Third Sunday in Lent

Image - medieval illumination

“For apart from me you can do nothing.”

The Uniform Series (Sunday School) Bible text for today is John 15:1-17.

It is part of the long (long) discourse Jesus gives his close disciples during and after the last supper, before leaving for the garden (of Gethsemane), before his arrest, trial (or “trial,”) sentencing to death, and crucifixion. By now, Jesus has been talking about these coming events with his disciples, so we know that Jesus is well aware that he is facing betrayal, torture and death. In John, he is so clear on the fact of upcoming betrayal and the identity of his betrayer that he reminds Judas that it’s time for him to go make his move. All this is to emphasize that Jesus’ long speeches here reflect an acute awareness that they are his last chance to communicate something in words to the disciples, so presumably they indicate what it’s his highest priority for his close followers to remember – what’s most important for this small group to remember, this group that he has been educating most intensively in his way of life and thinking; what is the most vital, critical thing to tell these people one last time? These speeches point us to that.

What is Jesus saying? It feels hard to grasp.

What does he mean with this talk about abiding or dwelling in him? Maybe it’s a metaphor for sticking with his way of life and teaching, for really putting it into practice? Maybe it’s a mystical instruction to experience his presence in the flux of ongoing life? Whichever it is, he characterizes this abiding as abiding in his love, a love that is modeled on the Father’s love for him, and that Jesus has modeled for the disciples: “as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you,” he says. And then he says “love one another as I have loved you.” And then Jesus provides the practical criterion for what that love looks like: at its best, at its greatest, it looks like laying down one’s life for one’s friends.

So – keep on loving one another, Jesus says, and use the way I have loved you as a model for how to do that. There is an incredible promise of blessing attached to this instruction, too – if we do this, the Father will give us whatever we ask for.

Think for a moment about what this communicates. Jesus is in effect saying: “Friends, you matter more to me than my life; you matter more to me than my comfort; you matter more to me than my pleasure; what helps you, what leads you to life, what benefits you, is far more important to me than whether I have what I enjoy, whether I have ease and comfort, whether I have what I prefer at the moment. You matter most, and I’m going to do whatever it takes for you to have what will do you the most good, whatever the consequences for me personally.”

It’s an astonishing thing for Jesus to say to these disciples who are so clueless, they don’t even understand the situation, they don’t get what a huge privilege it is to be told this by Jesus. Because remember, Christ had already laid down his life in an important way, just to be there in the world. Remember the beginning of the book of John, how the Word was with God, and the Word was God? When that Word became flesh and dwelled among us – there’s an echo of this in Philippians 2, the idea of Christ giving up the equality with God, taking the form of a slave. Talk about laying down a life, accepting a lifestyle reduction, putting up with … less ideal conditions! The Word of God, who we know as the human Jesus, the humanity of Jesus surely imposes a strict limitation on the blessedness and eternity and divinity of that Word of God; it is a kind of temporary confinement of that Word of God to a particular time and place, a body, all of the trials and tribulations of that body, all the requirements of being an infant and a toddler and a child and growing to adulthood, all the constraints and limitations of living in a society and having to be socialized into that society, all of the dissatisfactions associated with human life, all of the putting up with the annoyances of annoying people, the unkindness of unkind people, the anger of angry people, all of that … Jesus himself, his entire life, is a demonstration of this Word of God already having laid down his heavenly life for his friends, and then to top it off, the human Jesus follows through with that pattern by laying down his human life for his friends as well … as we mentioned before, quite consciously and intentionally.

It’s this laying down one’s life for one another that Jesus, who is the Word of God made flesh for us, who has direct experience of a radical kind of laying down of life for the sake of others that we can only begin to imagine, presents to us as the standard, the fulfillment of love for one another. And then he calls his disciples to this standard: he instructs them (us) to “love one another as I have loved you.”

OK, maybe this isn’t so much hard to grasp as … unrealistic, completely unrealistic, certainly. Jesus cannot really mean this, can he? Jesus cannot really mean for this to be an instruction for us to follow?

For one thing, when was the last time you even had a chance to lay down your life for your friends? Not kidding. There are usually special circumstances attached to that kind of self-sacrifice. It happens in wars and war movies, in revolutions and novels about revolutions. For instance, I have a friend who is reading A Tale of Two Cities, and although I have forgotten most of the plot of that story because I read it more than 40 years ago, I do have access to Wikipedia, so I know that at the end of A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton switches places with the husband of the woman he has loved all through the novel, an aristocrat – but one of the good ones – who has been condemned to the guillotine during the Terror. So, Sydney Carton goes to the guillotine in Darnay’s place. He literally lays down his life for his friend. It’s terribly dramatic and romantic. But that’s a novel, and a novel about the French Revolution, no less; my point is that the French Revolution doesn’t happen very often, certainly not in our little Midwestern town, so the chance to lay down one’s life for one’s friends in that way really doesn’t come around all that often.

