November 11, 2018

A few years ago a colleague of mine, a Canadian Forces Padre, asked me to fill in as a Reserve Unit Padre. I enjoyed the work and meeting young women and men committed to serving others. One of the tasks associated with this role was to meet with soldiers who had been asked to serve overseas, deployed to a mission where troops would be “in harm’s way”. The soldier could choose to have this interview, to assess whether the solider was supported in this mission by her/his family, friends, and how ready they appeared for the stresses of the situation. I interviewed a handful of soldiers. A few shared with me that the mission was “part of the job”, they had signed up to serve and this was the country asking them to “step up” and do their duty. They accepted this covenant. Others told me that with heavy student loans or children in university they could use the extra money, pay for deployment was significantly more. But one answer stood out, the soldier told me she wanted to go because, “there are young girls in Afghanistan being murdered because they want to learn”. What struck me about the answer was this, a woman in Canada, with all of the opportunities and supports most women in the world would love to have was willing to put all of it at risk, to potentially lay down her life, for a girl living in Afghanistan. These women shared no family, no religion, no nationality, but a commitment to “love one another.”

How do you respond to this familiar Gospel command in John 15? Listen. “Love one another, No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." This is Jesus' final commandment to his disciples on the night he was to be arrested and taken away to be crucified. There is a clear reference here to Jesus' own sacrifice -- his own love for his disciples, his love for the “other”, Samaritans, tax collectors, those living with disease, the poor, women who are bleeding, women who are divorced, children, etc… Jesus’ words remind me of the lyrics by reggae singer Jimmy Cliff “And I keep on fighting for the things I want, though I know that when you're dead you can't. But I'd rather be a free man in my grave than living as a puppet or a slave.” Or Martin Luther King Jr who said, "If a man hasn't discovered something he would die for, he isn't fit to live."

That sounds rather harsh! What I've always gained from King's perspective is that it's precisely in being willing to give up one's life, that one's life -- while one is alive -- gains tangible meaning. I think most of us operate on a modified version of this commandment, namely we would be willing to give up our own life in a heart's beat for our children, but as for others… Our love for our immediate families is so strong, so unconditional, so much like animal instinct, how could we do otherwise?

What about a mere friend? Hear this classic story of Damon and Pythias, said to have taken place in the Sicilian city-state of Syracuse in the fourth century B.C. These two men had been close friends since childhood. Pythias spoke out against the tyranny of the ruler, Dionysius, and was subsequently arrested and condemned to death. As a last request he asked if he might be allowed to go back home to say goodbye to his wife and children and to put his household in order before his execution. Dionysius was not willing to risk Pythias' fleeing, until Damon stepped forward and offered to pledge his own life and be imprisoned until Pythias returned. The condition that Dionysius imposed was that Damon must be willing to die in his place if Pythias did not return by the date of execution. Damon willingly agreed and Pythias gratefully left. As days and days went by, and the deadline approached, and there was no sign of Pythias, Dionysius visited the prison to see if Damon was sorry he had made such a bargain: "You were a fool to rely on your friend's promise. Did you really think he would sacrifice his life for you?" Yet, Damon remained confident of his friend's loyalty, explaining that perhaps the winds had kept him from sailing or he had met with some accident on the road. On the day of execution, Pythias still had not returned, and Dionysius smugly greeted Damon, who was bound and ready to die. "What do you think of your friend now?" asked the ruler. Damon simply replied, "He is my friend. I trust [that he has good reasons not to be here, and I am ready to die in his place]." Just as he finished speaking, Pythias suddenly appeared, staggering, beaten and bruised, and nearly speechless from exhaustion. "[Thank heaven I'm not too late!] You are safe, [Damon,] praise the gods," he gasped. Pythias then explained how his ship was wrecked in a storm and how he was then attacked by bandits on the road. "But I refused to give up hope," he declared. "At last I've made it back in time. I am ready to receive my sentence of death." Dionysius was utterly astonished. He was so emotionally overwhelmed by this demonstration of friendship -- in both directions -- that he revoked the sentence and let both go free, asking only that he could be taught how to be such a friend. 

