I am left in the wake of the fighting at the 2019 General Conference of the United Methodist Church reflecting on this passage:
By this everyone will know that you are my
disciples,if you have lovefor one another.” (John 13.35)
Many a sermon has been written on this passage. People hear of this and the idealizations start to spark: what if we only loved each other? Imagine how many people will come to Jesus if we only loved? Many a mission for churches and evangelism has been centered around this,
And they are wrong about it. Not only are the wrong about it, the way people are wrong about it missing the whole point of what Jesus is trying to teach the disciples. Allow me to start with a demonstration.
What does this passage NOT say. It doesn’t “people will come to Jesus, if you have love for another.” IT doens’t say “people will know you are a believer, if you have love for another.” It doesn’t say “awesome things will happen, if you have love for one another.” IT doesn’t say “you will be happy, if you have love for another.” It doesn’t say “you will be good Christians, if you have love for one another.” It doesn’t even say “people will know that you are my disciples, if you love the world/all other people.” It says this: everyone will know that you are my DISCIPLES. DISCIPLES. The Greek word for disciple is μαθητής, which is cognate to the verb μανθάνω which means learner. A disciple, a μαθητής is one who has learned from Jesus.
But to clarify, the type of learning they did wasn’t our school room type of learning where you master some set of ideas and then put those ideas into practice in an exam and getting a grade. Rather, it was learning from a person superior to you in something who taught you through question and answer, who you watched and saw do something and you imitated, who corrected you when you got it wrong and praised you when you got it right. It is a type of learning where you were vulnerable and trusting over a period of time.
Secondly, these disciples were not individual disciples who had their own spiritual journey. These were disciples that spent years together with each other, as they spent it with Jesus. They would talk with each other about the things Jesus said, learning from each other as they were learning from Jesus. And they were close to Jesus. There were plenty of other people who knew Jesus and who even was taught by Jesus on one occasion or another. But it was these disciples who Jesus poured His time and attention into.
So this helps us to understand a little bit about what Jesus. The name of Jesus was a big deal in many places. Many people had heard of him, knew of him, etc. But at the same time, he was someone who would have been quite esoteric in his day. Put in modern terms, you probably wouldn’t think he was cool or a great guy personally, but you might think he was a little bit awkward and weird at times. Nevertheless, he was someone who garnered attention by what he was capable of doing and how he taught. But even then, sometimes his teaching would cause more confusion and at times even disgust than it would be clear and enjoyable. So a sense of ambiguity, curiosity, intrigue, and confusion would surround him. This is not to mention the big dramatics that would happen on the cross and then the empty tomb. People would be trying to make sense of him and all that happened, asking “who is that guy?”
So, you want to know what this means for the original disciples. To love each other, and more specifically to love each other the way Jesus loves them, would mean this. That they saw a group of people who resembled Jesus together, that knew each other, that worked with each other. This would distinguish them from all the other people who had heard a thing or two, maybe even try to follow Jesus from time to time for
Jesus is essentially telling them: your discipleship and credentials to teach about Jesus will be based upon how you love. It is not a plan for the success of the Church; it is not a plan for personal success in evangelism. It is this: how people can determine the real thing from frauds. For instance, Paul has to deal with some people like this in 2 Corinthians, claiming to be apostles, which would have entailed a claim to personal familiarity with the risen Jesus (Paul’s familiarity through a calling on the Road to Damascus made him an exception to the way the disciples were familiar with Jesus); other people were claiming to be able to speak on behalf of Jesus. We also have church traditions suggesting this happened, that people claim they had secret teachings of Jesus that they were taught which contradicted what the disciples taught. Many people were claiming to be affiliated with Jesus and to have authority from Jesus. But not all of them were authenticated to speak on Jesus’ behalf.
So, I am left with one thing to think in line with what happened this week: The United Methodist church as a whole is not authenticated to teach others about Jesus. As a denomination as a whole, we are not disciples of Jesus together. In light of this weekend, it would be
Now, before you get angry at me or celebrate how I “tore down” the United Methodist Church, allow me to clarify, but the details are important. I am not saying the United Methodist Church or the delegates to annual conference aren’t believers. Nor am I say there are not disciples in the United Methodist Church or among the delegates. Beyond that, this is not a code word for saying a big portion are going to hell for apostasy, etc. etc. I am simply saying they, we as a church denomination have not been
And that is okay, as this is precisely why Paul talks in Ephesians 4.11-13 of God sending people with gifts to teach the body so that it can mature. But, then in 4.14-15, he reminds the Ephesians that there are people who may engage in some trickery, but the pathway forward is to speak the truth in love. There are people who are really disciples among the tribe called United Methodists, of that I am sure, although there are also people outside of our tribe who authentic discipleship could bear fruit for our tribe.
But if I learned one thing this week it is this: the pathway for faithfulness to God in this denomination does not run through trying to fix, salvage, or unite the United Methodist denominational structure, nor does it entail splitting, breaking it apart, etc. While something along those lines may be necessary for one reason or another, none of those things themselves are going to create the disciples. It takes this: real discipleship. Some will take it and receive it. Some will be content on the sidelines. Some will act like they have been disciples when they haven’t. Some will make disciples in their own image and label them disciples of Jesus. And some will want to be disciples, but Jesus will not disciple them until they come to repent for the motivations for wanting to be disciples as in John 2.24.