Acts 4: 5-12
1John 3: 16-end
In this Easter season, all three of our readings today refer to the power and meaning of Jesus’ death, and both the letter and gospel of John talk of Jesus “laying down his life” for others. This therefore will be my focus this morning.
The great world faiths take their shape as much from the lives of their founders as from their doctrines. Buddha meditates under a tree. Mohammed was a political ruler. The shape of our Christian faith comes from the life of Jesus and most especially from the manner of his death and raising to new life.
There is a passivity here. At the heart of the gospel narrative, Jesus is done to rather than doing, he is quiet. As we read in Isaiah 53, so often connected with Jesus,
“He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”
This is not to say that Jesus was generally passive. No, his ministry is vivid, dramatic, in his embracing of the untouchable, in healing, in teaching, in prophetic denouncing, in inspiring an out-of-control movement of ordinary people. It is unusual, and remarked on, that he should surrender himself at the end, without protest or polemic. He lays down his life.
For the philosopher Friedrich Nietsche, this was why he hated Christianity, his reason for condemning it as a religion which celebrated weakness, or worse than that gave the weak a claim to moral authority over the strong. Nietsche grew up in a particularly repressed clergy family, and he cried out for the free, vital expression of strength and will – the opposite as he saw it of Christianity’s life-negating submission.
And it would not be difficult to point to the ways in which this focus on surrender, on laying down one’s life, has been understood and used to diminish lives. In the celebration of war, where the needless sacrifice of the young is glorified. Or in submission to the unjust abuse of power. It was not without reason that Marx called religion the opium of the people, so useful in sedating them while the powerful extracted the spoils of their labour.
But the misuse of this narrative is also to be found in more subtle manifestations. For example, a certain kind of ground-down selflessness, a focus on duty and obedience, which seems to imply a God perhaps like a remote Victorian Father, who pushes us to live a virtuous life but would never approve of any joy or tenderness.
CS Lewis in A Grief Observed likens God in his goodness to a dentist fixing our teeth. I don’t know about you but I struggle with this image, however skilful a dentist he might be!
So I reach for a different understanding of Jesus laying down his life, as a model for us to live by, one that fits more closely with his life-giving teaching.
And my starting point is to reflect further on his relationship with God the Father. I suggest that Jesus as he asked, in Gethsemane, the question of God, “may this cup be taken from me?” is not asking a simple, “Do you insist?” That perhaps God the Father struggles alongside him with the realisation that this is the path of love, this is the narrow way, the true, creative path they both have to endure, that the pain is then lived by them both.
This is the mystery to which Jesus returns again and again in his teaching, the life accessible only through a letting go to suffering and death: unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.
And he is ruthless in mocking the alternative. Build bigger barns for all your possessions? Really? What will it profit? Is it not just a desperate kind of running away from everything of real value? A futile attempt to catch the water passing through your fingers?
And this was my own thinking when surprised by mortality 4 years ago. A bucket list? Is that it?
So I suggest that what this then means for us is that, somehow, a life outpoured for others, a life laid down for others, is the true life, the fullest expression of what it means to be human, the life worth living. That in some mysterious way, laying down our lives is at the same time a sacrificial, painful thing to do and also the source of our life and our joy.
This is the model we find in the life of Jesus, a life of great vivacity and hope,
a life of astonishing freedom, yet empty of the world’s power or possessions,
a life outpoured, yet full,
a life laid down, then restored to eternity
This is the life laid down which we remember in the Eucharist, the life we are all invited to share.
Richard Young (Rector)