In the reading from John’s eye witness account of the good news of Jesus that Doug read for us earlier, we heard Jesus speaking to his disciples. The occasion is a meal, one of many that he would have shared with his friends, but this one was different. This is the last supper that Jesus and his followers would eat together before he died. This is Good Friday eve, less than 24 hours before Jesus would be beaten, stripped, and nailed to a cross. In these last few hours together Jesus is reminding them of his most important teaching, the things that they are to remember and hold onto in the horror of the following hours and days.
In the middle of all the things he reminds them of that night, he says this, “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus has spoken many times about the importance of sacrifice and putting others first in his way of life. Here he summarises that teaching and example in this famous phrase. “Greater love has no-one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”
It is a phrase that has particular resonance at this time of year, when we remember those who have died. It is even carved into the wood of the Lychgate memorial in our churchyard. In this season of Remembrance, we Remember those who have died in conflict, often putting themselves in harm’s way to prevent others being harmed. We choose to remember because we believe that its important to honour their sacrifice, their laying down of their lives for their friends.
We’re doing it in a strange way this year because of the context. We’ve not been able to gather in the way that we normally would in the churchyard. On Wednesday, the 11th of the 11th we will not be able to gather for the 11 o clock ceremony in the Market Square as we normally would. This is not because we do not honour the memory of those who laid down their lives, but because we are following their example. Laying down our own preferences, our lives, so that others can be protected from harm.
You see, as we head into this second lock down, it seems to me that this thing that Jesus said, about laying down our lives might help us to understand what we’re being asked to do at the moment. As we go into this lock down, what does it mean for us to lay down our lives for our friends?
There are some obvious examples. For NHS staff, teachers, care workers and other key workers it has often meant putting their own lives, and the lives of their families, at risk. These are those who have continued to go to work, in situations of higher risk, with variable qualities of PPE, laying down their own preferences and safety for others.
At this Remembrance time we don’t only remember those active combatants who died or were injured. We also remember the sacrifices of the wartime generation at home. The children evacuated far from friends and family. Those who had to learn to cook and prepare meals from rationed supplies. The land army and munitions factory girls who had to learn new skills and take on manual labour in jobs they would never have imagined for themselves.
For all of us, we face choices – will we sacrifice what we would prefer to do in order to protect others? Will we lay down our lives for our friends? Will we be graceful and generous in not going out when it’s not necessary? Will we be careful not to kid ourselves by making exceptions for ourselves – why the rules don’t apply to us or to our situation? Will we look out for those who are isolated and lonely, and go out of our way to include them and to support them?
Else where in his teaching, Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Laying down our lives for our friends is difficult enough. Will we lay down our lives for our enemies? I know that some of us feel resentment and anger towards those we believe have been careless and have not played their part in containing the spread of the virus. We blame them for this second lockdown. We blame the government. Will we love those people as well?
It might help for us to take a step back a moment and realise that there is something truly shocking in the middle of this teaching. We read it so often in church that I wonder if we might have lost some of its impact. Just think about it for a minute. Jesus commands his followers to love each other.
And not just any old love, but to love each other in the same way that Jesus loved them.
Really think about that for a minute. Love is something that can be commanded. If it can be commanded than it can be chosen. It has to be, otherwise Jesus would not command it. Jesus wouldn’t tell us to do something that is impossible. That’s not to say that it’s not difficult at times, but it is possible. Jesus goes on to talk to his friends about the Holy Spirit – the one who will come as a gift from the Father to help people follow Jesus, to live in his way, to love as he did. It is the Holy Spirit at work in us that enables us to love with God’s love. To choose to love our enemies. To lay down our lives for our enemies and our friends. Just as Jesus did. He is the greatest example of love, of laying down his life. He laid his life down for his friends and his enemies. He also took his life up again.
And, if we follow his example and his command, we will be able to take our lives up again. They may not look like the lives we had. We may not ever take them up again in the same way, many of the generations who lived through wars never did. But we can know that as we follow Jesus in the way of the cross, so we will be led to resurrection and new life, with him, forever.