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Sunday, April 29, 2012

I lay down my life

Texts:  1 John 3.16-24; John 10.11-18

In the passage we read just now from John’s gospel, Jesus is addressing his Jewish opponents. ‘I am the good shepherd’ he says, ‘because I lay down my life for the sheep that I know and love by name.  You, on the other hand, behave like the hired hand who runs away when the wolf comes by, because he does not love the sheep and cares not for their fate.  The life I lay down, I lay down by my own choice.  But I will take it up again.  This power I have received from my father.’  This morning I should like to dwell for moment on this sense of volition we get in John’s gospel around the death of Jesus, that Jesus somehow chooses to lay down his life, and that he does this out of love for his disciples. 

It is difficult for we moderns to really understand why the crucifixion happened.  On one level, of course, we know exactly why it happened.  Jesus got himself into trouble by being incredibly naïve, by seeking to upset the carefully negotiated détente that existed between the Roman state and the Jewish authorities.  Jesus died because he was a starry-eyed idealist who could neither comprehend nor accept the real-politik of his time.  From that perspective, the perspective of historical and political ‘realism’, the more theological explanations for his death seem rather odd.  That Jesus died for our sins.  That he chose to die out of love for sinners.  That his life was given to exhaust and destroy the power of sin and death over our human future.  Journalists are completely lost with it all, as a review of the film version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe revealed a few years ago.  ‘What I have never understood,’ says the journalist, ‘is why Aslan, or Jesus, had to die.  If God loves us, why would he need some kind of blood-sacrifice?  Why doesn’t he just forgive us and be done with it?’  Even bishops and theologians have trouble understanding it all, as regular readers of our esteemed denominational newspaper will have discovered.

There are, of course, good reasons why we find the death of Jesus difficult to understand.  One of them I have mentioned before in this church.  Affluent westerners now live at a great distance from the rather sobering fact that life comes from death.  Indeed, we have become afraid of death because we have forgotten about its connection to life.  When we lived nomadic or agricultural lives, we were much more aware of the connection.  We saw that the beasts that provide our meat had to be slaughtered.  We saw that the plants that produced the grains for our bread had to die in order for us to harvest their fruits.  We saw that the land became fruitful again by ploughing in the dead remains of the harvest.  When you buy your food from the supermarket, when medicine has all but removed that daily certainty that death is around the corner, it is difficult to see that life itself comes at a cost, the cost of other life.

At one level, then, the theology of the death of Christ reflects upon a simple biological fact:  that life itself is very costly, that the aliveness of one is made possible only by the death of another.  Theologically, there is a sense in which this is true even with the doctrine of creation.  Here the creation only becomes possible, is only able to come into existence as something other than God because God is willing to undergo a kind of death, the death of God’s right to exercise sovereignty over the creation.  If God retained that right, you see, then the creation would be no more than an extension of God’s own mind and will.  It would always do what God willed it to do.  It would not be God’s other.  What God apparently chose to do, though, was to expend his power to create a power other than his own, a power that is able to choose a way other than that which God would have chosen. 

But note the way that theology has already complicated, here, the simple sense that the nomad or the farmer has that death is somehow necessary to life.  For what God does , in giving us life, somehow transcends the simple categories of necessity, of cause and effect.  What God does is introduce the wildcards of love and volition, which means that life and death are no longer a matter of necessity alone, unfolding according to a pre-programmed genetic imperative, but of choice, and especially the choice to love.  The death Jesus dies is not, therefore, to be understood only as some kind of necessary death, a death like that of the beast which is slaughtered (against its will) to feed the tribe.  His death certainly does feed the tribe, let us make no mistake about that.  What are we doing at communion, if not to participate in the food and drink that is able to give us the life of the kingdom of God?  Yet, let us be clear, this life is given us not because we take it from Jesus, against his will, but because he has chosen to give it.  Out of love.

There is a sense, then, in which the crucifixion simply manifests in human history what God has always been about: love.  And what is love?  According to the Johannine corpus, love is what God is as trinity, a community of service and care.  It is hospitality, the willingness to make a home within one’s own life for someone who is other than oneself.  It is solidarity, living the sufferings of another as though they were one’s own.  It is sacrifice, the laying down of ones own powers, one’s own capacities for life, that they may be taken up by another.  It is to centre oneself on helping another to come alive, in the faith that life shared is the best life of all. 

Perhaps our difficulties with the death of Christ come down to this, then.  That we moderns have become strangers to love, and especially to its costs.  Over and over we are told that love is something other than what Christ would teach us.  Over and over we are told that love is a contract or convenience that is fine while it serves our own interests, but can be legitimately done away with when it begins to cost us somehow.  Over and over we are told that love is about feelings of euphoria, a drug to help us cope with the pains of life.  As such, when love itself becomes painful, we are better to ditch it.  Over and over we are told that laying down one’s life for another, and especially for the stranger, is irrational.  Life is about securing yourself against the misfortunes of others.  Life is about comfort, no matter that our comfort deprives others!  Today elections are won or lost on this platform.  Is it any wonder that we struggle with the death of Jesus, then, a life laid down for another!

The good news of Easter is that life shared, life laid down for others, creates a new kind of life altogether, a life hitherto unimagined in the history of the world.  In the mystery of divine love for the world, the self-centred egotism that has destroyed human life for millennia is itself destroyed and done away with, absorbed, as it were, into the death of Christ so that the usual cycles of human relating—our cruelty, indifference, violence and greed—is not only interrupted, but done away with altogether.  You might not believe that this is so, if you look at the world we live in.  But what God gave us, in the time he spent amongst us in the flesh, was a glimpse into the reality of God, a reality yet more real than that reality we usually experience, a reality that is close enough to change our world if only we will believe and live our lives accordingly.  Faith, you see, is the place in which God’s reality (which is sometimes called grace) arrives in the world.  It is the place where love finds soil enough to flourish.

I pray for the faith of the people of God, that we shall be able to resist the rationalism and cynicism of our world, and let love in.  I pray that we might summon faith enough to love each other as Christ has loved us.  

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