"Visibility less than two yards. Pause every 150ft of the climb. Arduous ascent. Muscles and nerves at breaking point. The rumble of enemy artillery and mortars... Explosions 60ft above us. Men slip, fall six or seven feet, risk breaking their backs... Such human suffering! Packs, weapons. I joke with the [others]. Night black, visibility zero, we trample over corpses; they're ours, one with no head, guts spilling out."
Such was the experience of a French commander fighting in Italy during the Second War. What is it that keeps soldiers going in such circumstances? "A rational army would run away", quotes the military historian John Keegan. "Combat is not rational", he says. "It defies one of the strongest of all human instincts, that of self-preservation." No doubt war draws out both the best and the worst in people. Some combination of motives has lead millions of soldiers to give their lives in warfare during this unprecedentedly bloody century. To give but one national example: by the end of the First World War, 600,000 French women had been widowed. What would you be willing to lay down your life for? I belong to a generation that has escaped that searching question. Perhaps that is why we are so gripped by films such as Saving Private Ryan, Steven Speilberg's portrayal of the D Day landings. We wonder how we would react in such situations. In that film a patrol is sent to bring a soldier out of the fierce fighting of the front line, so that he can be returned to his family. His three brothers have all been killed. The members of the patrol risk their lives to fetch him. Some die. And there is a debate that keeps surfacing amongst them: Is the safety of this one GI worth them laying their lives on the line? What is it that makes laying down your life worthwhile? When Jesus was on the point of laying down his life, he challenged his disciples to be ready to do the same. You can find his words in John 12:12-14, which is on p1083 of the Bibles that are in the pews. This is what he said:
"My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command."
What do we make of that for our own lives? Because the fact is, this is a challenge not just for those disciples, or for tommies in the trenches, but for us today, in our world of designer labels and the internet. Three points need to be made. The first is this: First, THE GREATEST LOVE IS TO LAY DOWN YOUR LIFE FOR YOUR FRIENDS. That is what Jesus says there in v13:
"Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."
To love in the sense that Jesus speaks of here is freely to put the interests of others before your own, for the sake of their welfare. Love is not warm feelings. It is not acting in the interests of others because we are being forced to do so, like the musket fodder of the Napoleonic Wars who marched their way towards a wall of bullets with their sergeant's pike pushing against their backs to hold the line in place. It is not giving something to others for the sake of what we will get back, like the adulation of a grateful nation for the returning heroes. When Jesus says that the greatest love is to lay down your life for your friends, he is saying that the greatest love puts no ceiling on what it is prepared to give for the sake of others. When the greatest love goes into action, it lays down no limit to how far it will go in purposeful self-sacrifice. We are not talking about futile gestures. We are not talking about a pointless death. Rather, this kind of love engages in purposeful self-sacrifice. And the purpose is the good of others. The point of it all is to save the lives of those we love. But the greatest love is ready to give everything, even to die if necessary. All other forms of love, the kinds with which we are most familiar, are mixed with earth-bound self-interest. The greatest love sets aside self-interest and is ready to lay down its life those who are loved. Most warfare is conducted with very mixed motives, but such love is at times exemplified in the heat of battle. An old soldier who had seen much action finally died a few days ago. His obituary quoted the citation that accompanied the award of the Military Cross to him. He was, it said, "completely imperturbable under heavy artillery and mortar fire" and carried on his work with "complete disregard for his own safety". "He has been completely unsparing of himself..." it concluded. He did not spare himself. Here is a report, not from the warfare of a previous generation, but of what is going on now in another part of the world. I received this just a few days ago:
In the authorities' latest attempts to stamp out unregistered religious activity, Christians have been interrogated, beaten, hanged by the limbs, given electric shocks... Several have died... House church leaders have been targeted for arrest and sentenced to re-education in labour camps - often for three years at a stretch... Christians are beaten in front of their families, or detained until their fines are paid.
The greatest love, says Jesus, is to lay down your life for your friends. So what does that mean for us? To begin with, we need to accept Jesus' standard as the benchmark of true love. Our notions of love get very clouded by the prevalent understanding of love that concentrates on emotion to the exclusion of almost anything else. We need to set our sights on the target that Jesus has given us. What is real love? It is purposeful self-sacrifice, even to the point of death. Once we have accepted that benchmark, then we can begin to assess the way we love against that benchmark. We need to be frank with ourselves. Are we reluctant to love like that? Maybe we will find that there are strict limits to how far we are prepared to go for the sake others - whether we count them as our friends or not. But when we have seen ourselves clearly, what do we do then? We look at Jesus. And the second point that needs to be made is this: Secondly, JESUS LAID DOWN HIS LIFE FOR HIS ENEMIES. When Jesus teaches us, it is not a matter of doing what he says and not what he does. He practises what he preaches, even to the point of dying for those who are deeply hostile towards him. So he says in John 15.12:
"Love each other as I have loved you".
And how has he loved us? That is spelled out in other parts of the Bible. For instance, the apostle Paul puts it like this in Romans 5.6-8 :
Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us... when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son...
And one of the closest friends of Jesus during his earthly life, the apostle John, says this, in 1 John 3.16 :
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.
