“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34)
The other day I found myself in the Burger King in the Philadelphia Mills parking lot. I’d been in my church office down the street all day, handled some stuff, taught my Confirmation class, and I had an hour to kill before Praise Team rehearsal. I also had a coupon for a small bacon cheeseburger, fries, and a soda for three bucks. Now you can’t beat that with a stick, can you?
So I’m standing in line at the Burger King and I start to feel kind of weird and out of place. Most of the staff and most of the customers were African American. Everybody was polite enough, waiting their turn in line, but I was struck with the uncommon feeling that I was now a minority. I looked at the other patrons and realized how very little I knew or understood about them. There were, of course, some white folks in the place too, but even they made me feel somewhat estranged. They were the kind of people one meets in Northeast Philly—hard-living, working-class guys who keep their ball caps on while they eat. A woman got in line next to me. She was dressed in a sweat suit, about 40 lbs. overweight, reeking of cigarette smoke, and “tatted-up” with more ink than the press room at the Philadelphia Inquirer. A young mom came in, obviously irritated with her two blubbering toddlers, and making no effort to hide her displeasure.
And there I was, a middle-class, suburban white boy with two masters degrees suddenly recognizing what an awful snob I was. Truth be told, if I were to follow any of these Burger King patrons to their jobs, I’d be as useless to them as a Speedo in a blizzard. I may be an okay theologian, but I have no practical skills whatsoever. I have very little experience working with my hands, dealing with the public, or managing children. If this Burger King were suddenly lifted up by a tornado, dropped on a deserted island, and we all had to band together for survival, I would be the most expendable person there.
And what the Holy Spirit told me in that moment was, “Look around, Griff. You’re called to love these people. You don’t have to understand them, and they don’t have to understand you. But you have to love them.”
In the Gospel lesson this Sunday (John 13:31-35), Jesus exhorts his followers to love as he has loved them. This exhortation comes right after he’s washed their feet on the night of his betrayal. That was a pretty important lesson in love. Jesus—the teacher—did the work of a slave or a child for his disciples. With that action, he tore apart the barrier of class and position. Real, honest love can’t know distinction of persons.
Just to make sure we got the point, the folks who cooked up the Revised Common Lectionary yoked this Gospel reading with a passage from Acts (Acts 11:1-18) in which Peter gets a divine message to spread the Good News to uncircumcised gentiles. “The Spirit told me to go with them, and not to make distinction between them and us,” he says in verse 12.
Unfortunately, making distinctions is something we sinful humans are particularly adroit at doing. We keep hearing in the news about the division here in the United States—the gap between rich and poor, gender inequality, racial division, and (topping the list) political polarization.
So okay. We all know this is wrong, but I wonder if we only know it in a theoretical sense. I don’t think any one of us is going to go out and change the world this week, but I’d like to propose a little exercise. Here it is: Go to the mall this week. Or to a fast food place. Sit in the waiting room at your doctor’s office. Ride the bus to work. Go grocery shopping. Look around at the faces you see. Really look at people. Then remind yourself that you are a Christian, and that you are called to love and serve these strangers.
(But try not to creep them out when you’re doing it.)
Let me know how it makes you feel, okay?