Sunday, May 17, 2015

Marvin Lorenzana: One Family, One Mission

Easter 7: “The Living Christ Makes Us One”
1 Corinthians 12:12-21; John 17:6-19

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Join guest preacher Marvin Lorenzana, founder of the Mennonite Hispanic Initiative, as he talks about the need for discipleship in the modern church. The readings for the day come from, Psalm 133, 1 Corinthians 12:12-21, and John 17:6-19.

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Sunday, May 10, 2015

Barbara Moyer Lehman: How is love revealed?

Easter 6: The living Christ invites us to obey
I John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

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Kenneth Osbeck, a church musician, who has compiled some books that give the background stories to many of our older hymns wrote this: “The amazing thrill of the gospel is that we do not have to be good first, in order to be loved by God.  We are already loved just as we are.  It is impossible to define and describe divine love and the transformation it produces in the life of one who receives it by faith.  But this love can be experienced by anyone who desires it.”  (p. 60 Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions).

The love of God is nothing that we earn.  Divine love is difficult to describe, yet we try.  The hymn we just sang, (The Love of God) is a good example of how one attempted to put into words something that is beyond our comprehension or our ability to articulate with human language.

The text and music for the hymn was completed in 1917 by a Nazarene pastor, Frederick Lehman and his daughter, Claudia.  The story behind the song is that the unusual 3rd verse, which captures my attention, was a small part of a lengthy ancient poem composed in 1096 by a Jewish songwriter in Germany, by the name of Rabbi Mayer.  Originally written in the Arabic language, the lines were found in a slightly adapted form, scratched on the walls of a patient’s room in, what was called an insane asylum.  When the patient died, the words were discovered and eventually read at a Nazarene religious campmeeting where Frederick Lehman heard them for the first time.  He was so deeply moved by the profound depths in the lines that he wanted them preserved for future generations.  He later wrote the first two verses and a chorus, and included this unusual, but vivid description of God’s love, from a much earlier time period. (sing 3rd verse again, if time)

For several weeks we have been using texts from the gospel of John and from the first letter of John.  The themes that keep circulating around and rise to the surface over and over of both books are: God’s love for us, our love for God and our love for one another!


Authentic love for God involves obedience to his commandments, in particular the love command as revealed in Jesus, the incarnate Son.  Love for God consists in keeping God’s commandments.  And God commands us to love our brothers and sisters.  Love of God and love for brothers and sisters are mutually dependent.

 How is love revealed?
          3 ways to look at this...
1.)  How is God’s love revealed/shown to us?
          -God’s love is most evident thru the Incarnation, thru the sacrifice of God’s one and only Son for us.
          -God’s love is revealed to us every day that we inhabit a universe, a world, created with such beauty and precision and order.  We experience the beauty of the changing of the seasons, the ebb and flow and rhythm of each day, week, month, year.  Spring time brings the earth back to life, every year, emerald grass, flowering trees, filled with new life and new birth.
          -God’s love is shown to us thru the relationships we have.  God created us, not to be alone, not to live in isolation, but to be in families, in relationship with one another. Those relationships take on different forms and no two look alike. God’s love is manifest in the relationships we have with family and friends, and as we live in community.

2.)  How is our love for God revealed/made known?
          - our love for God is revealed in our level of commitment to following Christ.
          -it is made known in how we live out our faith on a daily basis
          -it is made known in what we are modeling to others, how we live our lifestyle, our witness to those around us and the larger world. 
          -in the sacrifices we might choose to make
          -in how obedient we are to Christ’s commandments
          -in how we trust and whether we are willing to yield, to let go of our need to be in control, to let go of power, to forego the need to determine the outcome
          - in our willingness to empty ourselves
          -in whether what we believe and say we believe, is congruent with how we live.

3.)  How does our love for one another show itself today in our homes, faith communities and in the larger society?
          -Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this; to lay down one’ s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command you.  I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing, but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.  You did not choose me but I chose you.  And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.”