And again a bit later, in 1 John 4.9 :
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world, that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
You see, there is a war on, now today, and you and I are caught up in it. It is a war to end all wars. It is the war that Christ is fighting again sin, Satan and death. Jesus has fought for us. He has died for us, not in a futile gesture, but for a purpose. He died to save us from our sin, and to snatch us out of the clutches of Satan and out of the jaws of hell, like burning sticks snatched out of a blazing bonfire. And Jesus loved his enemies as he did his friends. He loved those who hated him, even as he loved those who followed him. At the end even his so called friends betrayed him, fled from him and denied him. 'We were God's enemies' says Paul. That includes all of us. But Jesus' love was the greatest love - he laid down his life for his enemies. He died in order to turn his enemies into his friends. He died to liberate us from sin and death and hell. One soldier recalled participating in the liberation of France following the Normandy landings:
... we found villagers and townspeople who clustered beside the road, waving and throwing flowers, and shouting words of encouragement as we sped by. If we paused for a moment's respite, amidst our own sweat and dust, they would run to greet us, arms outstretched, with tears of joy streaming down their cheeks. Five years of emotional deprivation expressed itself in a volcanic surge of feeling which engulfed us all. I was hugged and kissed until my face and ribs ached... we struggled for the appropriate word in either language that somehow never expressed or matched the moment...
Jesus died to liberate us. On the cross he won the decisive victory. But the struggle continues. We need to see the reality of that continuing spiritual warfare amidst the peacetime prosperity that we take so much for granted. We need to accept that by nature we are enemies of Jesus. We are on the wrong side. We need to see that Jesus has paid the paid the price of our hostility. If you are still his enemy, then believe that he died for you and become his friend today. If you are already his friend, then ask yourself, 'How does a friend of Jesus live?' And that takes us on to the third and final point that needs to be made: Thirdly, WE ARE FRIENDS OF JESUS IF WE LOVE AS HE DID. That is what Jesus is saying here in John's Gospel. So he says in v14:
"You are my friends if you do what I command".
And what is it that he commands? Verse 12 tells us:
"My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you."
Don't misunderstand this. It is not that we become friends of Jesus by loving like him. But when we become friends of Jesus, he changes us from within. We have a new nature. That new nature is like Jesus. It has his characteristics. It gives us the capacity for purposeful self-sacrifice. Selfishness is still alive within us, even if it is no longer at the very core of our being. There is still a great struggle within us between self-centredness and our readiness for sacrificial service of others. We still have a lot to learn about living a life of the greatest love. It is the living friendship of Jesus, and the power of his Spirit within us, which enable us to do that. A medical officer who closely observed the aircrews of Bomber Command came to the conclusion that we each have a finite stock of courage. The battle-hardened veteran was a mythical figure: sustained exposure to danger did not harden a soldier but eroded his limited resources. What armed forces needed was a system of rotation in and out of battle which eked out that stock of courage. Our resources of the greatest love are indeed severely limited, if not non-existent. But the resources of Jesus are unlimited. If we are to live and love like him, we need to be drawing on his resources and not relying on our own. The missionary to China in the last century, Hudson Taylor, learned what it meant to draw on the love of Jesus so that he could go on living for others. He wrote:
At home you can never know what it is to be alone - absolutely alone, amidst thousands, without one friend, one companion, everyone looking on you with curiosity, with contempt, with suspicion or with dislike. Thus to learn what it is to be despised and rejected of man - of those you wish to benefit, your motives not understood but suspected - thus to learn what it is to have nowhere to lay your head; and then to have the love of Jesus applied to your heart by the Holy Spirit - His holy, self-denying love, which led Him to suffer this and more than this - for me this is precious, this is worth coming for.
We need to fight against the selfishness that persists within us. Again and again we must commit ourselves to lives of purposeful self-sacrifice for the sake of others. And we need to know that we can only live like that if we stay close to Jesus - depending on him, trusting him, drawing strength from him. Jesus says earlier in this chapter:
"I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing."
Sustaining a life of daily giving to others is in some ways as difficult as being ready literally to die. I remember a few years ago talking to a very old man called Herbert Jenkinson shortly before he died. In his late teens he had fought in the trenches of the First World War. Later, for many decades, he had been a missionary in Africa. I imagined that as he looked back over his life, it would be that time in the blood soaked fields of France that would stand out for him as his toughest experience. Not so. It was the struggles of serving Christ as a missionary once the first flush of youthful zeal had passed that he recalled as the greatest challenge of his life. Age does not weary those who have died, but we who live easily grow weary. The 19th century social reformer Lord Shaftesbury worked tirelessly to improve the conditions of the poor. He was motivated by his faith in Christ. As an elderly man he said once to a close friend:
"If I followed my own inclination I would sit in my armchair and take it easy for the rest of my life. But I dare not do it. I must work as long as life lasts."
The greatest love is to lay down your life for your friends. Jesus laid down his life for his enemies. We are his friends, he says, if we love as he did - laying down our lives for others. Some of us here this morning may literally be called upon to die for the sake of Christ. Each of us must reckon with that possibility. All of us are called upon to love like Jesus, in his strength, day in and day out, until there is no more breath in our bodies. Will you lay down your life for Jesus? Will you lay down your life for your friends? Will you lay down your life for the enemies of Jesus? Because Jesus has laid down his life for you.