said, “This is a Jewish bus, owned and operated by Israelis. Please do not throw stones.”

How do you tell the difference between an Arab bus and a Jewish bus? A big plastic sign in the windshield. But back to our primary question, how do you identify a Christian? I guess we could wear plastic signs. But would that really do the trick?

This is an important question. A few years ago, the Barna Research Group released the findings of a nationwide survey of people who do not consider themselves to be Christian. They were asked to provide their impressions of 11 groups of people ranging from military officers to scandalous women of the streets. One of the statistics that stuck with me was that only 44% of those surveyed had a favorable impression of clergy–ministers, priests, rabbis. Even more disturbing, only 22% had a favorable impression of evangelical Christians. This last category, evangelical Christians, was beaten out by Democrats, television performers, real estate agents, lawyers, Republicans, and lesbians. The only group that scored lower in favorable ratings than evangelical Christians was drug dealers.

Now, whether you identify yourself as an evangelical Christian or not, this attitude ought to be a matter of concern to you. Somebody’s missing the target in their witness for Christ.

It’s like that woman who read that dogs were healthier if fed a tablespoon of cod liver oil each day. So each day she followed the same routine–she chased her dog until she caught it, wrestled it down, and managed to force the cod liver oil down the dog’s throat.

Until one day when, in the middle of this grueling medicinal effort, the bottle was kicked over. With a sigh, she loosened her grip on the dog so she could wipe up the mess–only to watch the dog trot to the puddle and began lapping it up. The dog loved cod liver oil! It was just the owner’s method of application the dog objected to.

Is this not true of the church’s commission to make disciples of all people? People desperately want to know that God is alive and that God loves them. Why aren’t our churches full? There must be a problem with how we are communicating our message.

Who we are speaks so loud that people cannot hear what we are saying. We’ve seen what’s happened to the church in Europe. Large, empty cathedrals. Congregations consisting of a few older hangers on. Is that where we’re headed? I read recently that it costs $10 million per day to maintain all the cathedrals in Great Britain. $10 million a day! Wonder when the government will tire of this enormous expense. Is the church kept around for a curiosity? A quaint reminder of another day? And how did it happen that the church became so irrelevant to people’s lives? Maybe it’s because who we are speaks so loud that people cannot hear what we say.

Richard Fairchild tells about a man living in the Appalachian area during the Depression who went to Knoxville for the first time to transact some business. While there he saw a refrigerator that made ice. Since it was summertime, he thought it was a miracle of God.

When he returned to his hometown in the mountains, his church was in the midst of a revival worship service. He arrived at the service during the time when the people were giving testimonies. He told of the miracle of seeing ice made in the midst of the summer.

Well, a dispute broke out. Many claimed that there was no such thing. Others wanted to believe him. It resulted in a schism within the church. Many left the church to form a new church. Its name to this very day is “No Ice In the Summer Southern Baptist Church.”

People can be petty, can’t they? We’ve all seen it, in a multitude of organizations. When it happens in the Lion’s Club or Sertoma, maybe it’s not such a big deal. But when it happens in the church of Jesus Christ, it is a big deal. We are those called to turn the world upside down. We can’t afford to be petty. What has happened to us that we turn about as many people off as we turn on? Do people have difficulty identifying us, and being attracted to us?

Even when we are in mission we sometimes convey the wrong message.

A teenaged boy informed his father of a wonderful activity that they were going to do at the church’s youth group. They were going to hand out blankets to the homeless. This was in Cleveland, Ohio where warmth is a necessity during the ruthless Northeast winter. The young man exclaimed with fervor, “We’re passing out blankets so that we can tell them about Jesus!”

His father, simply and with certainty, corrected him. He explained, “We don’t give blankets to the homeless to tell them about Jesus. We give blankets to the homeless because they’re cold.”

Do you understand the difference? If we are motivated by the idea that we’re going to make our church a bigger church, then our witness will ring false. If, on the other hand, we are motivated simply by the desire to transmit the love we have received from Jesus, then the world will gladly receive us.

Jesus said that his followers can be identified by their love. Not by their clothes, not by their bumper stickers, not by what part of town they live in, not by signs posted in the city Council chambers, but by their love. In our lesson today we read, “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” It is amazing that so many Christians miss what is absolutely central to our faith. We are those called to love the world for which Christ died.

