Easter V, Year C
May 2, 2010
Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35
Let us pray. God of power and might, you know that we are so often afraid. Even so, you call us to greatness and life. You call us to rise above the challenges of life and living. You even call us to believe in life after death. You promise to protect us, yet we do not always believe that promise. You show us the way to abundant and fulfilled living, yet we often want to go our own way. But, Lord God, we know you keep loving us. Your Spirit is always near, ready to guide us and fill us with confidence. Comfort our hurting lives and remind us in new and powerful ways of the meanings and promise of eternal life. Calm us down and fill us with assurance and hope. Steady our nerves and soothe our pains. May we know today and always the promise of life eternal, and may we go forth renewed, strengthened, and filled with courage. We pray this in the name of our Savior, friend and guide Jesus Christ. Amen.
There was a teacher who found one of her students making faces at others on the playground, and so she stopped to gently reprove the child. Smiling sweetly, she said, “Bobby, when I was a child, my mother told me that if I made ugly faces, my face would freeze and I would stay like that.” Bobby looked up and replied innocently, “Well, Ms. Smith, you can’t say you weren’t warned.” (“Pulling faces,” cleanfunjokes.com/pulling-faces-clean-joke-27.html)
Jesus told his followers that the world would know they were Christians because of their love for one another. So then, why is it that we sometimes fail to recognize each other?
If you were shown to celebrity photographs, one of Bono, and one of Madonna, how do you tell these two celebrities apart? Now you are probably thinking to yourself, “Don’t be silly! Nobody would ever take those two for look-alikes.”
That is true for most of us. But for some, about one in every 50 people, 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 simply referred to as “face blindness.”
Cecilia Burman, age 38, 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 photographs. She continually loses friends because when they encounter her 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.
People who suffer from this disorder can see eyes, noses and mouths as well as anybody else can, but somehow they lack the ability to recognize and identify a specific set of facial features when they next see them.
People with mild forms of prosopagnosia 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 cannot do even that. Gaylen Howard, a 40-year-old 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 her family members, also afflicted with face blindness, could not distinguish between the faces of Elvis Presley and Brooke Shields.
Until just a few years ago, prosopagnosia 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.
However, more recently a team of German researchers released the results of a study they’d undertaken on prosopagnosia. Published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics, 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 individuals who suffer from this disorder in the United States alone. What’s more, their research found that many cases of face blindness are not the result of brain injury, but of a defective gene. That means the disorder can be inherited. If one of your parents has face blindness, there is a 50-percent chance of your being afflicted with it as well.
There is no known cure, but most prosopagnosiacs 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 would imagine for a moment 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 bout of 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, “By this everyone 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, who was 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 God.”
There are a few obvious 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, lodge 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. Thus the appeal of the pop song from a few years ago, that crooned, “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.” So there immediately is 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.
But in some ways, that is even more difficult. 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 own 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 the story 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.” I suspect that is much like those of you who frequently say that our mission work needs to be involved with people in other countries, but not with groups here in the United States or even individuals here on the island. Sometimes it’s devilishly hard to really love those close at hand.
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 when he said this, 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, then, we are to love one another that fully. Yikes!
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 on Maundy Thursday as part of a religious ritual. So what does loving one another within the church look like?
Well, I think that we can get some understanding by looking back at the early church, which took Jesus’ new command seriously. Tertullian, who lived from about A.D. 160 to 220, was a leader in the church in Carthage in North Africa. He wrote extensively about the Christianity of his time and described how church members contributed money to help others, both inside and outside the church. He called their gifts “piety’s deposit fund,” and he said that the monies “are not taken thence and spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s church. ...”
Tertullian went on to tell how outsiders regarded all these charitable good deeds: “... it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many [outside the church] to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another…how they are ready even to die for one another.”
Since Tertullian was a church leader himself, we might think that he was simply putting the best light on the church’s behavior, except that we also have the testimony of a critic of Christianity by the name Lucian, who was roughly a contemporary of Tertullian. Lucian was a Greek satirist, sort of the Jon Stewart of his day. In one of his books, he mocks the reckless generosity of Christians, who sacrificially helped a person they did not even know simply because that person claimed to be a Christian.
So certainly, one way to live out Jesus’ command to love one another is through charitable support. In that regard, however, the actions are much the same as might be extended to someone in need outside the church, in obedience to Jesus’ larger command to love our neighbor.
Francis Schaeffer, who 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.
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 have all known of parents who went to extraordinary lengths to help one of their offspring, far beyond what they would 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 child 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.
We cannot explain ahead of time what it will mean to be Christlike 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. Amen.
Lucian, The Passing of Peregrinus, tertullian.org/rpearse/lucian/peregrinus.htm.
Schaeffer, Francis A. The Mark of the Christian. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1975.
Song, Sora. “Do I know you?” Time, July 17, 2006.
Tertullian, Apology 39, earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian01.html.