May 19, 2019
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
(Revelation 21:1-5; John 13:31-35)
Today’s Gospel is very timely actually. One of my goals as the new Presiding Bishop for our denomination is to not be afraid to show ourselves as progressives - to be the Traditional church that we are with a modern understanding of Christ. To show the Radical love of Jesus to everyone. There are many ways to do this, I suppose, but I will try to illustrate a little today.
Two full-face photos: One of Tom Cruise, and one of Lady Gaga. How do you tell these two celebrities apart?
You’re thinking, “Don’t be silly! Nobody’d ever take those two for look-alikes.”
Well — for most of us. But for some, about 2.5% of people in the United States, distinguishing faces is difficult if not impossible. These people suffer from a documented disorder called prosopagnosia, but because that’s such a mouthful, it is often referred to as “face blindness.”
Cecilia Burman, who lives in Stockholm, is one such sufferer. She can barely describe her mother’s face and struggles even to pick out her own face in photos. She continually loses friends because when they encounter Cecilia on the street, she doesn’t recognize them, and so she ignores them. They conclude that she’s stuck up or too self-centered to say hello, but in fact, they look like strangers to her. Prosopagnosiacs can see eyes, noses and mouths as well as anybody else can, but somehow they lack the ability to recognize a set of facial features when they next see them.
People with mild forms of face blindness do manage to memorize a limited number of faces, much like the rest of us might learn to distinguish one rock from another, but those with the more severe forms can’t do even that. Gaylen Howard, homemaker in Boulder, Colorado, says that when she is standing in front of a mirror in a crowded restroom, she has to contort her face to pick out which one is her. One of Howard’s family members, also afflicted with face blindness, could not distinguish between the faces of Elvis Presley and Brooke Shields.
Until a few years ago, face blindness was thought to be extremely rare. Only about 100 cases had been documented worldwide, and most of those were thought to be the result of brain injury. The disorder was not even named until 1947 when Joachim Bodamer, a German neurologist, called the condition prosopagnosia from two Greek terms: prosopon meaning “face,” and agnosia meaning “non-knowledge.” Bodamer had encountered the condition in three people, including a 24-year-old man who suffered a bullet wound to the head and lost his ability to recognize faces, including his own.
In July of last year, however, a team of German researchers released the results of a study they’d undertaken, and their investigations revealed that the condition is much more common than previously thought. Based on their studies, it is likely that there are more than five million people with this condition in the United States alone.
There is no known cure, but most learn certain coping mechanisms. Many can distinguish people they know by looking at things like hairstyle, body shape or gait, or by listening to their voice. To avoid appearing to snub friends, some sufferers try to look as though they are lost in thought while walking. Others act friendly either toward everyone or toward no one.
If you spend even a few minutes thinking about how different your life would be if you could not remember faces, you’ll understand that prosopagnosiacs deal with significant problems every day.
Certainly face blindness was unknown as a diagnosis in the first century, but the New Testament has an actual example of it. On the first Easter, two followers of Jesus were walking on the road to Emmaus when Jesus joined them, but according to Luke, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16). Only later, when he broke bread before them, did they realize that it was Jesus who was with them.
Of course, they were seeing the resurrected Jesus for the first time, so maybe that accounts for their temporary face blindness.
But even before the resurrection, when Jesus was among his followers, he alluded to a kind of recognition problem that the world could have for which Christians are responsible. In his conversation with his disciples at the Last Supper, Jesus told them that he loved them and that they should love one another. In fact, he called that a “new commandment.” In one way, it wasn’t new at all, for centuries before, the concept was articulated in Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Yet there was a newness about what Jesus said, for he intended that his followers’ love for each other should be a plain feature of their identity.
Thus he said, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Although in other places, Jesus talked about loving neighbors and even loving enemies, here he is saying that acting compassionately toward fellow believers is the way that people outside the church will know that they are his disciples.
That’s a positive way to state it, but consider the flip side. Jesus implies that it’s possible for Christians to live in the world without being recognized as Christians. To bring it right to our own day, Jesus’ new command means that if the world can know we are Christians by our love for one another, the world can also fail to recognize us as Christians if we don’t love one another. The world can have face blindness when it comes to distinguishing disciples from everyone else.
Francis Schaeffer, a theologian and pastor from the last century, in a small book titled The Mark of the Christian, argued that if we don’t have love for one another, the world has every right to conclude that we’re not Christians, not disciples and that we know nothing about God. Their conclusion might be in error, but they’re reaching the conclusion quite logically. He wrote, “Love — and the unity it attests to — is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world. Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are indeed Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father.”
Now right off, there are a few things that contribute to this face blindness.
The first is that the practice of loving one another is not limited to Christians. Unquestionably, there are people who claim no allegiance to Jesus who nonetheless behave lovingly toward colleagues, friends, coworkers, family members, social group buddies and other groups of which they are a part, as well as to strangers in need. And many more in the world at large at least hold loving one another as an ideal and even give it lip service.
So there’s some difficulty distinguishing Christians from others by their love because we live in a society that honors love for one another even if it does not always practice it.
Another reason for the world’s face blindness about Christians is that we ourselves don’t always grasp the depth of love Jesus was calling for among his followers. Loving enemies, of course, is desperately difficult, and loving neighbors is often hard work, so it would seem that by comparison, merely loving our fellow church members should be a snap.
