Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | May 6, 2018

2018.05.06 “No Greater Love” – John 15: 12 – 13

Central United Methodist Church
No Greater Love
David L. Haley
John 15: 12 – 13
May 6th, 2018

Memorial 1

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” – John 15: 12 – 13, the New International Version

There are times when Scripture illuminates life, and other times when life that illuminates Scripture. To hear and understand Jesus’ words in the Gospel today, may I offer my experience when as an illustration?

As I prepare to conclude my active ministry, one of the things I am inexpressibly thankful for, is that my life and ministry took a turn I never anticipated, when it opened a door for me into the fire service.

This happened in the late 80’s, when I was the pastor of Berry Memorial UMC in Chicago’s Lincoln Square, and we were living on Winnemac Street. My son Chris, who was 5 or 6 years old at the time, came in from the back yard and said, “Dad, there’s a fire out there.” Not believing him, I went out to discover that the back steps of a two flat across the alley were going up in flames.

I called 911, and in a few minutes, heard the siren of Engine 110, near Foster and Western, head our way. It went to a second alarm, and in no time, there were firemen and fire trucks and fire hose everywhere. But there was also this guy standing there with a cross on his helmet, Father Tom Mulcrone. I said, “They let people do that?” I got to know Father Mulcrone, and decided that when I moved, I was going to do that. In 1990, when I moved to West Chicago, I went to the fire station and offered to be their Chaplain. They were starting a firefighter class, so I took that and got certified as a firefighter; in a year or two I went to night school and became a paramedic. Because I stayed there so long to build a new church, I wound up doing that almost two decades. I have now been a Chaplain for 28 years.

Experiencing that life, that brotherhood and that job literally changed my life and ministry, including the way I preached. I was no longer a “wannabe” academic, as I once was, but thoroughly grounded. People have often told me they like the way I preach, because it is down to earth, about real life issues. If this is true, I attribute it to this door opened to me, which changed my perspective on life.

In the same way, it changed the way I read and hear Scripture. So today, for example as we hear Jesus’ lengthy remarks from his farewell discourse in John chapters 14 through 17, let’s face it, as with Jesus’ first disciples, sometimes it’s hard to stay focused, and we begin to nod off. What is he saying?

For assistance, I check the commentaries; written, of course, mostly by academics. They talk about love, and the three Greek words for love, they discuss what Jesus means by friends, and what it means to be Jesus’ friends. But to me, they miss the most obvious thing to me in the passage, probably because they never experienced it. What they miss is this blockbuster phrase, when Jesus says: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Surely, the author of the John’s Gospel intended it to refer to Jesus’, who gave his life in sacrificial love not only for his friends but for strangers and for all of us. But for over two millennia now, whenever another human being has so embodied the kind of selfless love Jesus was talking about by sacrificing their life for others, it has not been an occasion not only to recall Jesus’ words, but to give a real life example powerful enough to make grown men and women weep. I know, because I have been one of them.

Whether it is soldiers remembering a sacrifice that happened long ago, as this picture of a soldier at the Viet Nam wall; or whether it is firefighters or police officers gathering for the funeral of one who gave the ultimate sacrifice, as Chicago Police Commander Paul Bauer recently did, it is a startling and graphic reminder that Jesus was not talking about some pleasant, ethereal virtue, but the possibility that the ultimate expression of really loving others could mean sacrificing one’s life not only for friends but for strangers one has never met.

I have both officiated at and attended LODD (line-of-duty deaths), heard the pipes and drums, the playing of taps and the ringing of final call bells; we do it every year in remembrance of the 343 members of the FDNY who gave their lives on 9/11. I will never forget walking up Arbor Avenue in West Chicago in 1992, behind the pipes and drums of the Chicago Emerald Society, and – behind me – a hearse bearing the casket of a 21-year-old police officer – Michael Browning – killed in the line of duty, followed by thousands of police cars and police officers. At such services for the fallen, almost inevitably, Jesus’ words are recalled: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In life, the sacrificial love Jesus was talking about, doesn’t get any more real than that. After all, it was exactly what Jesus did.

