Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. – Holy Baptism, ELW p. 231
[Jesus said], “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:35
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, 40 days before Easter. Lent has traditionally been a time of focused spirituality and reconnecting with self, neighbors, and God. Some people fast, or give up something, in an effort to be more deliberate about what they put into their bodies and minds. (I’ve known people to give up everything from chocolate to single-use plastics to swearing!) Almsgiving, or the practice of giving to those in need, forces us to broaden our perspective to see the suffering around us. Prayer connects us more deliberately to God. Some Christians follow the same Lenten disciplines each year; others pick something new each year. Lent lasts until Easter, about 6 weeks of focused spiritual disciplines. (If you’re wondering why it adds up to more than 40 days, it’s because Sundays aren’t counted. Weird, huh?)
In seminary, my friends and I had a silly tradition: after Ash Wednesday worship services, which we had usually been helping lead, we’d go out for dinner just to enjoy the funny looks we’d get from other diners on account of our ash-smudged foreheads. It wasn’t exactly in keeping with Jesus’ command to pray and fast secretly, not for the attention of other people, but it was oddly satisfying. Especially, we’d grin whenever another table would come in, their foreheads marked with an ashen blot, and we’d exchange knowing glances: we knew why each of us had dirty faces. It was Ash Wednesday, and for that one day, Christians were easily recognizable by the cross we wore.
Most days, there’s no easy way to tell who’s a Christian and who isn’t. Sure, you might see somebody wearing a cross necklace, or perhaps a pastor in a collar or a nun in a habit, but by and large, you can’t tell a Christian apart by looking at them. Even though we’re marked at baptism with the cross of Jesus Christ, that’s an invisible marker, not something we can look at every day. It’s also true that some of Christianity’s most visible members have also been its least flattering, from the crusaders to the Westboro Baptist Church. So how will everyone know who’s a Christian, if you can’t tell by looking and the public examples aren’t always great?
On the night before he died, Jesus told his closest friends, the disciples, that the way to identify followers of Jesus is simple: by the love they have for one another. That’s it. Not by ashy crosses once a year, not by WWJD bracelets, not by any other outward symbol: just by love. At their best, Lenten disciplines nourish love and let it grow. Whatever someone does for Lent– praying daily, giving to charity instead of their Netflix subscription, quitting smoking, you name it– these are things that matter not because they make God love us, but because in some way they show our love to the world.
Last week, Valentine’s Day reminded us that we can love only because God loves us. Jesus’ words remind us that the love we show is the firmest evidence that we are following him. The cross we wear, visible on Ash Wednesday and hidden every other day, is the promise that we are loved and chosen by God. The world will know we are Christians because of our love.
God, help me to love you, love my neighbors, and love myself. Let the cross of Christ be shown in my love. Amen.