What do come around, all of the time, are opportunities for me to lay down part of my life for my friends. I suppose it is a form of practice … but what those opportunities teach me, in light of this instruction of Jesus’ about laying down my life for my friends, is that even laying down a part of my life is a huge practical challenge.

If I imagine myself saying to a friend, or another church member, what Jesus says to his friends – “you matter here, what you need matters more to me than my comfort, my preferences, my getting my own way, my convenience, etc.; the most important thing to me here is that you have what you need …” – when I imagine adopting that attitude, I recognize how seldom I do it, and how difficult it is for me to do.

For instance, there’s an example that has been on my mind, one that creates terrible conflicts in lots and lots of ordinary churches, all over the country, and that is notoriously difficult to resolve: the problem of a fussy child in worship.

Probably everyone has had some experience of this. There we are in worship, and someone – maybe it’s that new family, who brings their baby; or maybe it’s that girl with her hyperactive toddler – whatever, in the middle of the sermon you start hearing the baby cry, or the two-year-old make little shrieking noises and … quite frankly, those noises are loud, and distracting, and some of us are hard of hearing so that the background noise completely cancels out what the preacher is saying, and all in all, it’s an annoyance and a disruption. And quite frankly … I don’t like annoyances and disruptions. What I want is for things to be quiet and orderly; what I want is for worship to proceed smoothly and reverently and for me to have my pleasant moment of communion with the divine on Sunday morning. That is an important part of my life.

It’s a part of my life that I do not want to lay down. Even for a friend, and when it comes to that new family, or that senseless girl who doesn’t have the wit to realize that children are supposed to be quiet in a worship service, I am even less sure that I want to lay down a cherished part of my life.

So what am I saying, in my heart? It’s definitely notyou are what matters here; whatever it takes to make you feel welcome, comfortable, accepted and loved here is what is most important to me.” It’s more like “hey, I am a person, too, and this person feels it’s important for worship to proceed in a smooth and undisrupted fashion, and what matters here is for you to get with that program, or else …” – well, how bereft will I really be if that new family drifts away, or if that girl decides that if she just shows up at church to take her toddler out of the worship service and never bring him back in, she might as well stop coming to church in the first place?

Realistically, I might express some regret, but it would be mixed with a fairly audible sigh of relief, too, realistically – at least now I’ll be able to hear all of the sermon. And that part of my life is, quite frankly, very important to me.

Of course, the fussy child in worship problem is just one example of the kind of situation where even laying down a part of one’s life for one’s friends, or potential friends, is really tough. There are plenty of others – the showing up to the church workday on a Saturday problem, or the signing up to make coffee when it requires getting up 15 minutes earlier on a Sunday problem, or the just not being able to resist sharing that juicy bit of gossip problem, or … I suspect any of us could generate examples from the life of ordinary congregations, where opportunities arise to lay down parts of our lives for others, and where actually doing the laying down is really, quite frankly, asking an awful lot of ordinary people.

So I would just like to point out to Jesus how completely unrealistic that instruction to “love one another as I have loved you” is, and how completely unrealistic the standard of “laying down one’s life for one’s friends” is, and how seriously that instruction and that standard sets us all up to fail at doing what Jesus tells us to do. We would all do a whole lot better if the instructions were more realistic in the first place, more like what it’s possible for us to actually put into practice.

Unfortunately, there is Jesus, reminding us that the instruction and the standard is less unrealistic than it is unappealing. After all: Jesus did it. And Jesus promises that the Father will give us whatever we ask for when it comes to following this instruction – presumably including the grace to desire to keep that commandment in the first place, and the strength and willingness and love to lay down our lives, or parts of our lives, for one another, in the attempt. There is Jesus, posing me with the question: do you want to be one of my friends? Because here’s what it entails. And that requires abiding in me, abiding in my love, because apart from that abiding you can’t even begin to do it.

But if you do abide in me, and do abide in my love, then you’ll be part of a community that really does aim to live this new way, a way of life characterized by that exacting standard of love for one another, and that will be a place where people would experience grace, acceptance, love – both in receiving it from others, and in extending it to others. There is Jesus, laying down his own life to demonstrate to us that the community of the church was never intended to be easy, daily life as usual, but rather the new kind of life that grows out of taking Jesus for a teacher and a model.

“Love one another as I have loved you.” Go ahead … lay down a little bit of your life for your friends – let them know they matter more to you than something you thought you needed or wanted or preferred. See what happens.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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