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Sun, May 10, 2020

He Laid Down His Life

Our Second Reading for this morning comes from the First Letter of John, chapter 3, verses 11-16. This is our fourth week with First John in a series we have called “Because God First Loved Us.” Throughout this series we have seen the disciple likes to create clear contrasts: light vs. darkness; truth vs. lies; the fellowship vs. the world; children of God vs. children of the devil. Today we find another contrast - love vs. hate and murder - and the chief example is none other than Jesus himself. So, let us read and seek to hear God’s word to us together in chapter 3, verses 11-16

11 For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12 We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13 Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15 All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. 16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

In the movies and on television, it is usually portrayed as the ultimate noble act. For example, in a recent episode of the show Station 19, a retired firefighter, knowing his days are short as cancer spreads through his body, climbs to the roof of a burning building. With a strength he no longer possesses, in slow motion with dramatic music, he repeatedly swings an ax to create a hole in the building’s roof. Once open, the hole allows oxygen to re-enter the building, literally bringing the breath of life to the entire company of firefighters trapped inside. But the compromised roof collapses under the hero’s weight, just as he knew it would, and he falls to his death. It is the ultimate gift of self-sacrifice, it is noble and true. Laying down our lives for one another.

Yes, the soldier in battle who saves his platoon or the one struck by a speeding car after pushing a friend out of the way or the mother who gives her portion of dinner to her child because there is not enough for them both or the doctors, nurses, medical professionals, and importantly the janitorial staff of hospitals across this country volunteering to care for those most ill from COVID-19 at the risk of their own lives. The ultimate gift of self-sacrifice, it is noble and true. Laying down our lives for one another. This is what love is. As we read in our text for today, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us.”

Yes, that is what love is. This is the good news of the gospel. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Not because we deserve it or earned it or even asked for it. No, Christ died for us. The Word became flesh and laid down its life so that we might be set free, so that we might be redeemed, so that we might know faith, hope, love, and joy. There is no greater gift that we can receive. Christ laid down his life for you and for me.

But the question that has perplexed me this week is, “What do we do with that good news?” Our verses for today begin a new section of this letter. Because now we know what love is. He laid down his life for us. Today we know that there are those who are literally laying down their life so that we might live. But what do we do with that? What does life look like for those who have received such a gift?

The answer here is: “we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” But I do not think that is our typical response.

No, on the one hand there is what we will call “The Giving Tree” response. “The Giving Tree” is a book by poet and author Shel Silverstein. It is the story of a boy and an adoring apple tree. In his childhood, the boy enjoys playing with the tree, climbing her trunk, swinging from her branches, and eating her apples. However, as the boy grows older, he tends to visit only when he wants material items at various stages of his life. In an effort to make the boy happy, the tree gives him parts of herself which he can transform into material items, such as money from her apples, a house from her branches, and a boat from her trunk. The tree literally lays down her life for the boy.

And yet, from beginning to end the boy takes from the tree. The boy never responds to the Tree’s self sacrifice with any kind of gratitude or self-giving of his own. He just keeps taking and then coming back for more. As one commentator writes, “The boy and the tree are both “flawed,” and in the most old-fashioned way, their flaws … determine their fates. … ‘The Giving Tree’ is in part a disturbing tale of unconditional love, in part a tender tale of the monsters that we are.”

Yes, the monsters that we are. I am afraid that the first way we respond to Christ’s laying down his life for us is with a sense of entitlement and forgetfulness. Life transforming good news becomes mundane. No need to worry about sinning because God forgives everything, right? Responsibility to my neighbors, I’ll get around to that someday … after I’ve taken care of myself.

Now, on the other hand, as opposed to entitlement the recipients of such a great gift of love also might respond with what is called, “survivor’s guilt.” The television show Station 19 explores this in the wake of the retired firefighter’s self-sacrifice. Understandably grief-stricken at the death of their former captain, for some in the company grief turns into a kind of despair or depression, an inability to work and function, and even self-destructive behaviors like anger and alcohol.

