Easter 4, Year B, April 22, 2018
Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“We know love by this, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” Thus begins our reading from First John. And Jesus also talks about laying down his life for us on the cross in our reading from the Gospel of John: “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” This is sacrifice of the greatest nature. Being willing to die in order to save someone else. Imagine what the Christian community would be like if we all followed this example. It’s a model of Christian life—and death—that doesn’t quite fit with the ways we tend to think about Christian love and generosity.
On the surface, it does. There’s lots of talk, in Christian circles, about love. Lots of talk about sacrifice, and service. Jesus gave everything, so we should too. But have you ever noticed how often that ethos of loving service and self-sacrifice ends up, in practice, turning into a bit of superficial niceness?
Jesus’ command to love and serve becomes superficial niceness through a refusal to let that love transform our hearts and minds. It’s relatively easy to paste a smile on our face, even if that means hiding what we’re really feeling. Have you ever done that? Maybe you don’t agree with someone, or you’re hurt by something they said, but you want to be ‘nice’ and Christians are supposed to get along, and so you don’t say anything and smile and change the subject. Now, that niceness right then might prevent a fight … but it also prevents the possibility of reconciliation and healing. Maybe they didn’t realize they hurt you. Maybe you didn’t understand where they were coming from. Maybe, if you’d sat down and talked it out in love, you could have found common ground and a deeper mutual respect.
And maybe not. Love can’t solve all disagreements. But there is no possibility of that deeper understanding without taking the risk of being open and loving. That niceness may prevent an open disagreement, but it can’t bring you closer together. In a world where our whole culture is telling us not to trust one another, to be suspicious of people who think or act or look differently than we do, being nice is at least better than attacking other people. But it’s not going to change us or our society for the better, either. It’s not going to overcome the gaping divisions or heal the growing wounds we inflict on one another. Niceness puts wallpaper over problems. Love puts in the hard work of healing. But to love means to make yourself vulnerable, and that’s a scary thing. So we Christians choose niceness too often.
Another way modern Christians interpret Jesus’ command to love and serve is through the pay-it-forward idea. Which, at its heart, is a good idea. Instead of looking at the world as a dog-eat-dog place out to get you, try to increase the amount of good in the world by doing good deeds for others without expecting them to pay you back. As Christians, we are supposed to be doing good deeds and helping others in the name of Jesus. But have you ever noticed how often pay-it-forward gets boiled down to simple, cheap, and easy things like “buy coffee for the person behind you in line”? Buying coffee for others is great. But if that’s the sum total of the way you act out your Christian love and charity, if the only times you take time, effort, and money out of your busy life to serve others is when it’s cheap and convenient, that’s pretty superficial. It’s nothing like the deep love for one another Jesus calls us to have, the kind of love that is willing to lay down our lives for the sake of others.
Christian love is transformative. Laying down your life for the sake of love can change the world. Jesus laid down his life out of love for the world, and it broke the power of sin and death, opening up the way of salvation for us. Jesus laid down his life out of love for us, and that changed the world on a fundamental level: it means that however strong the powers of sin and death may seem, they are ultimately going to lose and be defeated by the love of God. Now, obviously, us laying down our lives for the sake of others isn’t on quite the same scale, but it can still transform the world.
Consider Dashrath Manjhi, of Bihar, India. Manjhi was a poor laborer who lived in a small town that was 15km away from the nearest hospital … as the crow flew. Unfortunately, there was a mountain in the way, forcing people to travel 55km to get around it. In 1966, his wife Falguni Devi was injured and died. Manjhi set out to prevent anyone else from dying because they could not get to the hospital. He was a poor man, who had nothing but a hammer and chisel. It took him 22 years, but he carved a 9m wide road through the mountain, so that now the hospital—and the city it’s part of—is easy to get to for everyone in his region. It saved lives and opened up economic opportunities for his whole region. His love, and his sacrifice of 22 years of backbreaking labor, changed everything. And if you hear this true story and tell yourself “I could never do anything like that,” consider this. How much less time do you think it would have taken if the rest of the community had helped? If they’d all come together instead of laughing at him for being so ambitious?
Consider Leymah Gbowee, a Lutheran woman from Monrovia, Liberia, in Africa. Her country was torn by religious, ethnic, and political turmoil that caused a civil war. She started working with a church group to help people heal from the trauma of war, and from there she started gathering women from all sides of the conflict and bringing them together to work for peace. They prayed for peace in churches and mosques, they talked to everyone who would listen, and through their tireless efforts the war was ended. After the war, they continued to work for reconciliation and peace, bringing people from all different backgrounds together and helping them rebuild their lives. Gbowee and her followers were tireless in their actions to bring both justice and mercy to a country that was desperately in need of both. They gave counseling and support to women who had been raped and abused, they gave counseling and job training to young men who had grown up fighting, they insisted that the re-united country build a sustainable future which had room for everyone in it. They did it out of love for their fellow human beings and hope for the future, and in so doing they transformed Liberia and are bringing peace and stability to the neighboring countries.
Consider Bikers Against Child Abuse. They’re a motorcycle gang whose goal is to protect victims of child abuse and help them feel safe. When a child has been abused, they volunteer their time to act as bodyguards as long as the child needs them, to help them understand that their abuser can’t hurt them any more. It helps children who have experienced the worst things a child can start to feel safe again and heal. They give of their time and attention so that the most vulnerable children can know the life-giving and positive love that God wants for them.
Consider the Community Cupboard of Underwood. Before we started it, I knew there were people who were poor and hungry in our community. But I was surprised, as we started up and learned more, at how many of them there were. How many people in our community have trouble affording enough food to feed themselves and their families. But by coming together as a community, now there is help for people who need it. And we’ve helped with other things, too—helping people find housing they can afford, or household goods, or clothing they can wear to work and not feel ashamed of. It’s taken a lot of time and effort and resources, and nobody could have done it alone. But together we’ve improved the lives of people living right here in Underwood. Out of love for our fellow people of Underwood, a whole lot of people have laid down their time and money, and made our community better.
Hate can’t lead to transformation; it can only lead to destruction. Fear can’t lead to transformation; it can only lead to defensiveness. Self-righteousness can’t lead to transformation; it can only lead to judgmentalism and legalism. The only thing that can transform the world for the better—the only thing that can make this world a little bit more like God’s kingdom—is love.
Jesus Christ showed us what love is by laying down his life for our salvation, and the salvation of the world. He chose to do what was hard, and painful, because he loved us. And he calls us to love one another as he has loved us. Most of us won’t be called to die for someone else, but laying down your life can take many forms: laying down your time, your attention, your money. And sometimes it’s hard. But imagine what the world would be like if we all took that command to love seriously. If we all were willing to lay down our lives, and all that entails, out of love. May we all learn to follow Jesus’ example.