“By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” (1 John 3:16)
We all know John 3:16. 1 John 3:16 is less celebrated, although it is of course a familiar scripture. A reading of John’s first letter probes the heart and challenges us in our walk of faith, and no more so than in this verse. We can imagine the apostle remembering the words of Jesus that he recorded in his gospel account (John 15:13) as he sat down to write this letter: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends,” and thinking, ‘Yes, this is at the heart of it all.”
What do we think when we read it?
I once watched a seal in the River Liffey in Dublin. A school of salmon was swimming up the river, which in itself was a splendid spectacle; and I stood for a while and enjoyed the glitter and flash of the darting shapes in the water. The seal was enjoying it for a different reason, which was in its mouth, half-eaten. But a detail I remember clearly was that there were also three or four small crabs clinging to the mutilated body of the salmon, having their own little feast How they had got there and how long they had been clinging I don’t know, but it was definitely one of those “I wish I had my camera” moments and it is printed very clearly on my memory. There are at least two “crabs” attached to this Bible verse.
One of those crabs is religion. Religion reads those words and says: “See! You must live a life of sacrifice. No fun for you. Don’t even think about enjoying life. Look at the rules! They say you must always put other people first. They say you have to be a doormat. It’s good to be a doormat! Who knows, you might even have to be a martyr. After all, isn’t that what Jesus said? He laid down His life, and he expects us to be willing to lay down ours, literally…” And so it goes on, seeking to present to the world the image of a joyless, dour and discontented assembly that the world will shun. And for centuries it has succeeded.
The other crab is the intellect. This is one I know well. The intellect reads scripture, thinks about it, maybe writes about it, tears off little pieces with its claws and puts them into its mouth to savour – but doesn’t live them. The intellect loves to dwell on the theory and the theology but doesn’t apply them to the here and now. We see examples of this from time to time when well-known ministries are discovered with their hands either in the church finances or on someone they shouldn’t be touching – or both – but the problem is far more widespread than the public fall of a few high-profile individuals. A couple of verses on from our opening scripture John wrote : “My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.” (1 John 3:18) It’s easy to talk and write about love, but what counts is when we do it. The widow who gave her mite almost certainly had far less knowledge of the Law than the Pharisee who withheld his fortune.
So what is meant by the principle of laying down one’s life? Yes, we are called to serve. Yes, we are called to give. Yes, we may be called to literally die for our faith. Nothing that the religious spirit speaks of is untrue in itself, but it leaves out the most important part of the picture:
“Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matt 16:24-25)
The Bible doesn’t teach us to lay down our lives out of duty, but out of desire. We have to desire to follow Jesus, and when we do, we will find our lives. At the beginning of his letter, John says “And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.” We lay down our lives so that our joy may be full. This is not the religion that shrinks the soul or the intellect that puffs it up: this is the abundant life that Jesus came to give us (John 10:10). The life that we find is not the life that we were born with, but the life that we were born to: it’s the life of the Spirit that is ours in Christ. Whenever we find that life we find peace and joy, we find patience and self-control, we find kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and above all we find love: all the fruit of the Holy Spirit flows like rainbow colours in that living water. And if we need a gift from Him for someone that we are with – healing, prophesy, a word of knowledge – it will be there for us, carried along on the current, whenever we lay down our lives for Jesus and the gospel.
Whenever, not when or if. Because, as we know from many scriptures, that stream is always there for those who are born of God. Although it flows out of us (John 7:38), we also have to step into it (Ezekiel 47); and to step into it we have to step off our own dry land. But to do so is not difficult or complicated; it does not need the worship band or the anointed speaker, and we don’t even need to remember this morning’s Bible verse or even – shock, horror – to have had a quiet time, for “His commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3) To step into the river we just need to step into Love, and this has just one simple prerequisite: to love another person we need to leave our own agenda on the bank.
I really do believe that it is as simple as that. Whenever we give ourselves to the person we are with, the Holy Spirit has an opportunity to flow into the relationship and bring His agenda into it. By contrast, whenever the outcome that we desire is for the person we are with is, one way or another, to give themselves to us, the river of Love will just flow past. We can worry so easily about what will happen if we let our agenda go, but if we believe the scriptures we know that “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights” (James 1: 17), and that it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom (Luke 12: 32).
“He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32) writes Paul. This is the life that Jesus holds out to us when we lay down our own to love another. How can we not desire it? Because surely it is to die for.