          -Love one another means we function both as servants, and as friends.  In earlier chapters of John’s gospel we are reminded of the servant role when we looked at footwashing.  I even preached on that practice last October, when we did a series on church practices, and Allyssa Shenk and I washed each other’s feet at the end of the sermon.
          -showing love for one another in servant roles is familiar territory to many Mennonites.
          -Practice mutual aid...come together to buy supplies for and pack 1500 school kits every year.
          -Knot comforters, quilt blankets for relief sales, knit prayer shawls
          -Extend hospitality to the homeless persons in the community by hosting OPEN DOORS every year for a week.
          -Organize work teams to help a family rebuild a home after a natural disaster, or to clean up after a flood or tornado, or partner with a group of Kenyans to build a sand dam.
          -Take a special offering to support a special need that arises in a community or with a family, or help to build part of a church or put on a new roof
          -Sponsor a refugee family who is trying to get established in our community.
          -Employ someone in our business or home who recently lost a job.
          -Speak out on justice issues.
          -Give to the compassion fund
We do all of these things quite readily and generously.  We show our love for one another in how we share our resources and give our money, support worthy causes, and do things for others, as servants, in the name of Christ.

I wonder, how well do we show love for one another as friends?  How well do we function as friends?
          -Is it easier to make a meal and drop it off for someone, than it is to take the time to sit down and listen to their story
          -Is it easier to write a check for $50 for groceries than it is to take someone to the store, help them shop and prepare a meal.
          -Friendships require commitment
          -Friendships require nurturing
          -Friendships deepen when we walk with one another, spend time together and listen to one another.
         
Who are your friends and how do you show them you love them?
How do you show you care for them?
How have you seen others show love for another?
How is love shown within your family?

Stories of God’s love:
1.)  Two weeks ago, April Sachs was giving birth about this time, Sunday morning to their 3rd child.  Two days later, I visited her in the hospital and had the chance to hold little Micah.  My maternal feeling came strong as I held him, but he wasn’t mine to keep.  As I handed him back to April, I saw the love of mother and child, a new strong healthy bond beginning to form in a new way as he was now hers to hold on her lap.
2.)  One week ago John and I were in Indianapolis visiting with his mother (99years old) who lives with his sister and her husband.  For several days we observed the strong love between mother and daughter, the caring way Rose and her husband have served mother, taking care of her needs for 4 years.  They willingly opened their home to her, gave up their formal dining room and turned it into her bedroom, and sacrificed some things but have done so graciously.  But I also noticed the night before we left, the strong love and affection between mother and son, my husband, as she rested her head on John’s shoulder, and thanked us for making the effort to come and visit her.  As John put his arm around mother’s shoulder, she wept and expressed deep gratitude to us.  15 minutes later I experienced that love as well.  I told her I loved her and reminded her that she has been part of my life longer than my own mother, since my mom died when I was 30.   God’s love made evident and experienced in the strong bond of mother and child.
3.)  I saw love expressed at some recent CLC meetings between persons who hold different beliefs, especially on the issue of same gender relationships and what direction the MC might take.  Two conference ministers who represent conferences in MCUSA that are at the opposite end of the spectrum, regularly room together at these 3 day meetings...and do so every year.  They affectionately embrace even after difficult meetings of discernment.
4.)  Yesterday’s memorial service for Nicole Yoder, we heard sharing and stories from friends......testifying that Nicole was a gifted listener, a kind person.  She had many friends and many wanted to help her, tried to help her with her eating disorder, but they couldn’t fix her, couldn’t cure her, couldn’t change her.  When they accepted that, they could more readily, be her friend, hang out with her, enjoy her company when they could, learn from her, see the face of God in her.
5.)  This week I am trying to be a friend, as much as I can from a distance with Nancy Kauffman, whose husband, Joel, died Friday morning.  John and I have known Joel and Nancy for about 40 years.  We were MYF sponsors together in Elkhart, IN in the mid 1970s at Prairie St. MC.  Nancy and I were pregnant at the same time, gave birth to our first son a month a part, took our babies with us to youth activities and went on service trips together.  Nancy was already on the course of seminary training and pastoring, when that thought had never occurred to me.  Nevertheless, we were young moms and enjoyed each other’s company.  Then we moved, our paths separated, we stayed in touch occasionally.  In 1988 John and I became co-pastors of Orrville MC in OH.  It was Nancy’s home church and her parents were members there.  For 14 years we ministered to her parents and officiated at their funerals.  In many ways Nancy became my mentor in those years.  Even though we are the same age, she had already been in ministry for quite a few years at College MC and later IN/MI conference.  I admired her and learned from her and watched her grow and develop into a very wise and capable pastor in the MC, one of the few women pastors that I knew.  In more recent years as we have worked in conference and MC USA roles, we have reconnected at a different and deeper level.  Numerous times we have roomed together and shared laughter and tears.  Now we are more like colleagues, partners in ministry in our various settings, yet always friends.  She was to be here in Harrisonburg at this time to teach a course at the seminary.  I was planning to have lunch with her on Thursday.  I will try to show God’s love to her...many already have from around the world.  I will try to show my love for her.  I weep for her as she grieves Joel’s sudden and tragic death.  I know she will experience God’s love and the love from others in more ways than she can ever imagine in the next months and years because of this tragedy.