However, experiencing the honoring of such ultimate acts of sacrificial love, also opens our eyes to this: not all who live lives of sacrificial love do it by dying; in fact, most do it by living and serving. For most of us, the list of those is long who have demonstrated this to us, by living rather than by dying.

Many of us think of our parents, who raised us, some of whom worked multiple jobs to provide for us. Many of us think of teachers or coaches or scout masters or pastors, who were pivotal for us because of the personal attention and example they gave to us. Some of us think of doctors and nurses or caregivers who took care of us or members of our family unselfishly, not because of how much money they would make but because of their integrity and compassion. We may not even have appreciated it at the time, but now, as we look back and recognize their significance in our lives, we wish we could go back and thank them, for what was nothing less than the love they had for us, demonstrated in their words and deeds.

Recently I was doing a mental inventory of all the places I engaged in ministry, and as I remembered each place, I also remembered people. Some were church people, some were pastors, some were District Superintendents. None of the things they did could be described as heroic or earthshaking; mostly it was the same, simple day-to-day stuff required of all of us: fulfilling responsibilities, staying true to our word, being kind, looking for ways to encourage and care for one another.

I think of Rev. Julian Warren, the pastor of a little church about 5 miles from my house, founded in 1861, probably about a quarter of the size of this room. Julian was no megachurch pastor, but he was a great encourager, encouraging beginners like me. I think of Dr. Wayne Lamb, the Paris District Superintendent, a elderly white haired man, who encouraged me and gave me opportunities to preach. I think of Robert Bruce Pierce, pastor of Chicago Temple, who took me on as a pastoral intern and as Minister to Young Adults. I think of Rev. George Comes, the senior pastor I worked with at Trinity UMC in Memphis, TN., who once said, “I went to a counselor who told me I needed to learn how to curse. Now I’ve got rid of the illness but can’t get rid of the cure!” All these are gone, but in very real ways, they laid down their lives in sacrificial service to others, following Christ their Master. I am sure, all of us can think of people who showed us such love in life. We can only hope that people will remember such things about us, someday.

BeltrameBut the ultimate sacrifice – the literal fulfillment of Jesus’ words happens, more often than we think. It happened just two months ago, on March 24th. In Trebes, France, a terrorist claiming allegiance to ISIS stormed a supermarket armed with a handgun, a hunting knife, and three homemade bombs. He shot two people dead and took two other hostages. Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame, 45, of the French Gendarmerie nationale, and deputy commander of the anti-terrorist unit in his region, exchanged himself for the final hostage, a woman. After a three hour stand off, the terrorist stabbed and shot Beltrame, who died from his wounds.

Tributes poured in for Lt. Col. Beltrame, but it turns out there was more to the story. He was a practicing Catholic, and had been planning to marry on June 9. He had already married his wife, Marielle, under civil law, and the couple were planning a church ceremony. Instead, the priest who would have officiated at the wedding was called to Beltrame’s bedside, where Marielle was keeping vigil, to give him the last rites. The priest, Father Jean-Baptiste, quoted John 15:13 and said:

“He knew, as Jesus told us, that “There is no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends.” “He knew that if his life began to belong to Marielle, it also belonged to God, to France, to his brothers in danger of death. I believe that only a Christian faith animated by charity could ask for this superhuman sacrifice.”

Father Dominique Arz, national chaplain of the gendarmerie, said this:

“The fact is that he did not hide his faith, and that he radiated it, he testified. We can say that his act of offering is consistent with what he believed. He went to the end of his service to the country and to the end of his testimony of faith. To believe is not only to adhere to a doctrine. It is first to love God and his neighbor, and to testify of his faith concretely in everyday life. In the happy or unhappy, even dramatic circumstances of our lives.” (Terry Mattingly, Get Religion, ”Sacrifice in France: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, than a man lay down his life . . .”, here)

“Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

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