Text: 1 John 3:16-24
Epistle Lesson for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Series B
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
During the Second World War, Rev. George Fox, Rabbi Alexander Goode, Father John Washington, and Rev. Clark Poling were chaplains stationed aboard troop transport ship The Dorchester. The ship was struck by an enemy torpedo off the coast of Newfoundland. Panic set in among the men on board, as many of them were trapped below deck. The four chaplains quickly rallied together and began to calm the men and organize an orderly evacuation of the ship. The supply of life jackets ran out. So, the chaplains took off their own life jackets and gave them to others. They helped as many men as they could into lifeboats, and then linked arms and, saying prayers and singing hymns, went down with the ship. The chaplains were last seen praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could but they did not have a chance without their life jackets. These four chaplains sacrificed themselves, so that others could live.
I. We should lay down our lives for one another
Self-Sacrifice isn’t a phrase we hear much anymore is it? Self-sacrifice involves giving something up, and not just anything, but it’s giving something up with no thought to how it’s going to affect me. That’s the problem. We don’t like self-sacrifice because we much prefer self-indulgence, self-promotion, self-interest, or self-gratification. Our life is our most precious possession. We don’t want to give up what’s most precious to us. In direct contrast with our culture, John teaches that the essence of Christianity is a self-sacrificial commitment to the good of the other. That means that love is more fundamentally action than emotion. To give one’s own life on behalf of someone else is the greatest possible expression of love. That’s what Jesus himself said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn. 15:13)
And that’s exactly where John starts today’s epistle lesson. God loves you. That love isn’t merely a theory nor is it just a bunch of empty words. God put his money where his mouth is. We just said that the essence of Christianity is a self-sacrificial commitment to the good of the other. And that is nowhere truer than in Jesus Christ. Without any thought about himself, Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, laid down his life for the sheep, for you. Instead of self-preservation, he sought your good ahead of his own.
John says, “We know love by this, that [Christ] laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” For Christians, self-sacrifice should be ordinary, not extraordinary. The Christian life is a life laid down for others, a life built on self-sacrifice. Sometimes self-sacrifice can mean physical death. That’s the penetrating question we all must ask ourselves. Am I willing to die for another member of this congregation? Even those I dislike? Normally, we are not called to actually die for another. But the principle is the same. Laying down our lives, can mean any number of ways in which we lay aside our claim to own our lives. We lay down our lives when we put others first. We lay down our lives when we live for the good of others. We lay down our lives when we make time for others.
Life in Christian community is more than a matter of friendly words and similar interests. We are called to share our lives with each other in concrete and particular ways. What are some ways we can give ourselves to our fellow Christians? We start by looking at what needs our fellow brothers and sisters have that we can help with! Make time to visit or call our shut-ins. Make a dish for a family you know is struggling. How about ushering or serving on the altar guild? When there is a visible need to be met that would require some sacrifice from you, do you consider the needs of your brothers above your own? Christianity is not a religion for the lazy. Love is far more about doing than about talking. John wants us to see that Christ has given up his very life for us, and so we should be ready and willing to give of ourselves for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
II. We can approach God with confidence
But in our interactions with one another we fall drastically short. We realize that most of the time we are more concerned about ourselves than about others. When we begin to realize the extent to which we are called to love and serve our neighbour, and the extent to which we haven’t done that, we feel guilty. Our conscience, that’s the thing Jiminy Cricket told Pinocchio about in the Disney movie, “Always let your conscience be your guide.” Many times it isn’t our guide, and can condemn us. We sometimes can’t help but feeling that on the day of Judgment when the books are opened, we’re not going to fair well because of we’ve sinned by what we’ve done and what we’ve fail to do. Ever hear someone say—or perhaps you’ve thought it yourself—I’m too much of a sinner, I’m too far gone. Do you sometimes feel like God can’t forgive you for what you’ve done. Since we see how much we mess up, we tend to view God as an angry judge, ready to throw us to the worms.
But, if you think that God is an angry judge, you do not see him rightly. Your status with God is not dependant on anything you do. It is entirely dependent upon the Good Shepherd who laid his life down for the sheep. If you are a failure in your own eyes, take courage! Despite your failures in performance God is not angry with you because your guilt has been dealt with. God’s anger has been appeased by Jesus Christ. That’s what that word propitiation means. You can go to judgment day with a clean conscience. You have access to God himself. You can only go to God in prayer trusting and knowing that God loves you and wants good things for you. God is our father and is glad to hear from us.
III. We have union with God
Believing in Christ means believing not only that Christ saves us but also makes us like himself. Because of Jesus’ self-sacrifice, God himself dwells in the believer. Christ for us becomes Christ in us. We live in Christ, and he dwells in our hearts through faith. (Eph. 3.17) It is this mysterious presence, or union, which God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, gives to us, by which He really does live in us. It’s like the parable of the vine and the branches. The branches on a vine only live and bear fruit because of they are united to the vine. If you cut the branch off, it dies. In the same way, we live because of his union with God through Christ. The fruit that Christians bear is loving one another. We bear fruit in love for our brothers and sisters only because we are united with God by faith.
Doing good works in self-sacrificial love for one another does not earn you brownie points from God. If you go to the grocery store, and get some grapes, and then bring that bag of grapes out to your back yard and staple the grapes on the dead-vine, you don’t have a living, fruit-producing vine. The fruit will rot because there is no source of life. Good works done in self-sacrificial love for one another are done because of the self-sacrificial love of Jesus. Just like branches receive life from the vine and as a result bear fruit, so too we receive spiritual life from this union with Christ, and the result is that we love our brothers and sisters and keep the commandments. God dwells in you in a mysterious way, and also dwells in your fellow Christian. That means when you are loving and serving your brothers and sisters in this congregation, you are loving and serving Christ in them.
Love is known in action. How do we know God’s love? It is through God’s action in sending Jesus Christ into the world, and through Christ’s action of laying down his life for us. Because Christ laid down his life for us, we should lay down our lives for each other. Because Christ has given himself to us, we should give ourselves to each other—particularly by caring for those in need. Because of Christ’s bloody death, God’s anger has be turned aside, and we now live under the cover of his love, forgiveness, and care. Through that same self-sacrifice of Christ, God himself comes to dwell in us and all Christians through faith. Just like the branches receive life and nourishment from the vine, we now receive the life and nourishment in the Lord’s Supper, which Christ, our Good Shepherd offers to us, His beloved sheep.
And then the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep our hearts and our minds through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.