God has chosen us, appointed us to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.  What will that mean for you and I in this time, in this day?  We will continue to love and serve one another, but how can we also walk with each other side by side, friend with friend, partners in Christ’s service?

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Sunday, May 3, 2015

Phil Kniss: Wonderful words of life

Easter 5: The living Christ provides life and love
1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

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So today’s sermon is giving me a sense of deja vu.
One week ago I was standing in this spot
    preaching about the love of God,
    using scriptures from 1 John, and the Gospel of John.
Which is exactly what I am doing today.
    Come to think of it, I preached on God’s love the week before that,
        except from Luke’s Gospel.
    And also on Easter Sunday . . .
        and on Sundays during Lent
    And on Membership Sunday . . .
        and well, just about every Sunday I stand behind this pulpit.
    And when Pastor Barbara fills the pulpit,
        she pretty much sticks to that same old topic.

You’ll have to let me know whenever you get tired
    of hearing me talk about the love of God.
    Then I’ll pull out my best impression of Jonathan Edwards,
        the 18th-century preacher famous for his sermon,
        “Sinners in the hand of an angry God.”
    I could preach of God dangling sinners over a flaming pit,
        and say, like he did,
            “As easy as it is for us to crush a worm under foot,
                so easy is it for God to cast his enemies into hell.”
    Or . . . not.

Today’s scriptures of God’s love should convince you that there is
    no subject worthy of sermons . . . except for the love of God.

If what you want is to be shamed, condemned, and frightened,
    I could use sermons to do that.
If what you want is to accumulate more information about God,
    to store in your brain, because it might come in handy,
    I could use sermons for that purpose.
But if what you want is to have your life shaped
    into the kind of life God created you for,
    then I simply must confront you Sunday after Sunday
        with the overwhelming love of God,
        because I am obligated, as a minister of the Gospel, to preach it.

And that’s what I’ll do this morning, with a little twist.
    Preaching on God’s love does not mean
        always preaching sunshine and sweetness.
    A true high-resolution picture of God’s love,
        has more shades, more textures, more complexities,
            than you might imagine.
    In fact, preaching about God’s love will not always be easy to hear.
        But it’s something we must hear.
        Because, God is love.

