I have issues with church signs… or, maybe I just have issues. It all started with the church in the community where I grew up that would post a new, pious, borderline self-righteous message on the church sign each week. When my grandfather was dying of liver cancer through no fault of his own, the sign in front of the church that week just happened to read: “Bad Liver? Bad Liver!” An unfortunate coincidence to be sure, but obviously very formative. Twenty-five years later, I can still picture the sign with its black letters and its short, sweet, cutting little message.
Over the years, my issues with church signs have not abated. I think I am worse. In the midst of the controversy with different state legislatures pitting religious rights against civil rights agendas, a friend of mine on Facebook posted a photo of a church sign that read: “I believe in the separation of church and hate.”
“Ah,” you are thinking, “a foolproof message!” How can anyone, even someone with an allergic reaction to all church signs, have a problem with that one? Who could oppose such a slogan? What red-blooded Christian wouldn’t go along with that message, except maybe for a few hate groups – and even they probably wouldn’t want to be associated with or labeled with the term “hate.”
But the problem is such a church sign, as high-minded as it seems, is actually telling a lie.
Wouldn’t life be easy if we could simply extract the hate out of our lives, out of ourselves, even out of our communal lives, and bottle it up so that we could all be hate-free? Perhaps we could incorporate additional messages to our church signs, saying things like: “Not only are we hate-free, we believe in the separation of church and all forms of sin” or “We believe in the separation of church from all types of sinners” or “We believe in the separation of church from all the people we disagree with and think are narrow minded.” Obviously we do not want to encourage our communities of faith to foment hate or prejudice or to perpetuate sin, but we seek to love one another and love everyone knowing that we are flawed, broken, and always in danger, if we are not careful, of becoming what we detest and hate.
My issues go beyond signs. Everyone knows the hymn, “They Will Know we Are Christians by our Love.” Who could have issues with that simple, clear and beautiful message? Well I’ve got problems with that message, too. I don’t think the gospel message and Jesus Christ’s own visibility in the world should be contingent on how good I am at practicing love. To be fair, Jesus’ most devoted followers weren’t much better at showing much love when the stakes were at their highest… by the time Good Friday rolled around, it was every man for himself, self-preservation, survival. If the only way the world is going to know we are Christians is because we are superior at the practice of love, then I worry we are running a fool’s errand.
Will they know we are Christians by our love? Well yes, if you are talking about the love that forgives us when we are too timid to follow through and then continues to love us when we disappear and cannot be counted on for support.
Will they know we are Christians by our love? Well yes, if you are talking about a love that is faithful to us as it hangs on a cross and refuses to turn its back on us even we have cut our losses and aren’t very loveable.
Will they know we are Christians by our love? Well yes, if you are talking about a community of faith that in spite of its own sinful and flawed personalities, personalities who cannot help but bicker with each other, yet whose life together somehow mysteriously reflects the love of Jesus Christ.
They will know we are Christians as we point not to our own love or any of our modest achievements or human potential, but as we point to the One who loved us at our worst and whose love persists to the very depths of us and all the hate and evil in us and in the world; far from separating from such hate, Jesus embraces it, refusing to separate from and turn his back on such sinners and all the betrayal and troubles we create. It is a love that makes no sense, knows no bounds and that we ourselves must learn over and over again.
So yes, they will know we are Christians by love… but it is the love of the One who does not separate the church from hate, but welcomes sinners – even those complicit in his death. It is a love that holds us together, overcomes our broken ways, and includes many that would never get an invitation if we were in charge. It is Christ’s love that they should know… a love much deeper and stronger and faithful than our half-baked attempts at it. A love that does not separate from hate or evil or anything else in all creation, but embraces it and loves it to the end.
CHRIS CURRIE is pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Shreveport, Louisiana.