We send messages all the time. Sometimes we use words.
Facial expressions, posture, hand gestures, breathing patterns, and the direction of our gaze convey all sorts of things about our present state of mind, our emotional response to the person we’re talking to at the moment, and whether or not we’re telling the truth.
Recurring patterns of behavior tell us about a person’s enduring character traits.
How we tip at a restaurant, give to charitable causes, and share our M&M’s reveals our generosity or our miserliness.
A reliable friend stands by you when you’re on a losing streak. She tells you the uncomfortable truth and then sticks with you to help you turn things around. A fair weather friend laughs with you while you’re laughing and has a schedule conflict when you’re down on your luck.
Someone who has negative things to say to you about someone else probably has something unflattering to say about you when you’re not around.
A forgiving person doesn’t keep dredging up your past failures. They’re too busy making new memories with you.
You know that someone is compassionate when, instead of scolding you about your imperfections, they accept you as they find you and encourage your timid steps toward being your best self.
Sincere words can help clarify and reinforce our message. Listeners will trust what we say when our routine demeanor and our habitual behavior have already demonstrated to them what we are trying to convey.
For instance, words of affection and concern give comfort after we have spent time sitting quietly with someone who’s sick or bereaved. By contrast, the very same words–said in passing to someone we’ve ignored for weeks and happen to bump into–ring hollow and even erode relationship.
Jesus is God’s message of love to the world. God’s logos, to use the Greek usually translated as Word. Jesus said lots of words. Profound, life-changing words. But their truth and power derive from who he is and what he did. He laid down his life for his friends, and he rose again to give them eternal life.
The disciples believed in Jesus not just because of what he said, but how he said it. He said it with his life. With his death. With his resurrection.
Jesus is still sending a message to the world. And his chosen means of communication is you and me. You and me, not just as individuals, but as a Jesus-following community. That’s what we hear in today’s Gospel.
Jesus is praying for his disciples. He has washed their feet. Shared the Last Supper. Taught them to love one another. And then he prays about their mission in this world once he ascends and until he comes again. He prays for those who will believe in him “through their word.” (John 17:20)
In other words, we are not eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. We came to believe in Jesus’ message of love through other believers.
We probably didn’t just take their word for it. In all likelihood, they simply included us in their lives. They brought us along as they prayed, studied the Bible, fed the hungry, visited the sick, and sheltered the homeless. Long before they used words to tell us about Jesus, we absorbed the Spirit of the message. We believed that God loves us because we had experienced his love in action.
We experienced that love precisely because we had been drawn into the community of Jesus-followers. Our believing followed our belonging. In fact, sometimes we may have kept belonging when believing was a little hard to come by. You might be in that sort of place right now, but you keep showing up, because you know there’s something powerful–someone powerful–in this web of relationships.
Jesus makes us into a community. And the purpose of our community is to draw the world to him by virtue of how we love one another. Remember, Jesus taught his disciples to love one another.
Jesus is not telling us that we should care for one another and leave the world to self-destruct. On the contrary, he is telling us to send a message to the world in the only way that the world is really going to get it.
Before going another step further, we need to clear something up. There’s a common misunderstanding about what it means to believe in Jesus. Acting on that misunderstanding will distort our message, so we need to set it aside.
Some folks think that believing in Jesus means accepting a specific set of doctrinal statements. It’s as if life is a true/false exam. If you mark the right statements as true, you are a believer.
To put it a different way, some people mistakenly think that believing in Jesus is simply saying that certain ideas about the identity and work of Jesus are true.
When you think that believing amounts to assenting to certain doctrines, then you might spend all your energy trying to change someone’s mind.
But the essence of believing is about relationship with Jesus. We begin by relying upon him, trusting him. Only then do ideas about who he is and what he means to the life of the world begin to come into focus.
Jesus has not sent us into the world to insist first and foremost that other people accept a certain set of doctrines. Our mission is to draw others into relationship with Jesus the living person. This will never happen if we do not know him as a living person ourselves and make our relationship with him obvious by sharing our lives with others.
We show the world our commitment and devotion to Jesus by how we love each other. So let’s get specific about what a loving community really looks like.
How do you get into a Jesus-following community? What qualifications do you have to have to belong? All you need is spiritual hunger and thirst. Some of us are more aware than others that we cannot satisfy this hunger and slake this thirst for ourselves. But the point is simply that our need qualifies us for membership.
A loving community is very clear about this. Oh, each of us will forget it from time to time, but the enduring principle of our life together as Jesus-followers is that each of us ranks as poor in Spirit. We yearn to be loved and need to be forgiven. Our wounds need tending, our minds need expanding, and our hearts could use some stretching.
Since we all come with our spiritual hand out, we are all equal. Nobody is better or worse than anybody else. So everybody is welcome.
Everybody has something to offer. Each person brings a special set of gifts and abilities, and nobody is self-sufficient. To get anything accomplished we need each other. And that’s an especially good thing once we learn to celebrate each other for who we are with all our quirks and blemishes and irritating habits.
And speaking of irritating habits, you can’t write anybody off. Membership is permanent.
Sure, some people are easier to like than others. Some people will even do rotten things, and maybe they won’t even apologize. But we forgive, especially when it’s hard work.
No relationship is worth tossing in the ash heap, because Jesus sees something in each of us. When we can’t see it, we just have to ask him to show it to us.
There are no professionals in our midst. Oh sure, priests and bishops and musicians and various staff members get a paycheck. But in the really important stuff–getting our relationship with Jesus and with each other right–we’re all beginners and amateurs.
So, we can cut each other some slack, be honest with each other about what we don’t know and how we’ve gotten it wrong, and call out for help when we need it (which is probably most of the time).
That’s what love looks like between Jesus’ followers. We’re not always nice, sometimes we have to kiss and make up, and our lives together can look sort of messy. But it’s gracious.
Mercy seeps out of the seams that bind us together. Acceptance and tolerance, second chances and patience, compassion and loyalty keep winning the day over self-righteous grumpiness and snarky condescension.
And that is how we send a message. The message that God loves the world. Oh sure, we can tell people with words. And we should use words.
But those words won’t mean much all by themselves. If they’re really going to hit home, then words have to express and describe a life we’re already living and already sharing with all comers. Words have to be almost unnecessary because what we do speaks with such clarity and attractiveness.
Now that’s a message that someone else just might believe.