God . . . is . . . love.
    Nine letters. Three one-syllable words I’ve heard my whole life.
    I literally remember being taught these words,
        as a Bible memory verse.
    Probably Summer Bible School at First Mennonite Church
        in St. Petersburg, Florida.
        I was probably three or four years old.
    The teacher repeated the words slowly,
        “God . . . is . . . love . . . 1 John . . . 4 . . . 8b.”
            Saying the reference took longer than saying the verse.
            But I memorized it.
    It would be a few more years before I could take on all the words of
        John 3:16—“For God so loved the world,
            that he gave his only begotten Son . . . ”
        Same message.  God loves you.
    I’m thankful my church and my family
        faithfully taught God’s love.
    I’m grateful the foundation of my faith was then, and still is,
        the persistent love of God.

I’m sure that many of you could say the same thing,
    if you grew up in the church.
Someone shout out the very first Sunday School song you learned:
        [sing] “Jesus loves me, this I know.”
    And after that, it was probably,
        “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.”
    And after that, maybe,
        “Praise Him, praise Him, all ye little children,
            God is love, God is love.”

We in the church want our children
    to absolutely know God loves them.
    Because accepting the love of God
        is the foundation upon which we build faith.

The love of God is a constant in a world of variables.
    It is our confession.
        In the words we speak.
        In the prayers we pray.
        In the songs we sing . . . our whole lives.
    When we are very young,
        we belt out “Jesus Loves Me” off-key.
    Later, maybe we’ll harmonize in the congregation
        on Charles Wesley’s “Love Divine All Loves Excelling.”
    And Mennonites can never resist one verse in German,
        of “Gott ist die Liebe.” God is love.

However it expresses itself, it’s just part of who we are.
    We sing it, we speak it, we live and breathe it:
        “God is love.”

Like the text this morning from 1 John 4.
    Some form of the word “love” shows up 29 times . . . in 15 verses!
    John tells his readers, over and over,
        that God is all about love.
        God is love. (1 John 4:8b . . . but also 16b, take your pick.)
    Since God is love, John concludes,
        we should also love each other.
    Showing love to one another is the way to be true to who God is.
        If you live in God, and God lives in you,
            there is only one possible result—there will be love.
            If there is not love, there is not God.

So that’s one text for this morning.
    And if that’s all there was,
        it could seem a pretty simple matter to preach about.
    We just keep repeating it, like a mantra,
        “God is love.” “Love one another.”
    As true as that is, it is also not very specific.
        It’s in the specifics, that love gets a little complicated,
            and multi-layered.

The more we examine love in scripture,
    the more we discover that love is not what our culture thinks it is.
    Author Leonard Sweet wrote, rather imaginatively,
        that our culture has turned the concept of “love”
            into the spiritual equivalent of acid rain,
                it looks and feels good coming down,
                but it eats away at the stone of our great cathedrals.
        It looks life-giving, but it’s been polluted,
            and over time it erodes truth and beauty.

Love, the way it gets thrown around in popular culture,
    is often cheap, and shallow.
    To the point where most people think love is an
        emotional state you fall into, and have no control over,
        instead of a way of life that you choose.
    To the point where, in the top 100 movie quotes of all time, #13 is
        “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,”
            which is utter nonsense.

In John 15, Jesus makes sure we don’t confuse love
    with nonsense and sentimentality.
    He puts God’s love in a context that gets real, and gets complicated.



Here we are told that Jesus is a vine,
    we the branches,
    and God the gardener.

That’s an entirely different metaphor than last week.
    Last Sunday we imagined God as Shepherd, and us as sheep.
    We pictured Jesus the Good Shepherd,
        taking risks to protect, to guide, to love the sheep.
    That was comforting,
        even if it did get turned around,
        and we got asked to take the risk of also being the shepherd.

But here, in the same Gospel of John, a few chapters later,
    Jesus illustrates again the message of God’s love,
        but with a new set of images.
    Images not as warm and fuzzy as sheep.

Now Jesus as vine, and we as branches—is not too hard to grasp.
    Jesus is my life-source.
        And as I stay connected to the vine, I will bear fruit.

