How Can Anyone Tell?

Fifth Sunday of Easter


Would anyone know what you did for a living if you never mentioned it when you meet them? Some people just have that unique look that gives it away. Maybe it’s just a stereotype and doesn’t fit everyone. Maybe the look comes from iconic historical figures and famous characters in the movies and on TV. But if you know actual people personally who don’t fit that look, then you don’t buy into the stereotype. For example, picture in your head what a college or grad school professor looks like. I’m not going to ask you what you see, but you have a picture in your head. I’m picturing someone who has a very difficult name to spell and doesn’t own a hairbrush. I know it’s a stereotype. And that doesn’t even describe most of my professors. Okay two, one in college and one in graduate school. But that’s exactly the point. The most general image that comes to mind will contain very specific details although that same image will contain so much more than we can describe in words. Now I’m afraid some college professor will take me aside after mass to set the record straight. Bear with me.

Changing subjects, which of the Supreme Court justices comes to mind when you think what a judge looks like? Are you picturing someone you like? Someone you don’t like? Someone long dead? Now picture a blues musician. A meteorologist on TV. An Olympic medalist. A straight-A student. A cancer patient. A recovering drug addict. A Disney princess. And yet there are no wrong answers.

My philosophy professor would remind us of Aristotle’s definition of substance and accidents. The substance of something contains the essential defining characteristics distinguishing it from all other things. If you picture a chair, your picture will differ from everybody else’s. But nobody will be picturing an umbrella or a fighter jet or a Christmas tree. We can tell what makes a chair a chair. The “chair-ness” of a chair is its substance. And the specific differences that distinguish one chair from another would be its accidents, meaning they could be removed or replaced without significantly altering the substance. For instance, some chairs will have armrests; some provide adequate lumbar support; some would rock or swivel; and some would be covered in plastic and be available only for the pope and other visiting dignitaries.

In those days of the early church, Paul and Barnabas proclaimed the gospel in towns and villages all across the region, making a considerable number of disciples and appointing elders to each of the churches. As they brought the gospel message to the gentiles they encountered sometimes vehement resistance from people who believed good Christians had first to be good Jews. Eventually Paul and Barnabas came before the Council of Jerusalem to make their case, and the council ruled in their favor. And in the next few centuries ecumenical councils convened to define the essential beliefs and structure of the Christian church. Although local churches and Christian communities and individual persons professed the same essential beliefs, they also retained qualities that distinguished them one from another. The substance of the Christian faith would set us apart from other faiths. But we would all be Christian in uniquely different ways.

Jesus does set the bar for his disciples and followers. “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” It sounds simple enough yet we could use a little help. I say we turn to Aristotle and what he tells us about substance and accidents. We who claim to be disciples of Jesus come in different shapes, sizes, and colors. Many of us come to church, some not as often. We do our best to sincerely live by what our Christian faith teaches, some wholeheartedly, some reluctantly, some grudgingly, and probably some not at all. Occasionally we compare ourselves with other Christians not maliciously, just to assure ourselves we’re not outliers, neither holy rollers nor Jezebels and Judases. We are content just to be somewhere in between.

But can we claim to be disciples of Jesus if we exclude and drive away those who think or live differently from us? Our inability to conduct a mature dialogue on vitally important social and religious issues is an epic failure on our part. We like to think we know and do what’s important as good citizens and good Christians. But Jesus says it’s all about our witness of love for one another, not about how we impose our thinking or way of life on others. It’s not about what we wear. It’s not about the prayers we say. It’s not about that holy angle that distinguishes people who claim to be holy. We can claim whatever priorities makes us more Christian, or declare which charismatic leader speaks for us, or defend our preferred religious practices and traditions. But Jesus tells us it is by our love for one another that all will know we are his disciples. Our vicious infighting and name-calling accomplish none of that. And if our actions and way of life create resentment and reject other followers of Jesus, then we haven’t been paying much attention and have gone completely rogue.

Ultimately it’s all about the substance of our Christian identity which is truly the witness of our lives. If those who hear us and see how we live can tell, we’re probably on track. But if no one can tell or they’re telling us something else, it’s time we revisit our priorities. John saw the new Jerusalem in a vision, God’s dwelling place among us. Would God choose to dwell with us right now? And will Jesus be convinced we are his disciples we claim we are?

Rolo B Castillo © 2022

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