Survivor’s guilt manifests in other ways too. For example, a graduate student from Syria worries over the fate of his family and country while he studies mathematics in the United States. He says, “I didn’t do anything to deserve being safe. How can I sit and play with numbers all day when my family is suffering?”

Or you may remember the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens. Singer Waylon Jennings was supposed to be on that plane, but gave up his seat so that the flu stricken Big Bopper wouldn’t have to ride in the unheated tour bus. Holly joked he hoped Jennings froze on the bus. Twenty-year-old Jennings joked back, “I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” Decades later, Jennings said in an interview, “God Almighty, for years I thought I caused that plan to go down.”

Yes, survivor’s grief, disbelief, are a common way to respond to Christ’s laying down his life for us. Life transforming good news is seen as bad news because one we so loved is gone. It must be our fault. The preacher says we are forgiven, but he doesn’t really know what I’ve done. I’m holding on because I’m not done punishing myself yet. I don’t deserve this act of love and I can’t quite figure out how to live with myself now that I’ve received it.

Entitlement and forgetfulness - guilt and disbelief. It is no wonder that the first letter of John has to remind his readers of what Jesus had told his disciples, “No one has greater love than this - to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

My friends, We know love by this, that Christ laid down his life for us. This is what love is. This is the good news of the gospel. We have received the greatest gift.

So, once again, what do we do with this good news? What does it look like to respond faithfully to the great gift we have received? Sure, we ought to lay down our lives for one another. But what does that really mean?

Our text for today indicates that the first murder in scripture - Cain’s killing of his brother Abel - is the opposite of laying down one’s life for another. We all know the sixth commandment - “Thou shall not kill,” but we often fail to recognize that the Ten Commandments are not just prohibitions against bad behavior. Instead, they are really the means of organizing a community of faith so that all may flourish. Thus, our Presbyterian Reformed Tradition seeks to interpret the commandments not just as negatives but with their corresponding responsibilities. So, in the Westminster Larger Catechism we find the Answer to question 135:

The sixth commandment [thou shall not kill] requires us to do our best to make every lawful effort to preserve our own life and the lives of others. We do this by not thinking about or planning, by controlling our emotions, and by avoiding all opportunities, temptations, or actions that would promote or lead to the unjust taking of someone’s life. In the pursuit of that goal, we must defend others from violence, patiently endure the afflictions from God’s hand, have a quiet mind and a cheerful spirit, practice temperance in the way we eat, drink, take medications, sleep, work, and play. We should also harbor charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, and kindness. Our speech and behavior should be peaceful, mild, and courteous. We should be tolerant of others, be ready to be reconciled, patiently put up with and forgive injuries against us, and return good for evil. Finally, we should provide aid and comfort to those in distress as well as protect and defend the innocent.

Wow - that’s a lot more than we might think when we first hear, “Thou shall not kill.” But, my friends, this is the way of love. This is how we lay down our lives for one another. There may be a heroic opportunity for you to do so. But most often it is in the ordinary moments of everyday life that we make every lawful effort to preserve our own lives and the lives of others. We do everything we can to prevent the unjust taking of another’s life. We defend others from violence. We seek for our lives to be witnesses of the gospel. We provide aid and comfort to those in distress and protect the innocent. Yes, in the ordinary moments of everyday life, this is how we respond to the life transforming good news that Christ laid down his life for you and for me. This is how we lay down our lives for one another.

My friends, the Christian life is a life laid down for others. And as we do so we discover that something extraordinary happens. Not in slow motion and with dramatic music, but in the ordinary moments of life we discover that laying down our life is not really a sacrifice after all. No, it is an invitation to meaning and relationship; it is an opportunity to see and create the world as God would have it be; it brings greater life to our earthly days than we ever dreamed possible because it unites us with the one who laid down his life for us and yet took it up again in resurrection. May we so love one another this day and each day that is to come.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:

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