I can still remember being aware of it for the first time. I was about 15 years old at the time, on a school trip to the First World War battlefields in Belgium and northern France. I remember being in the cemeteries struggling to take it all in. Row after row…cross after cross… As my eyes randomly took in the details inscribed on the tombstones, they lingered on one for slightly longer. On it was a simple epitaph: "Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." On that day in 1989 I found that Jesus' words took on a new poignancy for me… I stood towards the end of that conflict-filled century looking at stark reminders from the beginning of it, which testified to an enormous amount of death and destruction throughout… and I struggled, as I still do, to take it all in. Most of you know that before working for a church, I was an Air Electronics Operator in the RAF for 16 years. I served in Iraq and over Afghanistan – and whether I'm thinking of my grandparents and great grandparent's generation… or some of my mates who never came back from Afghanistan, I find these words from Jesus incredibly moving. "Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." Whatever the rights and wrongs have been over different conflicts, men and women have selflessly given themselves. Some have died. Some survive. Some survive but carry terrible injuries and scars - mental as well as physical. Our annual two-minute silence often seems to be a small price to pay to remember their sacrifice.
But what did we do when we were quiet? What emotions did we feel? What should we have thought about?
Should we have been grateful, or should we have grieved? Should we have been proud, or should we have hung heads in shame? Do we think of brave heroes, or do we think of evil enemies? In some ways, all of these responses are appropriate, aren't they? Because war brings out the best and the worst in humans. So, we can think of heroic sacrifice, and be grateful for it. But we also have to acknowledge evil and the tragic loss and waste of human life – lives made in the image of the Almighty, Creator God. Which of course, begs another question. Why? Why such loss and tragedy? What causes war? We tend to think it's far away in time, back then…1914-18, 1939-45, 1982, 1991, 2003…We tend to think it's out there geographically…France, Germany, Belgium, Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan. But friends, the Christian view of war is neither of those things. The problem of war - the cause of war - starts in here, right now. Take a look at this:
Glen Scrivener Video: To End All Wars
There's a lot in there isn't there? You can watch it again online – just search 'To end all wars' by Glen Scrivener and you'll get it. He answers two important questions there. Firstly, what causes war? He says: a want, becomes a will, demands its way, prepares to kill. Our desires. Our wants. Our selfishness. That's what causes war. But then the second crucial question – what ceases war? What can interrupt this deadly and devastating pattern? (14-18. 39-45, etc) And he talks about an anti-Zeus, a God of peace, who has come into our midst and is a 'walking, talking armistice'. What Glen Scrivener does so well is that he points us to Jesus. This is Jesus he's talking about. The very man who said, "Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."
But here's the thing: although poignant and not inappropriate for gravestones – they weren't Jesus' main focus when he first uttered those 'greater love' words. What I'd like for us to see today, is that Jesus' words are at the centre of the idea that Jesus wants his followers to live so differently, so powerfully, that our example of love would both attract and distract an unbelieving world from all its selfish desires and wants.
But it begins in here. So, let's get back into God's word and see what he's saying to us through it on this Remembrance Day in 2019. If you open your Bibles to John 15 that'll get you back to our New Testament reading. But what I want to draw your attention to first is the whole sweep of the surrounding chapters. To understand what Jesus is saying in Chapter 15 we need to back up a bit and understand that they come as part of a longer narrative that begins in John 13 and ends in John 17.
What's recorded by John here is really Jesus' final talk with his disciples – designed to prepare them for his imminent departure. So, you'd expect what happens to be significant…and it is! Look at what kick starts this whole plotline off! John 13:3,
"Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, 4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet."
Do not underestimate how jaw-droppingly astonishing this scene is. The master, the teacher, leading by example with a powerful lesson about service and humility. Judas then goes. Satan enters him and he leaves the other disciples and Jesus says to the remaining eleven, this is verse 31: "Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him." Jesus knows that what is about to happen will be more significant than his birth, his life, his teaching. Judas has set in motion a chain of events that will lead to the cross. Make no mistake: the death of Jesus on the cross is how the Son of man is glorified and how God is glorified in Him. But right now, in these chapters, Jesus is concerned with briefing his disciples so that they are ready to live for him and do his work despite him not being physically present. His simple instruction? Verse 34:
"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
So, when we get to chapter 15 verse 12 and we read almost exactly the same thing, we should take note of the repetition: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." You see, first and foremost, verse 13 of chapter 15 was not uttered by Jesus to comfort those mourning the death of physical soldiers. No, they were given to encourage spiritual soldiers in real life! It's a theme picked up by Paul in Ephesians. True, love isn't mentioned specifically in the armour of God, but that's because love isn't an item or weapon or armour that we pick and put down – it's an all-pervading attitude. Ephesians 5:1
"Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God."
If this is what Jesus considers the most important thing to talk about the evening before he dies, we need to consider what this love looks like in practice. Three brief headings to help focus our thoughts. Firstly,
1. The Definition of Greater Love: Sacrificial Service
Jesus says, 'follow my example.' John 15:12 and John 13:34 "love one another as I have loved you". You see we don't need to worry about what Greek word for love Jesus chooses to use, we don't need to worry about making up our own definition – John provides it – by recording two contexts by which we can understand this 'love'.
There is an immediate context here. "…as I have love you…" refers immediately back to what Jesus has just done. He just washed the disciple's feet. If we are to love like Jesus, we need to be humble enough to serve anyone, doing the kind of tasks that servants do! When I say anyone, I mean anyone. Isn't it staggering, that Jesus, knowing that Judas is about to do the deed, still rises (this isn't implied, it's explicit in the text) and serves the very one who will betray him? Greater love is an attitude that says – I'm prepared to do anything that is for your good, as an end in itself, and not because of any reward or response that I get back (in fact, we could go so far to say, despite any response we get back!)
