Setting Aside for the Sake of Love
May 09, 2021
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
A few weeks ago, I watched a movie made in 1941 titled “Sergeant York.” I had not thought of it again until I read today’s Gospel lesson. The movie is, evidently, based on a true story from World War I. A man named Alvin York had a conversion experience and became a devoted follower of Jesus and reader of the Bible. When the United States became involved in the war in Europe, and he was about to be drafted, Alvin requested conscientious objector status due to his religious beliefs, which was denied. While he appealed the decision, he ended up in boot camp, where it was discovered that he was a gifted marksman, having grown up hunting to live.
Eventually, he was given the opportunity to decide whether to go into battle or serve in some other way as a conscientious objector. After days of spiritual struggle, Alvin decides to enter the fray of fighting. When his company finds itself up against huge odds, at considerable personal risk, Sergeant York puts himself in a position to use his shooting skills to take out the enemy, save his comrades, and stop the conflict that day from continuing.
When asked how he could have done so, given his religious objections to war, Sergeant York replied that he risked his own life, and sacrificed his convictions, to prevent even more deaths on a larger scale.
For a few days after seeing that movie, I pondered if the end justified the means in that case, but then thought of it again upon hearing Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel lesson: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has great love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13)
To love one another as Jesus loved us may have challenging consequences and cause us to question if we could ever love that sacrificially. It is certainly true that with the modern understanding of both friend and love, not many would be willing to love a friend sufficiently to give up one’s life.
It was possible for Jesus because he abided – was firmly rooted – in the love of God. His actions and his teachings were the results of that love. And, it is with that Divine love that Jesus loved/loves us, and through the Holy Spirit empowers us to love. Or, as commentator Scott Hoezee explains it: “Jesus sketches here a kind of wonderful sequence: the Father loves the Son. The Son loves us. We love each other. In other words, when we are loving to one another in deeds of humble service and sacrifice, we can draw a straight and direct line all the way back to the great God of the universe. There is a holy pipeline of love that connects us right to the Holy Trinity of God.” (1)
This love is not a particular set of feelings or emotions. This love means service, action, self-sacrifice for the sake of others. Another commentator, Emily Askew, writes, “Love in this passage is not a psychological state, nor is it anywhere describes as an internal quality. Love is an action – a really difficult action. The definition of love here is a radical willingness to die – not for your child or spouse, but for a fellow follower of Christ.” (2)
Perhaps loving sacrificially was essential in the risky environment of the first-century Christian church. Still, most of us do not think of loving our brothers and sisters in Christ or our neighbors in that way. It is challenging to consider how we can show that depth of love both inside and outside the church. This is the kind of love, writes Osvaldo Vena, that will make sure justice is done in the world, that motivates people to venture from the safety of their community into the broader society so that it is transformed by the sacrificial love that Jesus modeled for us. (3)
We have seen that type of love, not only in the movies, but in reality. Commentator Gennifer Benjamin Brooks writes that on Martin Luther King Day this year, she watched the movie Selma, which is a record of people who willingly laid down their lives, risking pain and even death, for the cause of justice.
I’ll quote her: “Truly they epitomized the meaning of this love of neighbor of which Jesus speaks in this text. In the second march on Selma, one saw not simply black people or Christians: there were people of many races, cultures and religions. There were certainly people from all walks of life bound together by love; love of neighbor that made them willing to move out of their comfort zone, certainly aware, based on previous events at that time, that their presence and participation could result in bodily harm or even death. And, yet, they came.” (4)
Then we forward to mid-2020 when there was a call for justice following the George Floyd murder at the hand of a law enforcement officer, one of African Americans who died undeservedly.
Please do not be distracted by the looting and violence by those who had their own agendas or took advantage of the situation for their own selfish purposes. The Black Lives Matter protests brought together a wide mix of people who participated both in the United States and across the globe, demonstrating love that was willing to put oneself at risk, just as Jesus tells his followers to do. Remember, justice is the shape love takes.
The question we face today is this: what does it take for us to set aside whatever it is that keeps us from being truly the body of Christ? This passage speaks of the extreme – setting aside our lives – which may cause us to turn away from its challenge. But there is more that requires setting aside – prejudices, fear, anger, hurt, self-righteousness, judgment, traditions, bitterness, even convictions, as was the case for Sergeant York – all of which prevent or stifle the love Jesus calls us to offer one another in our homes, churches, community and the world.
When we do so, we bear fruit, as Jesus says, fruit that lasts. It is a clear mandate from our Lord: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” AMEN
(1) “Easter 6B, The Lectionary Gospel: John 15:9-17” by Scott Hoezee, May 3, 2021, Center for Excellence in Preaching
(2) Emily Askew, Feasting on the Gospel: Feasting on the Word Commentary, John Volume 2, Chapters 10-21 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 176
(2) “Commentary on John 15:9-17, Sixth Sunday of Easter” by Osvaldo Vena, www.workingpreacher.org
(3) “Commentary on John 15:9-17, Sixth Sunday of Easter, by Gennifer Benjamin Brooks, www.workingpreacher.com