    But then we see a picture of God as gardener.
        Now if this is God, and God is love,
            this picture makes us pause, if we’re honest.
    God is depicted as someone who comes along
        whacking off vines that aren’t bearing enough fruit,
        and throwing them into the fire.

We didn’t get that impression last Sunday.
    God the Good Shepherd never whacked any sheep across the head
        who weren’t growing enough wool.
    The Good Shepherd never kicked any sheep out of the sheepfold.
        If they wandered off, he went looking for them.

    This is harsh.
    If the branch doesn’t bear fruit, whack it off and burn it!
        How do we reconcile that with “God is love.”



But if we spend a little time with this image, and this text,
    we might see the heart of the matter.
Is this mainly a story about a pruning knife and bonfire?
    Or is it about the deep and abiding love of God?
        Obviously, I think it’s about love.
    This is about the love of a gardening God
        who dearly loves what’s growing in the garden.
    There is nothing this gardener wants more,
        than to see these branches green and healthy
            and connected to the vine.
    Nothing would satisfy this gardener more
        than finding beautiful, luscious grapes
            hanging on the branches.
    That’s what this story is about.

Some of you are serious gardeners.
    I’ve walked through many of your gardens,
        and the beauty is awe-inspiring.
    It’s not just the beautiful fruit and flowers that amaze me.
        I’m awed by all the love and care you put into it.
    You gardeners love the earth and love creation,
        and love to partner with God to nurturing life.

    So . . . if you love those plants so much,
        why is it, sometimes,
        I see piles of perfectly good branches stacked by the curb,
            ready to be hauled off.
    Well, you’ve been pruning, out of love.
        If you love gardening, you also find joy
            in cutting back excess growth
            in just the right amount,
            at the right spot,
            at the right time,
                in order to shape the plant,
                and plan for future growth.
        You cut off, in love, without malice,
            what looks good today,
            to maximize its beauty tomorrow.

    You never cut off a branch for spite.
    Neither does God.



That helps me read John 15.
There is nothing God desires more for me, a branch on the vine,
    than to see me grow and be fruitful—
        than to have me receive his life and love through the vine,
        and pass on that life to others through the fruit I bear.
    That’s what the loving, gardening God desires,
        and that’s what God works for.

This is a metaphor of God’s love, not God’s arbitrary wrath.
    God doesn’t whack off whole branches, and whole people,
        to separate them from God’s life and love.
        That’s not what is happening here.
        That’s not to say there is no judgement for evildoers,
            or that there isn’t a price to pay for rebellion against God.

But this is a metaphor primarily about pruning, motivated by love.
    God the good gardener doesn’t cut off arbitrarily.
    No, God gets rid of unnecessary growth.
    We have a tendency to allow extra stuff to get attached to our lives.
        Stuff that distracts, saps life and energy,
            keeps us from setting fruit.
        That’s true for the branches, individually,
            and it’s true collectively, as a church.

        Yes, when God prunes,
            it might be painful to let go of some of that stuff.
            It may look perfectly healthy,
                but if it’s sapping life, and not letting the fruit set,
                it needs to go.
            Because we were created for fruit-bearing.

    God does not cut us off from the vine,
        as long as we are being and becoming
        the fruitful vine God created us to be.



What is needed from us,
    is openness to the nurturing care of a loving God.
    We are not expected to manufacture fruit.
        We are not a factory.
        We are a living branch.
    The life that produces fruit flows from God,
        through Christ the vine, and
        through us the branch, and
        on to the fruit.
    We are the conduit.
    What is asked of us is only to abide in God, to stick with God.
        Stick with me, and I will stick with you, Jesus says.
        God will do the rest.
            God will send the life and nutrients.
            And fruit will come.

It’s what we call grace.
Life and love are gracious gifts from God.
    We don’t manufacture fruitfulness.
    We don’t create healthy branches.
    We don’t save ourselves from the lopping shears or the bonfire.
We just stick with God.
We allow ourselves to be placed where God can do what God will do.
    And life will follow.
    And love will follow.

That is one of the wonderful words of life to us this Easter season.
    God is love.
    And if we abide in God’s love, God’s love will abide in us,
        and we will be different people because of it.
        We will be fruitful people because of it.

This image of the vine is also a wonderful image of the church.
    As every branch finds its life source in the one vine,
        we are organically connected to every other branch.
    That same life courses through every branch and leaf and tendril.
        What comes from God flows
            into us and through us,
            into others and through others,
            and back to us, and then to still others,
                and we become an intertwined and interdependent
                community of life and love and hope.
        We become God’s fruitful garden.

Thus, love of God will result in love of each other.
    That’s how it works, organically.
        If there is not love for others in our body,
            if there is not an orientation towards others in the church,
            if there is not a natural bent toward our sisters and brothers,
            then there is reason to suspect some blockage,
                in the flow of life and love from God to us.
            Maybe we let a foreign object clog things up.
            Maybe we let our lives be taken over
                by wild, unmanaged growth of extra stuff
                that’s distracting us, and sapping life from us,
                    and some pruning is in order.

Whatever the case, I invite us,
    the garden of believers at Park View Mennonite,
    to open ourselves to all that this rich image
        might mean to us,
        that we might live the fruit-bearing life God intends.

—Phil Kniss, May 3, 2015

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Sunday, April 26, 2015

Phil Kniss: We know love by this

Easter 4: The Living Christ shepherds us
1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18; Psalm 23

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...or download a printer-friendly PDF file: click here


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I’m guessing you’re all feeling pretty relaxed about now.
At peace about life.
Hopeful.
Comforted.

Or you should be,
if you’ve been paying attention to our worship service thus far.

We started out the service reflecting on Psalm 23,
the most comforting passage of scripture,
between the covers of our Bible.
The one that is read and recited more than any other,
especially during times we need a strong dose of comfort—
like at the bedside in a hospital,
when you can’t go to sleep at night,
when we face some stormy life circumstance,
when one is close to death,
at a funeral.

It is the psalm most often set to music,
soothing, beautiful, lilting music,
comforting music chosen specifically to pair well
with a comforting text.

Like “Gentle shepherd, come and lead us . . .”
which we sang . . . twice.
We sing and say,
“The Lord is my shepherd,
nothing do I lack—
the Lord leads me beside still waters,
restores my soul,
settles me down in green pastures,
protects me from enemies,
prepares a sumptuous banquet,
and never . . . ever . . . leaves me.”

So are you feeling comforted yet?
I hope so.

Because although some moderate stress can be necessary and fruitful—
and when well-managed, it can be like a good workout;
strengthening our emotional and spiritual muscles,
keeping the heart rate up, our lifeblood circulating,
making us stronger, more healthy—
as necessary as stress may be,
we cannot survive on constant stress.
We need breaks.
We need rest.
We need comfort.
We need reassurance that we are not alone.
Sometimes we just need a protector.
We need to know that we are not at risk of annihilation.

Psalm 23, and similar psalms and scripture,
do exactly that.
They comfort us in the way we need to be comforted.
They tell us that we are not alone
and facing our imminent destruction.

I have Psalm 23 embedded deep in my mind and spirit,
and I thank God for that.
I call on it often.
And I use it in ministry.
And will continue to do so.

Having said all that,
and with the words and tune of “Gentle shepherd”
still ringing in our ears . . .
let me now dis-comfort you
with some other Bible verses about shepherds and sheep.
A discomfort that will, hopefully,
move us toward a deeper comfort.

Keep in mind that Psalm 23 is comforting
only because we read it from the sheep’s point of view.
The shepherd has a different point of view.

God, our loving Shepherd,
takes radical risks in order to shepherd us.
Being a shepherd is not a comforting or comfortable profession.

You know why we sheep can lie down in green pastures and rest?
Because the shepherd stays awake.
You know why we sheep can be led in safety down right paths?
Because the shepherd’s out front, bush-whacking,
clearing away hazards and obstructions.
You know why we sheep find comfort in the rod and staff?
Because the shepherd uses them
to get between us and our attackers.
The shepherd’s rod, and sometimes the shepherd himself,
absorbs the brunt of the assault.

We can rest, because the shepherd doesn’t.

That is the picture in John 10:11.
“The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
Not so the hired hands.
We might think, “For shame, for shame, you heartless hired hands,
who see the wolf coming and run, leaving the sheep.”
But they are just following instinct, being themselves.
Hands are hired.
They don’t own the sheep.
They aren’t invested.
When their shift is over, they go home.
They have another life.

If you’re Jesus, the “Good Shepherd,”
the sheep are your life,
and you willing even to lay down your own life.

So for us sheep, John 10 is still pretty comforting.
It’s reassuring to know we have a Good Shepherd
who has invested heavily in our lives,
who loves us enough to go all in for our sake.

Now, sticking with this shepherd and sheep metaphor,
it gets more interesting, and less comforting,
when we hold it against today’s epistle reading from 1 John.

Because, the metaphor applies not only for Jesus,
the Divine One with other-worldly powers and purpose.
For us sheep, Scripture does not
leave us with the luxury of leaning only
on this promise to be cared for
by a strong and sacrificially loving
Good Shepherd who lays down life for us.

Listen, 1 John 3:16—
“We know love by this . . . that he laid down his life for us—
and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

Okay . . . now it’s getting personal.
“So you’re saying, Dear Apostle and letter-writer,
that the Good Shepherd and I,
don’t have a cozy little arrangement,
whereby the shepherd lays down his life for my sake,
for my benefit,
for my own spiritual and social and emotional well-being?
You’re saying, that actually,
the Good Shepherd is showing me how it’s done?
Because the very same thing is expected of me?
I am called to lay down my life for my sister and brother?”

“Uh, huh,” says John.

“So, apparently, it’s not enough for me
to tell my sisters and brothers in Christ that I love them,
that I’m praying for them,
that they should call me if they need me?”

“Yes,” says John, “that’s precisely what I’m saying,”
1 John 3:18—“Little children,
let us love, not in word or speech,
but in truth and action.”

You see, true love is revealed in action—
the action of laying down my life,
placing my life in the life of another.

We’re not really talking about martyrdom, here.
Although . . . we’re not not talking about martyrdom,
because in some places and situations in our world,
even today,
following Jesus might well mean following Jesus to our death,
for the sake of our sisters and brothers,
for the sake of our faith.

But for most of us sitting here this morning,
that kind of martyrdom will never be on the table for us.
We lay down our lives in a different way.

It’s interesting to note the Greek idiom here,
translated “lay down your life,”
means literally, to “place your life.”
We put our life, voluntarily, willfully,
into the life of another.
It’s not taken.
We put it there.
It’s not all about dying.
It’s what a parent daily does for a child.

In fact, every one of us, every day
has opportunity to place our life in the life of another.
In fact, that’s what Jesus did every day of his life,
not just on the cross, at the end.
His whole life was bound up
in and with, the lives of those around him.

When I place my life in the life of another,
or . . . when I lay down my life for another . . .
I become deeply and spiritually connected to them.
To place my life in another
means that I identify, radically, with the other.
The sharp distinction between my life and the life of the other
is blurred . . . to a degree.
When my own well-being is directly tied to your well-being,
when my own happiness is deeply affected by your happiness,
when my own grief is tied to your grief,
then I am laying down my life for you.

This is what makes possible deep Christian compassion.
This is what makes possible genuine Christian community.
Our lives, as Christians, should be bound up in the lives of others,
for the good of us all.

