“The Love That Lays Down Its Life” (1 John 3:16-24)
“The King of Love My Shepherd Is.” What a beautiful hymn to sing on this day in the church year known as “Good Shepherd Sunday”! How we need a good shepherd to lead and guard and guide us! That’s why we follow Jesus and listen to his voice. We sing his praises, because of his great love for us. He loved us so much that he laid down his life for his sheep.
Today we want to see what the results are of Christ laying down his life for us. What does it mean for us to be on the receiving end of Christ’s love? What effect does his love have on our daily lives, in the way we live? That’s what we’ll explore today, under the theme, “The Love That Lays Down Its Life.”
Our text is the Epistle for today, as we continue for the third straight week in 1 John. And the thread that connects this reading from the Epistle of John to the reading from the Gospel of John is this idea of “the love that lays down its fife.” You see it show up in both places. In 1 John 3 it says, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us.” And that in turn refers back to John 10, where Jesus says that he lays down his life for us. Jesus uses this same phrase over and over. He says: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” “I lay down my life for the sheep.” “I lay down my life that I may take it up again.” “I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” Jesus here is really emphasizing his commitment to lay down his life for us.
And Jesus doesn’t just talk the talk. He walks the walk! He actually does lay down his life for us. He willingly enters into suffering and death for our sake, for our sins. Christ lays down his life by being lifted up on the cross. This is self-giving, self-sacrificial love, love that goes to the utmost. “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” That is how much Christ has loved us, has loved you!
And his love–the love that lays down its life–has powerful effects. Because of his love–Think of it! The very Son of God shedding his blood to cover the sins of the world!–because Christ put this love of his into action, to deal with our greatest need, all your sins are atoned for and forgiven. You could not do this yourself, not in a million years. But Jesus can, and he has. His great love has wonderful results! Your sin is paid for. Death is done away with. Death no longer has a claim on you. Satan, that old wolf, cannot devour the sheep any longer. The good shepherd has laid down his life to save you from sin and Satan and death.
And this shepherd who lays down his life–he has the authority to take it up again! That’s what Easter is all about. Christ’s resurrection shows that he has decisively defeated death and the grave. And the result of his resurrection will be your own resurrection, you who have been baptized into Christ. When Jesus comes again at the last day, he will raise up your mortal body to put on immortality. These are the wonderful results of Christ laying down his life for us.
And there are even more good results. Not only do you have eternal life, you have new life even now. Even now, baptized Christian, you have been raised to newness of life with Christ. Even now, you know what love really is, since you have received it and experienced it yourself. Even now, you share in Christ’s character of love. His love rings true and resonates in your heart. You know love, so now you can share it with others. That’s the way God’s love works.
So this is what John is getting at, when he writes in his epistle, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” Since we know love, we are able to show love. The Jesus kind of love, the love that lays down its life.
Well, now this sounds kind of heroic, doesn’t it, laying down your life for the brothers? It sounds like we’re making the ultimate sacrifice, falling on the grenade, so to speak. Well, if it came to that, I guess we would do it. But that kind of sacrifice, involving physical death, doesn’t come along very often. More often–in fact, very common–is the laying down of our life that calls for giving up on our self-will, our self-interest, in order to help a brother or sister in need. And this can happen a lot. Pretty much every day, in fact. You see, it’s not just the big act of sacrificial love that rolls around once in a blue moon. No, it’s more like the countless little acts of love that we can do on a daily basis. That’s how we generally find opportunities to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.
“We ought to lay down our lives for the brothers,” John writes. Then he explains what that looks like: “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” The love that lays down its life happens like this: You see a brother in need, in whatever kind of need he has, and you go ahead and help him, in whatever way you can. You put your love into action. This Christ-like love takes the initiative and actually helps others. It’s not just a warm and fuzzy feeling. No, love works, it acts, in practical ways. That’s what Jesus did when he laid down his life for us. So that’s what we do as his people. We lay down our lives for the brothers in deed and in truth.
This active love, this help–sometimes it’s financial and material, when we have the world’s goods, and we can give a portion of it away in a way that will help others. Those others may be brothers and sisters right here in our own congregation, members in need of some help and assistance. They may be brothers and sisters halfway around the world, fellow Christians in places where poverty or persecution have taken their toll, and our church body is responding with works of mercy. Where do you see brothers you can help? Just look around. There is an opportunity for you to put love into action.
Sometimes opportunities for love may not even cost very much money. Instead, they may call for our time or our patience or our thoughtfulness. For example, bringing dinner over for a family dealing with a surgery or a hospitalization. Providing a ride to church or to a doctor’s appointment. Making a phone call to see how somebody’s doing. Look, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. I’m just reminding you, to get you thinking and looking for opportunities to put love into action in all sorts of situations.
But now when I tell you these things, you may start thinking of something else. You may think to yourself, if you’re honest: “Boy, I know I’m supposed to love my fellow Christians. I know I’m supposed to lay down my life for them. I’m supposed to be willing to help them in practical ways, and I should be looking for opportunities to do that. But do you know what? The truth is–and I’m ashamed to say it–I haven’t done such a good job of loving others. At heart, I’m kind of selfish. I don’t take the initiative to lay down my life for the brothers. I try to avoid it. So am I even really a Christian? Or am I just kidding myself?”
Are you troubled by your lack of love? That’s a good sign. It’s called contrition, repentance, sorrow over your sin. But don’t despair, dear brother, dear sister. There’s something more to look at than just your sins. God is looking at something more than that. That’s why John can write: “By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.”
Did you catch that? God is greater than our heart! That’s good news! Our heart may rightly condemn us. We haven’t loved as we ought. So we bring our sin to God and confess it. But be reassured by this: God is greater than our heart that can only see our sins. God sees the bigger picture. He sees the blood of Christ, who died for your sins and forgives you and cleanses you. That’s what God sees! So be reassured today! You are indeed “of the truth,” because you are God’s baptized, blood-bought children. You trust in Christ and his love for your salvation. That’s what God sees, and he wants you to see it too.
Therefore, beloved, our heart does not condemn us, and we have confidence before God. With that assurance, now we can see something other than our sins. Now we can see God’s fatherly care in our lives, giving us what we need from day to day. Now we can see our risen Lord’s nail-marked hands and feet, showing us his love and giving us the sure hope of the resurrection of our bodies. Now we can see God’s Spirit at work in our lives, giving us the ability to love that comes with being God’s baptized children. And with all that, then, now we can see clearly to notice our brother or sister in need, to look for ways to help, and then to do it.
If you want a good summary of the Christian life, here it is. John puts it like this: “And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” See those two aspects, one leading to the other. First, “Believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ.” There is faith in Christ, who lays down his life in love, the love by which you are saved. And then, “love one another”: There is the love with which you lay down your life for your brother, the love we put into action when we serve our neighbor. Believe in Christ. Love one another. That’s it. That’s the Christian life in a nutshell.
And God will equip you, he will strengthen you, to live that kind of love. He does it through the Word and Sacrament he gives you here in church. Your faith is strengthened as you come here every week, to have your sins forgiven, to hear the preaching of the gospel, to receive the blessed Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, and to deepen your understanding of the Christian faith in Bible study. Your faith is strengthened. And so is your love. As you come here every week, you are refreshed with God’s love, so you have a good supply to share with others. And as you come here regularly, you will get to know these brothers and sisters sitting all around you. You’ll find out their needs. You’ll discover how maybe you can help your brothers and sisters, here in this family of believers called St. Matthew’s.
So come now and be refreshed in this life through the salutary gift of the Sacrament. Be strengthened through the same, in faith toward God and in fervent love toward one another.