Are we prepared to do that – to do whatever it takes just for the good of someone else?
That's the immediate context, but there's also a cross-centred context here. With hindsight, we can see that the words that follow, the words with which we began, imply a love that is even willing to lay down one's life for another. "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends." Of course, at the time, the disciples were confused and they didn't get it. Peter's reaction throughout these chapters in John (and immediately following) tells us that. But this side of the cross and resurrection we can see what Jesus meant. Clearly though, the sacrifice of the Son of God crucified on the cross for the sins of the world (that is the 'greatest love' there is) is not something we can repeat. But the specifics of that earth-shattering moment aren't what are in primary focus here. Jesus is concerned with briefing his disciples on how they are to love and behave when he's gone and they are to do that by following the example of his actions, but not necessarily the actions themselves. Love can go no further than laying down its life for others. For most of us we're not called to do so in a heroic "take a bullet" kind of way. No, most of us are called to something way more difficult. We are called to lay down our lives in life, not death. And that means day by day, at home, in the office, here in church… giving our time, our energy, our patience, our care, our attention, to the service and interests of others.
Is there anything you wouldn't or couldn't do for me because you judged it too costly? Is there anything I would be unprepared to do for you? This JPC, is the definition of the 'greater love' that Jesus requires of his followers: a servant-hearted, sacrificial love that follows his example. And it's not just an end in itself. It has a purpose. Secondly, then…
2. The Purpose of Greater Love: Joyful, Fruit-Bearing, Witness
In John 15.11 Jesus says that he has spoken these things "that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full". He knows that his disciple's hearts, our hearts, left to their own devices, won't lead us to servant-hearted sacrifice because we fear it'll rob us of something valuable and we'll lose out. We'll judge it too costly to give of our time, money, or our comfort. We'll say it's okay to withhold forgiveness from a repentant brother or sister, so that we can avoid the emotional cost and turmoil that involves. But Jesus is assuring us here that part of the purpose of greater love, is not to diminish joy – but to increase it – so that we can experience it to the full! Friends, it seems so counter-intuitive, but loving through giving, really is a way to true God-given joy. But lest we think this is an exercise in self-improvement and fulfilment, just cast your eyes back to John 13.35
"By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
The purpose of this greater love is mission. God's mission. That the world will know and, as a result God will be glorified! I'm no expert in music. But I've read that experts can sometimes say of young musicians 'you can tell who he trained under'. And apparently, that's because the young musos playing bears the unmistakable imprint of their teacher. This is the principle at play with Jesus' teaching in these chapters. The world needs to see and hear and experience Jesus' imprint in us! Do our lives bear the unmistakable imprint of Jesus, our teacher?
Interestingly, the early church appears to have had this nailed. Many historians of the time record how this "greater love" was indeed the mark of the Christians. One, Tertullian, says this: "See how they love one another...how they are even ready to die for one another." But as Christianity went from persecuted sect to accepted religion under Constantine things changed and the cost of becoming a Christian dropped. As a result, Christians began to lose their "greater love" imprint. But by the time we get to the 5th Century we find a Christian preacher saying this: "There is nothing else that causes the Greeks [that is, the unbelievers] to stumble, except that there is no love... We, we are the cause of their remaining in their error. Their own doctrines they have long condemned, and in like manner they admire ours, but they are hindered by our mode of life". I wonder how much has changed in 15 centuries. How much do we in JPC hinder the people of Newcastle and the North East by our mode of life and our 'lesser-love'? Friends the purpose of us loving in this 'greater' way is joyful, fruit-bearing witness.
Now I appreciate, you may be thinking 'how on earth can I have any hope of following this example?' And the answer is, you can't – except for one thing: and that is to accept the resources that Jesus himself provides for you. My concluding point:
3. The Enabling of Greater Love: God-Empowered, Obedience
Even a cursory glance through John 13-17 will flag up that the measure of greater love is obedience to Jesus' command. But the wonderful thing is the power to fulfil that command does not rest with us, but through the initiative of Christ in us, the Helper, the Holy Spirit working through us. Take a look at verse 16 again:
"You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you"
Or chapter 15 verse 5,
"I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing."
In other words, it's God's initiative, he grafts us into the vine, he plugs us in to the source. But we have a part to play in remaining connected. If we are to "love one another, with the greater love with which he has loved us", we need to remain in him, abide in him, stay connected to him with all that means for our devotional lives in prayer and studying God's word; with all that means in not giving up meeting together; but also with all that means in remembering exactly what kind of sacrifice we're talking about.
Sometimes, as American Pastor John Piper says, "we can be so familiar with the spectacular, it doesn't move us as it should." He invites us to consider the depth of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross:
"To get to the point where he could die, Jesus had to plan for it. He left the glory of heaven and took on human nature so that he could hunger and get weary and in the end suffer and die. The incarnation was the preparation of nerve endings for the nails of the cross. Jesus needed a broad human back for a place to be scourged. He needed a brow and skull as a place for the thorns. He needed cheeks for Judas' kiss and soldiers' spit. He needed hands and feet for spikes. He needed a side as a place for the sword to pierce. And he needed a brain and a spinal cord, with no vinegar and no gall, so that he could feel the entire excruciating death—for you."
Jesus death was a form of torture devised to produce maximum pain. So, when we read in John 15 of Jesus "laying down his life"; when we read in Ephesians 5 of Christ "giving himself up for us"; let's not allow the familiar to sanitise what we're experiencing. Jesus love for his friends is the greatest love there could be. It is a love that will one day cause warfare to cease forever. In the meantime, the only response he requires of his friends is to obey and follow his example – in his grace and by his power.