“Sacrificial Love”

Easter 4

April 26, 2015


Text: John 10:1-10; 1 John 3:16-24


          Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

          John wrote in his first letter, “We know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

          These Scriptures tell us that the love of God, and the love God expects us to live by in our relationships with others, is sacrificial. But what does this look like in practice? What does it mean to lay down our lives for one another?

          The example John gives is this one: “How does God’s love live in anyone who has worldly possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” John was telling us that an essential aspect of following Jesus, especially for those economically well off, is sharing one’s resources with those who don’t have them.

          Now that’s a message a lot of people don’t want to hear today. In our society we often distinguish between “deserving” and “undeserving” poor people. Poor people are often accused of being lazy people who would rather be on welfare than work. They are often blamed for their own poverty. They are criticized when they spend their money in ways other people consider wasteful, such as on alcohol, tobacco, and lottery tickets, or when they buy nice stuff like wealthier people have.

          However, I believe we need to also consider the ways in which the system does the poor no favors. Poor neighborhoods generally have the poorest schools with the least funding, making it more difficult for the children in a poor family to get a decent education. Thus such people also have not been taught the skills necessary to succeed in a work environment, and the only jobs they are often qualified for are minimum wage jobs that pay so little that even working 40 hours a week one is still below the federal poverty line. Poor neighborhoods are more likely to be close to toxic waste dumps and other environmental hazards. And it could be argued that the way the existing social safety net is structured tends to foster dependency rather than help a person improve their life situation.

          One approach to combating poverty that is making a positive difference in many places in the world, especially in poorer countries, is microlending. In this approach, an organization that specializes in microlending makes small, low-interest loans available to poor people to establish their own small business. Most of the people who start these businesses are women. The businesses these people start not only serve the needs of the communities where they live, they give the borrower a source of income, enabling them to improve their standard of living. Almost all of the borrowers repay their loans on time, making the funds available to lend to others. Many microlending organizations are charitable groups that get their funds from donors who want their gifts to make a positive difference in people’s lives.

          Now all this is well and good. Helping the poor is a good thing. Charitable giving can make a positive difference when the money is used well. But for a fair number of people today, charitable giving is not all that sacrificial. Many people who give charitably never miss the money. In New Testament times, the more well-off people John urged to share their goods with the poor were probably not fabulously wealthy. They might have found helping the poor to be a sacrifice. Today that is not always the case. Surely “laying down our lives for one another” and “loving one another as Jesus loves us” means more than charitable giving.

          Another way people sometimes talk about “laying down our lives for one another” and sacrificial love is in the context of military service, especially those who have died during wartime. I need to say up front that I am not a military veteran. I really have no understanding of what it is like to be in a war. I certainly do not believe war is a good thing, or the way God intends for people to settle their differences. I also understand, however, that the people who are on the front lines doing the fighting and dying and suffering are mostly toward the bottom end of the chain of command. They are there because of decisions being made by politicians. The people on the front lines should not be held responsible for those politicians’ decisions, which in a number of cases in recent years have been called into question.

          I also understand that not all sacrifices made by those in the military involve dying. Most, if not all, who serve in this way have experienced extended periods of being away from their families and loved ones. Many were not able to be present for the birth of their own children. Some were wounded, in many cases severely enough that it profoundly altered the course of their lives. Some were exposed to toxic chemicals such as Agent Orange while they were in Vietnam and ended up with cancer or other life-shortening conditions as a result. And there are many, many others who have come home from deployment with emotional, psychological, and spiritual injuries that they are trying to deal with to this day. Much has been made in recent years of those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, the psychological condition that can come in the aftermath of experiencing traumatic events that can happen while fighting a war. And this past week many of my pastoral colleagues attended the Iowa United Methodist School for Ministry, where they learned about “moral injury”, which has to do with the deep guilt that many who served feel because they were required to do things that violated their moral code. Moral injury and PTSD are reported to be a factor in the high number of suicides happening among veterans, especially those who served in our more recent wars in the Middle East. The sacrifices made by so many who served thus include losses sustained to their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. And as an aside, I think it’s a crying shame that the same politicians who were quite willing to send these men and women into these situations often seem to be unwilling to provide the funding needed to provide appropriate programs to help them deal with these things when they come home.

          But the question for me still is, what does it mean for us to love one another, to lay down our lives for one another in the context of church? We are part of a world that finds sacrifice difficult. So much in our culture encourages us to put ourselves, our wants, our needs, our desires, first. You and I have been indoctrinated by the advertising establishment with an attitude perhaps best stated by a familiar old jingle: “Have it your way.”  

          My sisters and brothers in Christ, the church is not Burger King. Jesus did not have life his way; he did not put himself first. He put God first in the most radical way possible, giving up his life so that all who place their trust in him might have their sins forgiven and enjoy life with God forever! If Jesus had had his way, this would never have happened.

          Paul reminds us of the attitude God wants for us in this well-known passage from Philippians, chapter 2: “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

          Scripture makes it abundantly clear that we are not to put ourselves first. God comes first. We don’t come second, either. Other people are to come ahead of us. Sometimes this concept is explained with the letters J-O-Y, standing for Jesus, Others, Yourself, in that order of importance, as the way to find true joy in following Jesus.

          So, I’m leaving us with two questions to ponder:

  • What would church look like if I and you quit treating it as being a way of meeting our own personal needs, and instead treated it as the way God has given us to follow Jesus, who laid down his life for the sake of the world?
  • What attitudes in ourselves do we need to ask God to help us change in order for that to happen?


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