There is an apocryphal story about Eleanor Roosevelt hosting a dinner at the White House. At some point in the meal, one of the guests, confounded by the extensive table setting before him, mistook his finger bowl (a mini bowl filled with lemon water used to rinse one’s fingers off as needed) for a bowl of soup, picking it up and drinking from it. Without missing a beat, Mrs. Roosevelt picked up her own finger bowl and did the same. Thus, by breaking an etiquette rule, Mrs. Roosevelt did exactly what manners are supposed to do: she made someone feel more comfortable. This illustrates the notion that manners are designed not to separate people, but to bring them together. The idea is that if we have shared rules, our anxiety and discomfort about doing the right thing will be alleviated. It’s about treating each other right.
For Christians, the way we treat each other is a foundational part of our identity. In the famous Bible passage from John 13:34-35, Jesus identifies what it means to follow him – to be what we now call “Christian.” “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell them that they need to look a certain way, or live in a certain place, or follow existing civil laws. What he says, to put it in the words of the children’s song, is that people will know we are Christians by our love. It’s just that simple.
And yet for millennia, those who call themselves followers of Jesus have found other ways to identify true believers, including by what they read, who they talk to, or how they vote. Jesus, however, never talks about these things. He does not even talk about the importance of the Bible or formal religious creeds. Remember, the New Testament wasn’t even written until two generations after Jesus’ death! Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples how to measure each other; he tells them how to identify one another – and it is by their behavior, not their words.
Of course, as we all know, it’s easier to love some people than others. It’s simpler to spend time with people who believe the same things we do, who think like us, and who share our interests. Readers join book clubs; outdoor folk join scouting; and trivia buffs play “Jeopardy.” This has always been true, but it has become particularly pronounced with the advent of social media. In the past, you could manage to spend most of your time with people of like mind, but you would still encounter people who were difficult to get along with -so you learned to get along with them. But if your primary social interactions are on the internet, you can actually avoid that. Studies demonstrate that although people are more connected than ever, most do not use their connections to learn about one another and build understanding and community, but rather to strengthen their own ideas and existing social networks.
This is just as true about Christians as it is about any other group. The truth is that we are just as likely to find someone we don’t agree with – or simply find annoying – at church as anywhere else. What I have always found to be the beauty of Christian community, however, is that we are not allowed to avoid those people. We have rituals that force us to greet one another as Christians, by demonstrating love and peace.
Unfortunately, churches, like other institutions, have a long history of welcoming some people and shutting out others, often based on the idea that some people are better than others. We need to continue to unlearn this ungodly behavior, but, sadly, the advent of social media allows us to limit our communications to other Christians who believe as we do, thus endorsing our existing, often narrow views and keeping us from learning and growing – and keeping us from demonstrating the way of Jesus.
Each time we refuse to listen to those who disagree with us; each time we make a decision to keep someone out of our community because of who they are, and every, single time we use scripture to argue that a certain human viewpoint- or law-or individual -is right to provoke, fear, promote hatred, or treat anyone as less than a child of God, we violate the primary commandment of Jesus. We make ourselves bigger and God smaller.
That’s completely inconsistent with our holy scriptures, which repeatedly celebrate the greatness of the Lord – the generosity of a God who made and cares for all things -not just humans – and who asks us to care for them and praise God in harmony with them. It is my experience that this is only possible when we focus on doing God’s work. I have many friends with whom I don’t agree theologically, but I am happy to stand beside them at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter – and they are happy to stand by me. Because in those moments, when we are caring for the disenfranchised, the poor, the hated, and the marginalized, our desire to judge one another- to put our human rules ahead of the way of Jesus- fall away. In those moments, we recognize one another. We know we are Christians by our love.
Grace Episcopal Church in Martinez is a community of the Episcopal Diocese of California. We would love you to visit and worship with us. All are welcome at God’s table. Each Sunday Grace offers Holy Eucharist, Rite II from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Our 10 a.m. service is a Choral Eucharist with family activities. Children are always welcome to take part in all services at Grace. There is Nursery Care for babies and young toddlers in the Education building. At Grace, we have Godly Play (Sunday school) during the school year, but children and youth share in the ministry of the church year-round, serving as acolytes, readers, and oblation bearers. We have monthly adult education forums on the third Sunday of the month, covering social, community, and theological topics. Our Youth Group meets monthly. For more about Grace, please check out our website: www.gracechurchmtz.org