April 29, 2012

We Know Love By This

Passage: 1 John 3:16

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.

Things are not always as they seem.  The story is told that a certain steel manufacturer, feeling it was time for a shakeup, hired a new CEO.  The new boss was determined to rid the company of all slackers.  On a tour of the facilities, the CEO noticed a guy leaning against a wall. The room was full of employees and he wanted to let them know that he meant business.

He asked the guy, "How much money do you make a week?" A little surprised, the young man looked at him and said, "I make $400 a week. Why?" The CEO said, "Wait right here." He walked back to his office, came back in two minutes, and handed the guy $1,600 in cash and said, "Here's four weeks' pay. Now GET OUT and don't come back".

Feeling he had delivered an important message, the CEO looked around the room and asked, "Does anyone want to tell me what that slacker did here?" From across the room a voice said, "Pizza delivery guy from Domino's."

It isn’t just CEO’s whose assumptions lead to incorrect conclusions.  For a large portion of the Christian church clergy are assumed to be unmarried; sometimes when I am with Valerie in a public place wearing my clergy collar people will hold the door open for me but let it close on her.  Things are not always as they seem.

So, with the caution of too much reliance on assumptions acknowledged, let me ask you a question.  Do you know love when you see it?  We like to think that we have well established radar with respect to the actuality of love.  I was at the checkout of the grocery store and saw the title of an article that purported to give such advice; “Seven ways to know that he is really into you”, was the title. What would you write if asked to name seven signs of love?

“We know love by this, that he (Jesus) laid down his life for us”, wrote the Apostle John.  So tell me, does a man suffering the brutalities of crucifixion look anything like love to you?  Those instincts and assumptions wired into your being that flash the “this-is-love” indicators of you hearts control panel; are any of them flashing when you watch an innocent man cruelly executed  in a manner designed to heighten and prolong suffering?   “We know love by this”, John insisted, “that he (Jesus) laid down his life for us.”

1.  The three books of Susan Collins The Hunger Games trilogy placed first, second, and third for the first quarter of 2012 on USA Today’s bestselling book list.  The Hunger Games movie was number one at the domestic US box office for four consecutive weekends; a feat not achieved since the 2009 blockbuster Avatar.

The Hunger Games is a story set in a post-apocalyptic North American nation state; a lottery results in the choice of sacrificial victims from each “district”.  These youngsters—they must be teenaged—are then taken to the capital city and they are pampered, made-up, and treated as celebrities for an extended period. Next, they are compelled to engage in mortal combat, so that, of the 24 participants, only one will survive. Like the Roman crowds of old, the people of the nation watch this process unfold and find it deeply entertaining, while the leadership manipulates the games for their own political ends. What is it about a sacrificial victim that humans find so compelling?

Such sacrifice isn’t limited to literature and movies.  Human sacrifice flourished in the midst of some of the most sophisticated and intellectually advanced civilizations in history.  The Romans found entertainment in arenas as young gladiators engaged in mortal combat; Nero labelled the Christians as scapegoats and cynically burned them as torches, dressing others in animal skins to be torn apart by wild animals.  Mexico’s Aztecs would choose a warrior from a rival tribe—for a year wine and dine and treat him like a celebrity—at  the close of the year, they would lead him to the top of a tall pyramid and sacrifice him to the gods.  Consider Germany’s sophistication in the early 20th century; it was there the world witnessed Hitler’s scapegoating of the Jews.  Since 1969 over three million Canadians have be sacrificed for any and every reason to state financed abortion.  And we think we are civilized.

In his (National Review Online) article on The Hunger Games, Rev. Robert Barron asks, “Why has this motif of the sacrificial victim played such a large role in the human imagination for so long? Why do we keep acting out this scenario, both in reality and in our literature?”  In answer Barron cites the contemporary literary theorist Rene Girard who has speculated that practically every human community is grounded in what he calls “the scapegoating mechanism.” This is the process by which we discharge our societal tensions onto a victim whom we have decided, collectively, to punish. Whether Girard is right on this point is a subject for debate; it was something else that Girard noted that had me paying attention.

Girard found that Christianity was the one religion, philosophy, or ideology that both unmasked this scapegoat mechanism and showed a way out.  At the heart of Christian revelation is God’s utter identification with the scapegoated victim. The crucified Jesus is hence the undermining of the dynamic that has undergirded most civilizations and that continues to beguile the human imagination to this day.  “We know love by this, that he (Jesus) laid down his life for us”.

Father Raymond J. De Souza’s Good Friday article A Remedy For The Bloodiness of the World made a similar point.  “In 2004, Mel Gibson’s (movie) The Passion of the Christ was released. The scourging scene was so troubling—though true to life—that I could barely stand to watch it once, and while I do watch other parts of that film, I don’t watch that scene. ...

It’s strong medicine.  Dan Leach of Texas discovered that.   A few weeks before Gibson’s film was released, he killed his girlfriend, Ashley Wilson.  She was carrying his child and wanted nothing to do with it. The young man, only 21, was so skillful in the murder that the police ruled it a suicide. Leach told police that he fooled them after learning how to disguise his killing from watching the television show CSI (crime scene investigation)—one of those shows offering realistic and bloody crime scenes. Then he went to see The Passion of the Christ. After watching the film, he felt compelled to confess.

There is plenty of blood in this world.  But blood by itself does not have the power to heal.  Blood poured out can teach only how to pour out more blood. The blood so carefully filmed in CSI is not blood that avails to salvation, but blood that only spreads the stain of sin and death.  The blood of sacrifice offered humbly to God in reparation for sin is different. And the precious blood of Christ Jesus is altogether different, the perfect sacrifice that does not stain but washes clean the robes of the contrite. The children of Israel drew close to Moses at the hour of sacrifice, so that he might sprinkle them with blood of the sacrificial offering, the blood of the covenant. Christians draw close to the cross on Good Friday, for the blood of the Lord Jesus is saving, the blood of the new covenant.”

