When I read today’s gospel a man came to mind who I have not thought about in many years. Ernest was a fellow parishioner at St. Ann’s in Nashville.
He was a quiet, unobtrusive man, probably in his mid-80s. He had long been a member of that congregation and played an important role there.
Ernest appointed himself the unofficial greeter and welcomer of the parish. Week after week he stood just inside the entrance to the church doors on Sunday mornings and welcomed everyone who walked through the door.
He was happy to see the familiar friends who were there every week, but he kept a special eye out for the stranger who entered his midst.
It mattered not what sort or condition of humanity walked through the door — Ernest welcomed everyone as a child of God.
When a man entered in the final stages of AIDS, so frail he could no longer walk alone, Ernest gently welcomed him into God’s house.
When a single mother from the nearby housing projects come through with her three rowdy children, Ernest embraced them.
When a homeless man, reeking of alcohol, stumbled in, Ernest was there to offer coffee and food.
And when the Vanderbilt doctor and her lawyer husband entered the church for the first time — they, too, were greeted with warmth by Ernest.
Ernest was not a wealthy man, nor a brilliant one. He was not theologically learned or astute. He was not a leader of the church in the traditional sense — he did not head the stewardship campaign or serve on the vestry; he was not a teacher or lector and steadfastly refused to be on committees.
And yet, I would be willing to bet that if you asked the people of St. Ann’s in the late 1980’s to name who among them was the most faithful disciple of Christ, Ernest would be at the top of most lists.
The people of that congregation knew that Ernest was a Christian. They knew it by his love.
* * *
On the night before he dies, Jesus has dinner with his disciples one last time and gives them a final bit of instruction — to love one another, as he has loved them.
They are his friends, Jesus tells them. The best way to show that he is their friend is to do what he asks. And what he asks is that they show forth his love by the way they treat others.
It may not surprise us that Jesus calls the disciples his friends. After all, they are the ones who have traveled with him, eaten with him, listened to him teach. They have laughed and cried together, shared their deepest fears and feelings.
But the disciples are not the only ones counted among Jesus’ friends. Those in authority scorn Jesus because he is “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” — types that respectable people stay away from.
Jesus also befriends a woman who is such an outcast she only comes to the well in the heat of the day, a time when she will not have to see the other women in town who shun her.
Another time he stands up for a woman who is about to be put to death for adultery. He reaches out to a leper who society considers unclean and untouchable.
It is these people, not just the disciples, to whom Paul refers when he tells the Christians in Rome to “treat one another in the same friendly way that Christ treated you.”
Christ treats all with whom he comes in contact with love and respect. He commands those of us who profess to be his followers to do the same.
One of my heroes in the faith is Jack Spong, the retired bishop of Newark, New Jersey.
Bishop Spong has devoted his life to following Jesus’ final commandment to his disciples — to love one another as Christ has loved us.
As a young priest in North Carolina and Virginia in the 1950 and 60s, he pushed for the end of racial desegregation. As a newly-elected bishop in the 1970s he fought for the full inclusion of women in the church, including their ordination.
At the end of his career, he took up the fight for gays and lesbians, demanding that they be seen and treated as children of God and full members of the church.
Bishop Spong says he “heard the voice of Jesus” calling him “to step across the boundaries of prejudice, and to see in all people a child of God.”
He describes Jesus as a person who “loved extravagantly and wastefully,” and believes it is the duty of all Christians to do the same. He questions literal interpretations of the Bible and challenges present-day Christianity to a faith that can stand up to questioning.
In his autobiography, Spong prints some of the responses to his ministry.
From Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania : “Your words are not just heresy, they are apostacy. Burning you at the stake would be too kind!”
From Charleston, South Carolina: “Remember, as you prance about disguised as a minister of the gospel, that you will pay for your sins eternally in the lake of fire.”
From Orlando, Florida: “I hope the next plane on which you fly crashes. You are not worthy of life. If all else fails, I will try to rid the world of your evil presence personally.”
I assume that the writers of these letters would describe themselves as Christian. It is equally safe to assume that they believe Bishop Spong is not.
And yet Jesus did not say that the ultimate sign of Christianity is the doctrine or creed one espouses, or even regular attendance at church, financial contributions, or support of the right causes.
As important as those things may be, the ultimate sign of Christian discipleship is the way we treat one another. As Jesus said to his disciples the night before he died, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
A song we used to sing in church camp many years ago puts it this way, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”
For Jesus love is not an emotion; it is a policy, a way of life.
The kind of love Jesus demands of his disciples — demands of us — is active, concrete, and practical.
The kind of love Jesus demands of us requires that we cross the boundaries of our own prejudices and see that those who differ from us are also children of God.
The kind of love Jesus demands of us can be as dramatic and costly as Bishop Spong’s public fights for inclusivity and acceptance of those the world pushes to the margins.
Or it can be as simple and profound as my friend Ernest treating each person he meets with dignity, respect, and a simple word of welcome.
Today we have many litmus tests for Christianity. Love and friendship are seldom on the list.
Today’s gospel is familiar to most of us — Jesus calling his disciples his friends and reminding them to treat each other and all they meet in the same friendly manner.
It is a simple message with no high doctrinal content or mysterious phrasing. We are to love each other; befriend each other. That is how the world is to know us, how we are to know one another.
Amid all the complexities of our faith and life this before all else is the first mark of a disciple of Christ and a friend of Jesus.