When I was in sixth grade I suggested Jesus was like a benefactor when my Sunday School teacher asked our class to describe Jesus in one word. She was as eager to teach us a lesson on Christ like behavior as I was to try out a new vocabulary word. I remember her saying, “If we’re to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world, we ought to know his character so we know what we’re doing!”
She thoughtfully entertained my response before asking me to explain. I said Jesus was a benefactor because he gave all he had to help other people and to show them what God’s love is all about. My early description may not have been sophisticated enough to hold up in a theology class but my Sunday school teacher didn’t argue. Instead she pointed me to the book of I John to explore what it meant for me to be Christ like in the world.
The memory is still clear after many years because that lesson was foundational to my faith development. And at my teacher’s suggestion, I read 1 John and memorized several verses that I find myself rattling off more often than I imagined when I first committed them to memory. I would later discover that my description of Jesus as a benefactor wasn’t too far off from a word the author of I John used to describe Jesus in scripture: an advocate (paraklete).
Thinking of Jesus as my advocate helped me to understand him in a new way. If I believed Jesus to be God’s love incarnate living and dying on behalf of all creation, surely my life ought to be a reflection of gratitude as I followed Jesus’ teaching on how to live. First John challenged me to take the commandment to love each other seriously, not just in word, but in “truth and action (3:18).”
The realization informed my activity of the hands and feet of Christ in the world. It made sense to me that whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked (2:6),” so I set out with Jesus not only as my advocate, but as my guide to advocate for others.
The journey led me to activism in college on behalf of those whose lives were altered and opportunities limited by European colonialism. I lived and worked in France with displaced Africans who struggled to reverse the course of corruption and oppression rooted in colonialism.
Because I followed Jesus, it came naturally to me to advocate for their right to a peaceful, productive life. And because of Jesus, I continued to believe that hope lived through me. My faith led me to discover organizations like Human Rights Watch, which did the hard work of exposing inequality and injustice in the world. My first job in the organization may have been answering the phone but just as my 6th grade Sunday school class had been, the experience was foundational.
Since then I’ve discovered that defending human rights and calling myself a Christian are one in the same. Abiding in Christ and loving my neighbor in word and deed means serving as an advocate for those the world would disregard.
Since my college days, I’ve sought out others whose lives reflected a similar ethos and found myself working for Jimmy Carter at The Carter Center where the programs to expose and eradicate human suffering are a reflection of his faith. I’ve witnessed God’s love expressed in The Carter Center’s work, and it was transformational.
No matter my role—whether an activist, student, teacher, volunteer, parent, or now a minister—I continue to live my faith in word and deed. And I pray that my example, however imperfect, might inspire and empower others to do the same.
One of the things I love about the Christian scriptures is the role imagination plays. The Gospel accounts allow us to imagine the power of their influence our own life stories. They invite us to imagine Jesus standing before us now, and like my Sunday School did so many years ago, describe him in a word. They nudge us to imagine a world where God’s perfect love makes all things right and they compel us into Christ like action to advocate on behalf of our brothers and sisters in humanity.
“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” (1 John 3:16)
How do you live the commandment to love one another in word and deed?