I return to my question; do we humans know love when we see it?  “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us.”  I have grown to cherish how the hymn “Here is Love” articulates our Saviour’s self-giving act:
Here is love, vast as the ocean,
Lovingkindness as the flood,
When the Prince of Life, our Ransom,
Shed for us His precious blood.

Grace and love, like mighty rivers,
Poured incessant from above,
And Heav’n’s peace and perfect justice
Kissed a guilty world in love.
2. In the year 202 CE (AD) in the North African city of Carthage six young catechumens were arrested by the Roman authorities; a catechumen was a convert to Christianity receiving training in doctrine and discipline before baptism.  Among them was a young woman in her early twenties names Perpetua; her arrest occurred shortly after the birth of her infant son.  Her father plead with her to renounce her Christian faith; she answered “I cannot be called anything else than what I am, a Christian”.

Her story, along with the other martyred Christians, was recorded by the church that it might serve as an example to others.  Perpetua’s personal account is a gripping story that speaks of her courage in the face of imprisonment and violent death.  Christians were killed in Roman arena as sport for the citizens and as a display of Roman power against those who refused to acknowledge the deity of Rome.  Here is how the arrival at the arena is described by the biographer who captured Perpetua’s story.  “The day of their victory dawned, and with joyful countenances they marched from the prison to the arena as though on their way to heaven.  If there was any trembling it was from joy not fear.”

The women were stripped naked and enmeshed in nets and led into the arena.  The nets—making it difficult to move—made them easy targets for a mad cow that was let loose to smash them about.  After a period of time the crowd had seen enough of this so the women were taken into a side gate while other cruelties were unleashed on the men.  It was here that she said to her brother, also a catechumen, “remain strong in your faith and love one another. Do not let our excruciating sufferings become a stumbling block to you.”  Shortly after, the spectacle ended with the day’s entertainment, now battered and bloodied, slaughtered by a sword wielding gladiator.

“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”  In the relative security in which Canadians live their lives we may find it strange that there are Christians whose obedience to this text meant actual death.  Christians who are prepared to give up life and limb for the Saviour’s sake. Indeed, the Apostle John goes on to apply the “laying down of our lives for one another” to helping our fellow believers with their needs for life’s necessities.  However there are some for whom it has meant losing their lives.  In this respect their witness is an encouragement to the rest of us that nothing is more precious than our faith in Jesus Christ; faith that is about life and death and forever things.

We tend to think of our world as more civilized than the Roman empire; that we have “evolved” beyond the barbarity of such persecution.  The real truth is that more Christians have been martyred for their faith in the past century than during any Roman century.  I recently attended a gathering of mostly Chinese Christians. A Chinese pastor chronicled the 20th Century persecution of Christianity by communist leaders because Christian faith was viewed as a Western creation; it was considered an opiate of the people that held them down.  The church grew in spite of this opposition; today it is estimated that there are over 100 million Christians in China; this number is close to ten percent of China’s population of 1.34 Billion.

3.   Do you know love when you see it?  The guide for the Christian is the love of Jesus Christ and it is a tall order: “and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”  We have explored one meaning of this text in those who face persecution but clearly John did not mean that Christians were to be a people who sought out martyrdom.  What does it mean to “lay down our lives for one another”.

St Augustine is helpful on this point. There are few thinkers more profound than Augustine. Born in the year 354 and living until 430, he was philosopher, theologian, political theorist, cultural commentator, and all of these at once; and not only all of these at once, but all of these superbly. His words are always weighty and need to be heard again and again. He wrote much about love, approaching the topic of love the way an appreciative jeweller approaches a gem, glowing over the different lustres it radiates as light shines on it first from one angle and then from another. One sentence from Augustine is as brief as it is brilliant: "Love means ‘I want you to be.’"  This is a glorious summary expressing the self-giving, self-forgetful posture of love towards another; a reflection of Christ’s love for us.  Jesus’ life given for you is God’s message “I want you to be.”

Clearly, the Apostle John thinks this is how believers should live towards each other in the church.  It isn’t just for the church but the church is the place where this should first flourish.

Rev. Jim Cymbala is the pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York City. After the final service one Easter Sunday he felt exhausted. He took a seat on the edge of the platform. When he looked up, a man with matted hair and ragged clothing was walking toward him.

As he drew closer, the homeless man offered a crooked grin, revealing two missing front teeth. And his smell — alcohol, sweat, urine, and garbage — took Jim's breath away. Though Jim had worked with the homeless countless times before, this stench was worse than anything he'd ever encountered. Instinct compelled him to turn his head sideways and inhale before looking the man in the eyes.  Jim asked the man his story. David shared that he'd been living in an abandoned truck for the last six years. Jim knew where the story was heading, and reached for the money clip in his back pocket.

The man protested the offer; he didn't want any money. He wanted Jesus. Jim describes closing his eyes, asking for God's forgiveness. He felt soiled and cheap. Though Jim was a pastor, he'd wanted to get rid of the homeless man as fast as possible, this precious individual crying out for a relationship with Christ — the Savior whose good news Jim had preached all day.

The man buried his filthy face in Jim's chest. Jim talked about Jesus' love, but rather than just saying the words, they were alive inside him. Jim felt as if Jesus was saying ... if you have any purpose in my work—it has to do with this odor.  This is the smell of the world I died for.

I find this story both challenging and instructive in helping me to understand that love means “I want you to be.”  We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.