Sermon: Laying Down Our Lives

“Laying Down Our Lives”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
1John 3:16-24 and John 10:11-18
April 26, 2015

Choir Anthem: “God You Made Us In Your Image”

Sermon Audio

The letter that we call 1st John provides a window into life in an early Christian community, one which was experiencing threats from within as well as persecution from without. It was written probably within 100 years of Jesus crucifixion, and members of the community were already at odds with each other over who Jesus was and how his followers were supposed to live out their faith. The author, reminds them that trusting Jesus as their model, would allow them to grow in love for God and one another, and assuring them that in this way they would grow in their resemblance to Him so that at some time and in some way when they saw Jesus face to face, they would see themselves in him.

And they also knew that as they sought to follow Christ, to love as he loved, an expectation was placed on them to live, not only with love for one another, but with a willingness to sacrifice for one another. In the gospel reading that Beth read earlier, Jesus spoke of the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Jesus calls himself the Good shepherd, and speaks of the willingness with which the shepherd lays down his life. It is not taken from him; he gives it willing as an act of love and grace for those within his care.

The reading from 1st John takes up this image and amplifies it for us to help us see that there may be only one Good Shepherd (with capital letters), but we are meant to be shepherds in training. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

Obviously during the time that John was writing, many people were physically laying down their lives for Christ and for one another. Everyone in John’s little community probably knew of someone who had been martyred – dying in the arena, attacked by wild animals, burned at the stake, flayed alive, or used for target practice by spear-wielding gladiators. Persecution, torture, and execution at the hands of the Romans were common. So it could be as the author is writing to this young and persecuted congregation, he is reminding them that such a sacrifice might be required of them someday; that they might be called on to do as Jesus did out of their great love for him and for their community of the faithful.

While that is still the context for Christians in some parts of the world – just think for a moment of the 12 men recently beheaded by ISIS — it is not an issue that we Americans have to fear, although there are some politicians who are trying to gain popularity and votes in certain areas by claiming that American Christians are being persecuted ferociously every day. But, instead of claiming their so-called martyrdom bravely, they just whine about how unfair it is!

Realistically, it is easier for us to contemplate Jesus as our Good Shepherd who loves and protects us from life’s marauding wolves, laying down his life for us, dying on the cross to save us, than it is for us to think about how we might imitate him in such sacrifice or even imagine where or when such ultimate sacrifice might be called for. It’s a one in a million chance that we will ever be called on for an heroic act of sacrifice while defending our faith.

But John says, “The Good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep,” and, “we know love by this, he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” Since we don’t live in such a dangerous environment as our forebears in faith, how are we to understand this commandment in our own lives? How ought we to lay down our lives for one another? As much as our culture is drawn toward superhero images, perhaps there is a slightly more mundane and less dramatic way in which we can be obedient to this call on and for our lives.

It is true, isn’t it, although not very spectacular, that we are laying down our lives every day, moment by moment, breath by breath. When we come to the end of today, we’ll have one less day to live than we did at the same time yesterday. That time is gone forever. We laid it down. The choice we have then, is in how we lay down our lives and what we lay it down for.

We’re given some guidance by John’s very next words: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” This reminds me of what the letter of James says, “What good is it, my brothers and sister, if you say you have faith but do not have works?   . . .If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”

John and James seem to agree that all the fine speeches and good wishes in the world do not count for much. What counts is how much of our time – our life – is given to the welfare of others. I am always so thankful for each of you and how willing you are to give your time in the service of others – Our United Methodist Men who spend time frequently in projects to better the lives of others – building, repairing, painting – whatever it takes. Those of you who volunteer for Our Daily Bread and Interfaith or Parking for God. Our Sunday School teachers – how many hours do you give to prepare for each Sunday morning lesson for our children! Our choir members who come back to church on Sunday evenings to learn new music and who take time every year to go to Choir Music Weekend to learn more. And in the last 2 years, the members of our building committee – If it’s Tuesday night do you know where Maxine, Sharon, Carla, Jim, Sheree, and Beth are? And then there are those saints who provide dinner for us every Tuesday night. And I could go on and on.

There are many ways to be followers of Christ, but they all seem to involve getting busy and helping out – doing something for others, contributing time and talent for the benefit of others. We can’t profess our loyalty to the Good Shepherd, and yet act like the hired hand Jesus condemned, running away from responsibility, abandoning the vulnerable, not caring for those in danger. All of that takes time, that precious non-renewable commodity that once gone, cannot be regained.

But there is one other way as well that we can lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters in addition to giving our time, and it may be the most difficult and the most important. If the truth be told, some of us find it easier to give time than to give ourselves.

Laying down our lives for others means giving up our egos too. How much of my “self” am I willing to lay down? We all have created an idea of what our “life” is – our role, our title, our position, our personal image. We have our boundaries, our need for control, our desire for approval and inclusion, our need for affirmation, affection, power, success. Can we lay them down for a friend? Especially if that friend happens to disagree with us disappoint us or is estranged from us? Or is being right more important than being in relationship.

The more we are able to set aside the walls we’ve built around ourselves that we define as our “self,” the more openness we have to living sacrificially for others. This doesn’t mean not having any values or principles; indeed, we have to have them in order to know when to set them aside. Jesus knew the law and revered it; but then he knew when to modify it or leave it behind. The law said don’t eat with sinner; but he ate with tax collectors and prostitutes. The law said, “don’t work on the Sabbath,” but he healed on the Sabbath. He knew the law and he know its limitations. There are limitations to all of the values, laws, identities, boundaries, rules or regulations we have set for ourselves, and the real task of life is to figure out when and how to go beyond them for the sake of another. That’s laying down our lives where we really live and where it really counts.

Friday afternoon and all day yesterday George and I attended the Reconciling Ministries workshop on just this issue. How can we talk together and share with respect and love for one another our opinions, beliefs, and concerns about fully including the LGBTQ community in the life of the church and in society at large. We discovered what a trying, stressful task it can be to listen well with patience and respect, and to express our thoughts without becoming angry or defensive or scared or tongue-tied when we talk about difficult issues. It is one thing to talk with a like-minded person, but quite another to stay in conversation with someone with opposite beliefs and understandings. It’s so much easier and so tempting to cut the conversation short, to retreat into a safe corner; and it is so very difficult to be vulnerable and engaged, to risk what might feel like one’s life, one’s identity, one’s strongly held position, for the sake of giving the other person a voice and a hearing.

That’s true in any relationship we have. Even our most intimate relationships with family and friends. How willing are we to lay down our lives – our opinions, our desire to be right, our own neediness – in order to see the other person whole and to preserve or improve our understanding of one another?

Maybe now is a good time to see where we are – to consider how far we will go, what we can relinquish of both our time and of our ego in order to lay down our lives for our friends as the Good Shepherd has done for us.