"No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friend." Understanding friendship as Damon and Pythias did would presumably be enough for any of us. Yet, Martin Luther King, Jr. took it a step further, in the spirit of Jesus' injunction not only to love one's friends, and one's neighbors, but also to love one's enemies. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you." In his final sermon, the night before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King said that he knew he was personally facing death threats "from some of our sick white brothers" if he continued leading marches in Memphis, Tennessee, in support of striking sanitation workers. Yet, he said, "Now we're going to march again, and we've got to march again, in order to…force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God's children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights…For when people get caught up with that which is right, and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory." Dr. King explained, "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will." He spoke of the power of non-violent action, grounded in love. He spoke of previously being jailed with others in Bull Connor's Birmingham. "We'd see the jailers looking through the windows being moved by our prayers, and being moved by our words and our songs. And there was a power there which Bull Connor couldn't adjust to; and so we ended up transforming Bull into a steer, and we won our struggle in Birmingham."      Dr. King in his final sermon called upon his listeners to "develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness." He retold the Parable of the Good Samaritan, reminding those attending how dangerous the road was down from Jerusalem to Jericho, called the "Bloody Pass." It was a man of another race and religion, hated by the Jews, with no reason to put himself at risk for his persecutors, who stopped for the beaten and bloody traveler on the side of the road, when that traveler's fellow Jewish priest and fellow Levite had already passed by. As Dr. King pointed out, the Samaritan didn't even know if the robbers were still around, or if the man on the ground was merely faking, in order to lure the Samaritan over for a quick and easy seizure. Yet, the Samaritan engaged in "dangerous unselfishness," showing love for a fellow human being who was not his flesh and blood, was not his friend, was not even of his own race and religion.    

And this is the kind of love, "dangerous unselfishness" that Martin Luther King, Jr. modelled for us, even unto death -- which for him arrived in the form of a bullet from one of those "sick white brothers" the very morning after this stirring sermon. Jesus in this morning's gospel lesson promises that "if you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love." This is my commandment," he says, "that you love one another as I have loved you." And then he tells us what that love ultimately requires: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends."

Preacher and Biblical scholar Fred Craddock says of this passage, “John’s Gospel actually contains surprisingly little moral or ethical instruction such as we find in Matthew. What are the commandments to which Jesus refers in verse 10? For John it is enough to say that we have the model of Jesus who came to do God’s will…to love one another…We do not easily associate love or friendship with command (verse 14). For many of us love and friendship lie in the feelings and no one can command feeling; we do not even command our own. But it is helpful to recall that love in this Gospel is not a feeling, rather it is being for the other person and acting accordingly. Emotions are not absent, of course, but neither are they central.”

I would agree that Jesus is setting an example, but he is speaking to his disciples about their willingness to die for one another and for him, as disciples, in their mission in the midst of a hostile world. (See the rest of John 13-17.) He is not enunciating a general principle but articulating a potential consequence of being his friend in the world that killed him. Jesus is not creating a proverb (“dying for friends is a loving thing to do”) but borrowing and radically redirecting one. “If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.” Or, to put it differently, the reign of God and the Lordship of Christ challenge all our other allegiances. I think Jesus is telling his disciples (and therefore us) that his kingdom is indeed worth dying for. Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not, and that obedience to the government is secondary to obedience to God, but also that we should be obedient to the government as good citizens when that obedience does not contradict our obedience to God.

On this morning of remembrance, of grief, of honour, I ask you to consider the broader Christian implications of our Gospel story, namely that we are to “love one another” and be willing to consider even “laying down our lives” for them. This is hard stuff. There is the obvious question of what it means for us to love and lay down our lives for the other, what is the right way to do this and how do we determine such a hard challenge? There are no easy answers. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, living in the time of the Second World War, was a committed pacifist. He believed in the truth of the story I shared earlier, namely that witnessing to a love where we are willing to put our life in place of another would tame and soften the heart of leaders like Dionysius. But at a critical point he came to see that Hitler, his genocide, his evil intentions were so malevolent that it required a rethinking of his pacifism, and thus Bonhoeffer participated in an attempt to assassinate Hitler. The attempt was unsuccessful and Bonhoeffer was jailed and later executed. I honour Bonhoeffer and all who struggle through these hard choices of confronting evil.

For us the question remains whom we consider to be our “friends” and how we express and act out of “friendship”, how we “love one another.” That is a journey of discipleship, that is a lifelong prayer of discernment, and that is a conversation for communities of faith like ours. I am a humble servant, I have no clear and direct answers to that question, but I am listening to the Spirit, to you, and hearing these Gospel words. I believe in that holy conversation the Truth will come, the Truth has come. Amen.