A street minister in Chicago tells the story of a young mother who came to his homeless shelter–sick, frightened, wracked by guilt and despair. With tears streaming down her face she told her story of drug addiction, prostitution and how she had abused and endangered her two-year-old. Revolted by her degrading story the street minister was silent. Finally he asked if she had ever thought of going to church for help. “I will never forget the look of pure astonishment that crossed her face. “Church! Why would I ever go there? They’d just make me feel worse than I already do!”

Obviously the people whom she identified as Christians would not pass the love test. It’s troubling, isn’t it? Sometimes it seems as if the majority of people who fill church pews each Sunday have missed the whole meaning of what Christ was about. I hope that’s not true, but it seems that way sometimes. Let me say something to you that is very critical: when we go out to minister to the least and the lowest in Jesus’ name, we don’t do it to save their souls, but to save our own.

A young man was converted to Christ during his senior year in high school. Here is his story in his own words: “I was a fresh, eager Christian, so when Tony Campolo came to our town to speak, I went to hear him. He was great! After he spoke, he asked us to sign up for his program of inner-city ministry in Philadelphia that summer. So I did.

“Well, in mid-June, I met about 100 other kids in a church in Philadelphia. We had about an hour of singing before Dr. Campolo arrived. When he got to the church, we were really worked up, all enthusiastic and ready to go. Dr. Campolo then preached for about an hour, and when he finished people were shouting and standing in the pews and clapping. It was great!

“ ‘Okay, gang, are you ready to go out there and tell them about Jesus?’ Dr. Campolo asked. ‘Yeah, let’s go!’ we shouted back. ‘Get on the bus!’ Tony Campolo shouted. So we spilled out of the church and on to the bus. We were singing and clapping. But then we began to drive deeper into the depths of the city. We were in a great neighborhood when we started, but it got worse. Gradually, we stopped singing, and all of us college kids were just staring out the windows. We were scared.

“Then the bus pulled up before one of the worst looking housing projects in Philadelphia. Tony jumped on the bus and said, ‘Alright, gang, get out there and tell them about Jesus. I’ll be back at 5 o’clock.”

“We made our way off the bus hesitantly. We stood there on the corner and had a prayer, then we spread out. I walked down the sidewalk and stopped in front of a huge tenement house. I gulped, said a prayer, and ventured inside. There was a terrible odor. Windows were broken out, no lights in the hall. I walked up one of the flights of stairs and toward the door where I heard a baby crying. I knocked on the door. ‘Who is it?’ said a loud voice inside. Then the door cracked open, and a woman holding a naked baby peered out. ‘What do you want?’ she asked in a rather mean voice. I told her that I wanted to tell her about Jesus. With that, she swung the door open and began cursing me. She cursed me all the way down the hall, down the steps, and out to the sidewalk. I felt terrible. I got a really good look at myself. Some Christian I am. How in the world could somebody like me think that I could tell people about Jesus? I sat down on the curb and cried. Then I looked up and noticed a store on the corner, windows all boarded up, bars over the door. I went to the store, walked in, and looked around. Then I remembered: the baby had no diapers, the mother was smoking. I bought a box of paper diapers and a pack of cigarettes.

“I walked back to the tenement house, and said another prayer, walked in and up the flight of stairs, gulped, stood before the door, and knocked. ‘Who is it?’ growled the same voice inside. When she opened the door, I slid the box of diapers and the cigarettes in. She looked at them, then looked at me, and said ‘Come in.’

“I stepped into the dingy apartment. ‘Sit down,’ she commanded. I sat down on the sofa and began to play with the baby. I put a diaper on the baby, even though I had never put a diaper on a baby before in my life. When the woman offered me a cigarette, even though I don’t smoke, I smoked. I stayed there all afternoon talking, playing with the baby, listening to the woman.

“About 4 o’clock, the woman looked at me and said, ‘Let me ask you something. What’s a nice college boy like you doing in a place like this?’ So I told her everything I knew about Jesus. It took me about five minutes. Then she said, ‘Pray for me and my baby, that we can make it out of here alive.’ And I prayed.

“That afternoon, after we were all on the bus, Tony asked, ‘Well, gang, did any of you get to tell them about Jesus?’ And I said, ‘I not only got to tell them about Jesus. I met Jesus. I went out to save somebody, and I ended up getting saved.’”

That’s the way it is. There are so many people who hear the name Christian who have never met Christ because they have never seen him in their neighbor. How can you identify a Christian? Only one way. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”