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Sermon: ‘Wear the badge!’ given by Don Mason on 2 May 2010

Wear the Badge!

Acts 11: 1 – 18, John 13: 31-35

 It was night.  So ends the verse immediately before the short passage from John’s Gospel we have just read.  It was night.  This short phrase marks a break in the narrative.  Before, it was evening, now it is night.  There’s a subtle symbolism too in the word ‘night’ — a time of darkness, extinguished light, scheming and secrecy.  

Things done under cover of darkness are not always good things, and so it would be on this particular night. 

 And this switch from the lamp-lit intimacy of Jesus’ final meal to the looming darkness of Golgotha is triggered by the departure of a man who takes sauce-dipped bread from the hand of Jesus.  As the door closes behind Judas, the whole atmosphere in that Upper Room is heightened, becomes more intense.  The narrative takes on a more urgent pace.  Time is now short, simply because the seemingly innocent disappearance of Judas sets in motion the grotesque machinery of the powers of darkness.  A page is turned, and the final chapter in the life of God-on-Earth is spread before us.

 This is where the ‘farewell discourses’, as they are often called, actually begin, concluding with Christ’s High Priestly Prayer in chapter 17.  These discourses are profoundly deep and intimate, and contain rich theology. 

 And now, as the betrayer scurries off through darkened streets to the Jewish authorities, it is as if Jesus immediately draws the remaining eleven closer to him, telling them things he could not earlier in the presence of Judas. 

 Now, the Lord begins… “Now things really look black…”  “Now events are going down hill, sliding out of control…”  “Now we have come to the beginning of the end…”  No, no — not a bit of it!  Now, says Christ regally, Now the Son of Man’s glory is revealed; now God’s glory is revealed through him. 

 Just think about this…  Jesus had predicted that he would be killed by the occupying Romans.  He must have known about the Romans’ favourite mode of execution, and would doubtless have observed some of the barbaric details of crucifixion, which were always (as a deterrent) performed very publicly.  So he knew at least something of the gross indignity, excruciating pain and unimaginably gruesome death which lay ahead for him.  Yet he sees all of this as a revelation of God’s glory!  Of course, what lay beyond the cross itself — the resurrection, the disciples’ joy, their individual and collective commissioning, our Lord’s glorious ascension — all of this is part and parcel of God’s revealed glory. 

 And I think too that in the words we sang earlier, In the cross of Christ I glory, we should understand “the cross” as encompassing all of Jesus’ saving work and ministry — his life, his teaching, his death, resurrection and subsequent glorification, together with his present ministry of praying for us.  Think of the cross as a portmanteau word, from which all these other ministries of Jesus can be unpacked. But the cross itself is the pivot, the fulcrum, the very centre of all God’s beautifully balanced plans for his people.

 Jesus goes on from speaking of his glory to the rather painful and poignant task of saying goodbye. He’s not going to see his friends and followers for a while, and he insists that where he is going he must go alone, thus implying that what has to be done, he must do alone.  And as a parting gift he bequeaths them… a commandment, which he calls a new commandment

 Now, the commandment to love others was, at this point in history, by no means new.  Jesus himself reminded one of his questioners that — according to the Law of Moses — God expected us to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.  But this commandment of Jesus acquired its ‘new’ label because the love was to be patterned upon something quite new and different.  No longer are we encouraged to love others as we love ourselves, but rather to love others as Jesus loves us. 

 You see, some people (probably lots of people) at one time or another don’t love themselves very much at all, so that won’t do, will it?  No, our pattern for love has a fixed and very high standard — the love of Jesus.  As we read and learn about Jesus, it becomes increasingly clear just how challenging and demanding this new commandment really is.  Were it not for the Holy Spirit’s help and encouragement, and Christ’s prayers on our behalf, acquiring even a feint shadow of that quality of love would be a pipe-dream, a delightful but quite unobtainable fantasy.  But it can obviously be done, otherwise Jesus, an absolute realist, wouldn’t even have mentioned it. 

 Moreover, it is possibly the chief way in which we can, after getting to know Christ ourselves, make him known to others.  Jesus goes on to say (in the final verse of the Gospel reading) that if we have this kind of love for each other, (and I quote): everyone will know that you are my disciples. 

 You may have noticed the badge I’m wearing, which bears the legend, Church of England, Reader.  This tells you that I belong to a group of people who are known in the Diocese of Oxford as LLMs.  Chris’s medallion here identifies him as a member of the Magic Circle.  Ruth’s scarf, when she wore it in the 70s and 80s, proclaimed to all and sundry that she was a bluestocking student at the University of Reading.  Then last weekend Linda Gardner was wearing her Marathon medallion, awarded to a very select group of lithe and disciplined individuals who have completed the London Marathon.  All these people say something about their personal identity by these little distinguishing things that they wear — I am a conjurer, I am an athlete, (and so on…).

 But how do we say, ‘I am a disciple of Jesus’?  Well, he tells us here in John 13: By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:35, tniv).  That is our badge, our medallion, our scarf,   Some Christians additionally wear a cross, or a fish symbol (although wearing a cross doesn’t necessarily mean that the wearer is a follower if Jesus).  But the identifying mark endorsed by Jesus himself is a community of people who love one another.  This kind of love is very practical, and does not necessarily include feelings of affection.  Loving like Jesus loved will sometimes mean giving practical help and emotional support to rather unlovable people, ungrateful people, difficult and awkward people, people we would prefer not to be around, and against who we may have lurking feelings of prejudice.  But when we do the right things and behave as we should towards each other, warmer feelings may well develop.

 Our reading from Acts 11 gave us an example of the strong prejudice felt by strict Jews against non-Jews.  You were a guest in the home of uncircumcised Gentiles, and you even ate with them! they complained to Peter.  But when Peter had carefully outlined all the facts, their bigoted attitudes changed dramatically.  Having heard Peter out, they stopped their criticism and praised God, saying, “Then God has given to the Gentiles also the opportunity to repent and live. 

 You know, there’s a little clue there hinting at the first step that often needs to be taken towards those whom we may feel prejudiced against.  The strict and particular Jerusalem Christians stopped their criticism and praised God.  A critical spirit and Christ-like love are not very good bedfellows.  Christians from faith traditions other than our own, or whose theological position differs from ours, or believers who are just plain irritating, often come in for a lot of quite unkind criticism.  An initial step towards showing them real Jesus-shaped love could well be by avoiding criticism, and instead finding something positive about them for which we can genuinely praise God. 

 Because Jesus said that our love for each other would mark us out as his disciples, loving as he did just has to be practical and clearly visible.  It has to be seen.  Thinking loving thoughts will often be part of it, but surely such thoughts and feelings must crystallise into practical deeds of kindness before our Jesus-shaped love is seen by others.

 So, let’s encourage one another to wear the badge!

 Don Mason

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