In some ways, however, that is harder. Doing something compassionate for someone on the other side of the planet or reaching out to a person we see only occasionally doesn’t require great emotional investment. But when it comes to members of our spiritual community, people whom we see up close and interact with frequently, it can be a different story. Just think how hard it can be simply to give the benefit of the doubt to certain members of our families who march to the beat of their own drummers.
One pastor tells of taking a team from his church in Ohio to work on homes of low-income families in a financially depressed part of eastern Kentucky. While they were fixing one home, a minister who pastored a nearby church stopped by and thanked the Ohio team for the work they were doing in his community. Then, in private conversation with the pastor, he mentioned that some members of his own church also wanted to participate in work camps to help others, but he’d found that he had to take them somewhere other than their home area. “Around here,” he said, “everybody knows everybody else. When I propose fixing up the homes of some of our neighbors, people are reluctant, saying that that person doesn’t deserve it or doesn’t really need the help. But if I take them where they don’t know anybody, my folks will pitch right in and work hard.”
Sometimes it’s devilishly hard to really love those close at hand. We tend to judge those we know - sometimes more than those we don’t.
Yet another reason for the world’s difficulty recognizing Christians by their love for one another is that Jesus set the bar very high for relationships within the church. He said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Earlier that evening, Jesus had given one demonstration about what he meant by loving one another when he had humbly washed the feet of each of his followers. That alone should give us pause when claiming to love one another, but there’s even more reason to realize the seriousness of this new command from Jesus when we remember that the fullest expression of Jesus’ love for his disciples was his laying down his life for them. So we are to love one another that fully. Wow. The radical Love of Jesus!
Of course, today, not many of us are required to actually die for our fellow believers, and foot washing isn’t needed either, unless we do it as part of a religious ritual. So what does loving one another within the church look like?
Francis Schaeffer, whom I mentioned earlier, wrote specifically about how else loving one another should play out in the church. He talked about our willingness to apologize to one another, especially when we have been mistaken or failed to help or support one of our fellow Christians. Likewise, he said that having a forgiving spirit and being willing to make peace with those within the church who have hurt us is a fulfilling of Jesus’ command. Schaeffer also wrote about how Christians who disagree with one another should deal with differences by first, spending time in prayer about the issue, and then approaching the other person in a spirit of non-belligerence, with the goal being not to win the argument, but to solve the problem or to merely understand the other point of view. Sometimes, we should remember, that possibly neither side is completely correct. Sometimes, it isn’t about who is right or wrong, but in how we treat one another and learn to accept different views.
In short, what Schaeffer was talking about was an “observable oneness” within the Christian community, something the world beyond the church can see.
One other way we can get a handle on what it means to love one another within the church fellowship is to consider to what lengths we are willing to go for each other. Sometimes parents learn something about going to the limit when one of their children gets into serious trouble. We’ve known of parents who went to extraordinary lengths to help one of their offspring, far beyond what they’d ever do for themselves. Parents who normally are quiet and unassuming have called in personal favors, exhausted their bank accounts, pleaded with judges, appealed to teachers, prostrated themselves before authorities and accepted humiliation to try to help their kid in difficulty. As outsiders to those situations, we may sometimes wonder if the young person in question deserves such love, but it is hard to fault the parents who are trying to move heaven and Earth to save their child.
We can understand that, of course, when it is parents assisting their own child. But Jesus’ remark suggests that it is a hallmark of Christians that they do things like that for one another, people to whom they have no other connection than a common belief in Jesus Christ. Even to helping those we disagree or consider as enemies without any expectation of reciprocation. The radical love of Jesus.
We cannot explain ahead of time what it will mean to be Christ-like in every relationship with other believers. Relationships and human nature are complex things, and situations we could never have anticipated arise. But Jesus’ new command gives us not only a place to start but also a spirit in which to act and a goal — unity — toward which to move.
As we internalize this command and put it into practice, we go a long way toward dispelling the face blindness of those on the outside, and we enable them to see the features of Christ in the church he has called us to be.
They will know we are Christians because of our love for one another. The radical love of Jesus, means love literally ALL people. Let us go forth and carry out this commandment of Christ!
Let us pray.
For the Church, that we may be a sign of God’s love for us by the love we show to each other and the service we provide for our neighbor. We pray to the Lord.
That barriers between peoples may be overcome, opening the doors of empathy and compassion to those of other cultures and backgrounds, for God’s dwelling is with the whole human race. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for love in the world, for an end to hatred, an end to war, an end to violence, that God’s peoples can live their lives in peace and harmony. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for a Spirit of justice in the world; that the needy, the exploited, the abused, and the victims of war may know freedom, relief from oppression, and dignity as daughters and sons of God. We pray to the Lord
We ask God to bestow on us the wisdom and insight to care for the earth and to preserve His gifts of water, land and climate for ourselves and the good of those who come after us. We pray to the Lord.
For those on our parish prayer list; that they may find healing, hope, grace and long awaited answers to their prayers through Christ’s presence. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
God of all, out of love for the human race you sent your Son to sacrifice himself for us. In his living example, we see Jesus loving those whom were perceived as unlovable; we see him love those who were sinners, adulterers, unclean, Roman soldier slaves, gentiles - even those who disagreed with him, and so many more. In his life, Jesus showed us the utterly radical form of love that many of us find difficult to emulate. Help us to love one another as you have loved us and grant the prayers we make out of that love, through Christ, our Risen Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor - St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA