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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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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