These words are part of Jesus’ final commandments to his disciples on the night he was arrested. They all knew the end was near and still he chose to celebrate the Passover Feast with his disciples. He could have escaped the city under the cover of darkness. But Jesus makes a decision to be in charge of his own destiny, not a victim. With excruciating courage, with deep determination and commitment, he chooses to spend his last night breaking bread & drinking wine with his closest confidantes.
On this night he tells his disciples,
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments – love one another as I have loved you.”
I see him pausing to look each one in the eye—
“No one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
The next day Jesus is crucified.
These words remind me of his earlier words in John 10: Jesus said “I am the good shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep.” Jesus talks about the love and the responsibility a shepherd has for his sheep, how the shepherd literally uses his physical body to lay across the opening of the sheep pen to protect the sheep from going out into danger, or to stop anyone who might steal the sheep.
No greater love. What characterizes God’s relationship with us is love. “God is love,” John writes, near the end of his own life. He could have chosen the attribute – God is Creator or Power or Judge. But he chooses God is Love. It is the essence of God to act lovingly. Because each of us bears the image of God, it is the essence of humanity to love. And yet…so many things get in the way.
Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe preached in a Good Friday sermon.
“In this world, it is fatal to be human, to be open and vulnerable to others, to be loving. Jesus died of being human.”
This world perceived Jesus, God’s-love-made-flesh incarnate, as a threat and reacted accordingly. Jesus died of human love, so vulnerable, so fierce, that it shook the foundations of our world.
I am reminded of those at Marjory Stoneman Douglas HS, at Sandy Hook – who placed their lives between bullets fired from an assault rifle and vulnerable children and youth who would have died if not for their sacrifice. Those who literally laid down their lives on top of children to protect them.
Most of us will not be called to lay down our lives in some act of heroism; to react to an unexpected event to pay the ultimate price; to lay down our whole life in one moment. But – each of us is called to claim the power to give ourselves away, a little each day. To be poured out again & again & again. Laying down one’s life is not about being a victim or allowing others to abuse us. It is about choosing. It is about recognizing one’s power to love, to heal, to protect those who are vulnerable. It is about not only loving one’s own life, but holding the value that ALL lives are sacred.
I keep thinking about those students from Parkland who watched friends die. To know that any second could literally be your last? To return with expectations to resume your education? I am in awe at the youth who have emerged as national leaders, who started the Never Again movement, and helped organize the March For Our Lives. They are like a Phoenix rising up from the ashes – laying down their lives on this issue of responsible gun control. Laying down their lives as they are being targeted as FakeNews, ridiculed for not being accepted into college, admonished to learn CPR instead of advocating for sensible gun laws. Could I take on the NRA? Could I keep going in the face of powerful people ridiculing you and telling you to shut up? The youth of Parkland have found their voice and are speaking their truth, galvanizing a country to march much like last Sunday’s Palm procession standing up to Empire.
Before and after the Crucifixion the disciples ran away, they denied, they betrayed. But eventually they came together, first in fear, then in unbelief, and finally in belief, to support each other and carry forward the message of their Teacher, laying down their own lives in love.
Jesus wanted his followers to live – loving life and God and family and friends – enough to lay down our lives for them, to die for that love, to learn that until you love that deeply you are not fully, truly alive or living the abundant life Jesus promised.
May these words echo in our minds as we reflect on how to give our lives away for the sake of love. From Deuteronomy:
“I call heaven and earth to witness today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.” And the words of Jesus: “I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.”