By Rev. Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 13: 12-17, 31-35
We are currently in the season of Easter, moving toward Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. We are the Church together (as the song goes); but what is the Church? More precisely, who is the Church? Who are we? The pictures at the front of our sanctuary this season reflect “church” at Trinity and a United Methodist Church in Ukraine. As diverse as church around our community and our globe can be, we share a common identity. We are Christian. Wherever we are, however we look, we are Christian.
In the movie Saints and Strangers, a Native American named Squanto from the Patuxet tribe, is captured and enslaved during an early European expedition to America. It’s estimated that Squanto made the Trans-Atlantic voyage six times during his life. On his first return voyage, he discovered his tribe was nearly extinct having been wiped out by disease. In the movie, there is ambiguity surrounding Squanto’s cause of death. He was ultimately viewed with suspicion by the natives and the pilgrims. Squanto spent much of his life in a sort of cultural “no man’s land”; no longer belonging to the nearly extinct culture of his birth, but never finding a home in the culture of the European settlers. In one scene in the movie he speaks to a pilgrim about his feeling of longing for home even while physically present in his native land. Squanto lost his sense of identity.
Identity is a powerful thing. Prior to the war, many Ukrainians identified closely with Russia since they had been part of the USSR for decades. Many Ukrainians speak Russian and have friends and relatives living in Russia. But now, their cousins – figuratively, and in some cases literally – are killing them. Ukrainian identity is being reconstructed even as their nation is being destroyed.
So, how do we define identity? Is identity about nationality; our family of origin; our ethnicity; is it about “place”? How is it influenced by our level of education, our economic status or the belief system in which we are indoctrinated? What prejudices, stereotypes and biases do we carry in relation to the various categories that combine to construct identity for ourselves and others? Studies reveal that many who are unable to establish a clear sense of identity succumb to substance abuse and depression. Likewise, those prejudices and biases we hold with regard to the identities of others often play out through violence and oppression. Few questions are of more critical importance than the question of identity.
You all hear me say, quite frequently, that Christianity is not a belief system; it is a relational system. It is about our relationship with God (through Christ) and our relationship with others; and so our identity should not – in fact, it cannot – be separated from Jesus. Perhaps no book of the Bible makes this clearer than the Gospel of John. Even in the gospel’s intro, we are informed that Jesus became incarnate in order that we might become children of God. Likewise, in the scripture from John I read this morning, Jesus addresses his disciples as “little children.” Jesus is key to our identity. Our identity is defined in relation to Jesus. Certainly, there are many factors that contribute to identity. But, if we name ourselves “Christian,” it means that no other factor, no other role, no other relationship, can be allowed to take precedence over that primary identity grounded in our relationship with Jesus. We may be children, parents, spouses, teachers, bosses, Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, liberals… but none of those can be allowed to take precedent over our primary identity: Christian; an identity discovered and established in the context of relationship with Jesus.
So, what does this identity look like; this identity that supersedes all others? How does it shape, guide and define our words, our values, our thoughts, our behaviors and our character?
Sadly, research reveals that this identity, Christian, is increasingly viewed negatively in our wider culture. You know, I grew up during the cold war; during a time when the label “communist” caused a visceral response; a fear that what I valued was being threatened. Today, the label “Christian” causes some to have that same visceral response; that same fear that what they value is being threatened.
They feel no attraction to Christ because they have had hurtful encounters with those who bear his name. Research has further shown that for many people, the definition of Christian may have little to do with how that identity is described and defined in scripture. Today in American, there is cultural confusion about what a Christian is and that is exercising an enormous – and sometimes negative – impact on those already in the church and, especially, on those we are trying to reach. We live in a culture where we cannot assume that people have a biblically-based understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
This morning’s gospel reading sheds important light on the biblical meaning of Christian. The scripture I read this morning is John’s account of Jesus’ final evening with his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion. Jesus is sharing a meal with them. Now, feet got especially dirty in the ancient Mediterranean world. The average peasant’s only form of transportation was their own two feet; shoes were open sandals, and roads were dusty. Feet got pretty nasty. Usually, people washed their own feet when they arrived at someone’s home. It was common courtesy to have water and a basin available for ones guests to wash their feet. If a guest was especially important, their host might honor them by having a servant wash their feet. But Jesus shocks his disciples, in fact he makes them quite uncomfortable, when he – their teacher and Lord – gets up from the table and begins to wash their feet. One would never wash the feet of a subordinate. Now Jesus knows the disciples are struggling with this; finding it hard to accept. Peter comes right out and objects. But after Jesus has served them in such a humble way, he interprets his own actions. Jesus will clearly explain what those humble, loving actions he has just performed imply for them and for him. You see, by this point in the gospel story, the disciples – and the gospel readers for that matter – have come to some conclusions about who Jesus is. They do consider him their teacher, their Rabbi, and they acknowledge his authority. They call him “Lord,” a word meaning master or one who is in charge of another, who has authority over that one. By calling someone Lord, we surrender to them our personal rights and independence; we acknowledge that the one we have addressed as Lord is the one who has the power to call the shots in our life. “Lord” in the first century Mediterranean world was a position of power and influence and so, the disciples don’t have a way of mentally merging the “power title” of Lord with the demeaning, humiliating act of foot washing. But the way in which Jesus has demonstrated and redefined authority is through humble, sacrificial acts of love. He does more than tell his disciples what love is. He shows them what love looks like; a willingness to humble oneself and step into the messiness of life in order to demonstrate care for another. Jesus is also their rabbi; a word that means “teacher.” They are his disciples, his students; learning from him how to behave toward others; learning from him what love looks like. This is their master’s lesson: if he considers it fitting and appropriate to perform such a humiliating act of service, such an intimate gesture of love; then they, as his students and followers ought to behave in like manner.
Again, so we recognize this passage of scripture isn’t a one-off, just two chapters later, Jesus employs an allegory indicating that he is a like a grapevine and his disciples are like branches on that vine joined together in love. He is clear about what his love for them looks like. It will mean him laying down his life for them because he loves them and because they are his friends.
In John, chapter 15, we read Jesus saying, “I am the vine, you are the branches… As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love… This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends…”
Being a Christian isn’t about dogma or reciting a creed. It’s about love more than anything else. When we love others in word and deed in the name of Jesus, people will truly understand what it means to be a Christian; people will truly understand the value and significance of Church… not simply as a place to gather for an hour once a week to get inspired or entertained; but as a community of people, praying and learning and striving to get better and better at loving others in tangible and meaningful ways.
Imagine if the only thought that came to people’s minds when they heard the label “Christian” was the thought that “Oh, those are the folks who do such a good job loving people in practical, helpful ways because of that Jesus dude.” Wouldn’t that be awesome?!
Friends: in recent weeks I have been blessed by a Trinity member who has shared with me some of their writings and ponderings over the years. One reflection I read earlier this week – for the second time – really stuck with me. They wrote of their father telling them as an adolescent, “If you do anything in your life, know yourself.” Know yourself. This church member interpreted that to mean that we need to understand our actions, our thoughts, our ideas and our beliefs. If we know who we are, it will be revealed through our actions, our thoughts, our ideas and our beliefs. Everything boils down to identity. Do you know who you are? If you do anything in your life, know yourself. Do you know yourself? Do you know yourself as “Christian” first and foremost? If you do know, others will know that you know.
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