In doing so, we do not lose our sense of selfhood.
Rather, it is because we value so highly the self God created,
that we choose to do this.
By investing our lives in the lives of others,
we free the self to be what it was created to be—
a self in deep relationship with others,
a self in community.

Being bound to another, and being in bondage
are two very different things.

When we are in genuine community with another,
and lay down our lives for each other,
we step into a life-giving stream that flows both directions.
If only one side is laying down life,
that’s not love, that’s oppression.
And the Gospel has nothing to do with oppression.

But if I am laying my life down for another of my own free will,
and if I truly know and love the self I am laying down,
and if no one is pressuring me to do so,
then that is grace and Gospel at work.
If it looks like coercion, shame, pressure, or bondage,
it is not of God, and it is not Gospel,
and it is not what 1 John 3 is speaking of.

But even when done of our own free will,
even when God calls us to do it,
it may be agonizingly difficult,
and we may resist it with every fiber in our being.
Jesus did.
He prayed that the cup of suffering might pass from him.

We don’t know where the path of obedience to God will lead.
On this path we are not assured of sunshine and roses.
We are not spared from difficult and painful choices.
We are certainly not shielded from all suffering.
The only thing we can say with certainty about this path,
is what Jesus said about it.
It will lead to life.

My deepest longing for myself,
my most fervent prayer for Park View Mennonite Church,
my hope for the larger church
and for the people of God worldwide,
is that we will choose the path that leads to life.

It is a path that will, without question, ask us
to willingly, repeatedly, lay down our lives for each other.
Because that is what love looks like.

Love is our choice to invest in the other.
Look around you in life,
and notice those individuals,
those households,
those groups,
that consistently look like they are full of life,
that seem to have a deep current of joy flowing beneath them,
that are just winsome, and that draw others to them.

I dare say, if you look at them, as a whole,
you will find a common thread that runs through them all.
They are laying down their lives for others,
for causes larger than themselves,
for God and God’s purposes in the world.
They are oriented outwardly.
They are embodying love, agape-type love.

So why do people, and institutions, and even the church,
often instinctively take positions based on self-interest,
when all evidence points to real life and love being found
in giving ourselves away to others?

A self-giving posture is not really valued or rewarded in our culture.
And we drink deep from those waters, I’m afraid.

We have plenty of opportunities to practice this kind of love
in a church like ours.

We talk about the significant differences that exist in our church—
here at Park View, and in the larger church.
And it’s true.
We have opportunity to practice love across those differences.
Love, not tolerance.
Tolerance is easy.
All that takes is one simple step.
A step backwards, away from the other.
In tolerance, you give room.
You leave the other alone.
You stop caring so much.

But that’s not the Gospel way of being.
The Gospel demands that we love one another,
as Christ loved us.
That we even lay down our lives for the other,
as Christ laid down his life for us.

We are never off the hook in a Gospel-shaped community.
Never.
We will know love by this, the epistle writer says,
that our lives are laid down for one another.
We will know love,
when the first impulse we feel—
upon encountering someone in our family of faith,
in our own communion,
with whom we disagree,
or who we don’t understand—
when our first impulse is to extend ourselves,
to lay down my needs and my agenda, in order to listen,
to lift them up, and assume the best in them,
to show mercy,
without pretense, without condition—
we will know love by this.

Love doesn’t stop there, of course.
Love stays engaged, when it’s easy and when it’s hard.
Love, self-extending and self-giving love,
is the platform, the only platform,
from which we can speak
the kind of truth that deserves a hearing.

I pray, dear brothers and sisters,
that we will so open ourselves
to the extravagant love and mercy of God—
that we will then have the courage and grace to love others,
the will to extend ourselves,
the grace to lay down our lives for the other.

We know love by this.
May we all know that kind of love.

I end with a short excerpt of a song by that title,
“That kind of love,” by folk-singer Pierce Pettis,
who obviously read 1 John at some point in his life.

So let’s listen, and reflect.

—Phil Kniss, April 26, 2015

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