Fourth Sunday of Easter
How do you know love? Really. How do you know that beyond a doubt someone loves you or you love someone? It isn’t exactly the easiest thing to prove.
The first thing most of us think of when we hear the word, “love,” is romantic love. Even in that seemingly straightforward context, how can you really know the words “I love you” are true? You don’t know if someone really loves you (and all of you), just an aspect of you, or something else- like their self. If you say to your partner, “I love you,” how do you know that those words are true? How can someone demonstrate that this love is beyond doubt true. In a lot of romantic movies you often see one person make some sort of extraordinary gesture to “prove” their love to the other. Think of people bursting into the middle of wedding right when the priest says, “Speak now or forever hold your peace,” or think of John Cusack and a boombox playing Peter Gabriel.
Does that demonstrate love? Or is it infatuation? Or pride? Or anything at all?
How do you know love when you see it?
1 John gives a potential proof of love.
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
Have you experienced that kind of proof of love? Truly putting someone else’s needs before your own- giving yourself completely for the good of another person.
I recall my grandfather and great uncle when considering a literal willingness to lay down one’s own life for another. They were Jews in southern Poland during World War II. Their hometown had been dismantled and most people were sent to death camps, while others were sent to work camps. My grandfather, Henry, and his brother, Meilach, were fortunate enough to go to the work camps. They were the only family they had and they were the only family they’d ever see again. At one point, the two brothers were separated. The guards thought that Henry was sick, so they sent him away to another town with other ill people and he awaited their judgment. People who were deemed too sick to work were sent to death camps, so this seemed to be the likely outcome for Henry.
A couple of days later in this nearby town, Henry looked down the street and couldn’t believe his eyes. There, walking toward him as though it were any other Sunday afternoon, was his brother, Meilach. Henry was initially overjoyed to be reunited with his brother, but then he says, “I got mad.” He goes on to berate Meilach, “What are you doing? Why are you here? You had a chance to survive! To live!” Meilach looked at Henry with great love in his eyes and said, “What’s going to happen to me is what’s going to happen to you.”
Meilach was willing to lay down his own life to be with his brother. He was willing to risk his own death if it meant that he could support and encourage his brother, and to help each other survive.
You may or may not have the opportunity to lay down your life for another in such a literal way, but there are all kinds of ways that we lay down our lives in love everyday. In some way or another, I believe that all of us have either laid down our lives or experienced the love of another who laid down their life.
When my brother and I were very little- maybe 5 and 3 years old, my mom was working to provide for us. My mother was a single, working mom, and it wasn’t easy to be that when you have two kids, just moved to a new place, and don’t have a car. But I have no doubt about my mother’s love for me as I saw the way she laid down her life for me and my brother. Day after day, my mother would get on a bus in her little cocktail waitress outfit (she worked at a casino) with my brother and I holding onto her hands. About halfway to work, she would get off the bus and walk my brother and I to the babysitter. Then, she would walk back to that bus, get on, and go to the casino for work. After she was done at about midnight, she would get back on that sketchy bus, get off about halfway, pick up my brother and I, walk back to the bus, and take it the rest of the way home. She did this exhausting routine day after day because she loved us.
There are all sorts of ways, I am sure, that you have the no-doubt-about-it experience of love and/or that you share that self-giving love for others.
It is hard work laying down your life. You may decide to care for a child and lay down your life. It is no small act of love to give up your time, your sleep, and your money to care for this person in your life. You may stand up for a classmate or a workmate who is being slandered or bullied. It is no small act of love to risk being slandered or bullied yourself. You may stay up late with a sick or hurting friend. It is no small act of love to give up your precious opportunity for rest and expose your heart.
It takes incredible boldness to do these things and sometimes we lack that boldness. We are afraid, lost, tired, or otherwise occupied by the sinful forces of the world. Sometimes we don’t lay down our lives like we ought to.
In the midst of that sobering reality, know that Jesus Christ is still with you. We did not receive a promise that following Christ and laying down our lives would be easy and that we wouldn’t experience any opposition or pain. But we did receive a promise that Christ is with us to strengthen us when we are weak and to forgive us when we mess up.
I John assures us that Christ abides fully in every act of love. He is there when love is shared. Psalm 23 tells of how we walk through the darkest valley but we won’t be afraid because our Good Shepherd is with us. Psalm 23 also says that God will provide for us richly, a feast in front of us and cups overflowing, right there in the presence of our enemies. When our enemies are close enough grab us right then and there, God nonetheless joins us at the table and showers blessing on us. Jesus, in John’s Gospel, paints a picture about sheep and their Good Shepherd. Wolves prowling the perimeter of the field where the sheep are grazing, but the sheep aren’t alone in the field. They have with them a courageous and loving shepherd who is willing to lay down his own life should the wolves try to snatch up any of his sheep.
Jesus is that Good Shepherd for us. Taking after our Good Shepherd, we are called to lay down our lives for others in acts of profound love. Such vulnerable work is especially daunting when we consider the wolves that prowl around us- the wolves of fear, loss, anger, selfishness, financial hardship, sickness, and death itself. But ultimately we need not fear those wolves. They may threaten us and get close, but Christ the Good Shepherd will never let them snatch us away for good. We have with us a Good Shepherd who has laid down his very life for us and by that we know we are loved.