1 John 3:16–24
.There is an interpretation of life, the universe, and everything that has always been with us, but which throughout modernity and post-modernity has been ascendant. And it says that life is a zero-sum game: Your loss is my gain; your gain is my loss. It says that there’s not enough for everybody and that the most important thing you can do in life is to lay claim to your fair (or more than fair) share of what’s good in the world before somebody else gets there first. Even resources that seem like they should be infinite (like fairness and justice) should be hoarded, just in case, because a power imbalance that disadvantages someone else, must somehow be an advantage to you. It says that winning is everything, and there’s really no such thing as a win-win scenario—somebody’s got to be on top and somebody’s got to be on the bottom.
Basically, this all means that you’ve got to look out for number uno. And, of course, it’s true—you do need to look out for yourself, don’t you? Of course, you do! That’s what makes it such an easy trap to fall into. Where we go wrong is that we mistake a lower-order truth for the ultimate meaning of our lives. We idolize it.
But all you need to do is listen to it to know that it doesn’t make any sense: I make myself strong in order to make myself strong in order to make myself strong in order to make myself strong... It’s just a self-referential loop. It’s meaningless. It’s boring. We don’t require strength for strength’s sake. We require strength for love’s sake.
When it comes to “What does real strength look like? What does real love look like?” Jesus is our model. And Jesus is the Good Shepherd—not to win Shepherd of the Year year after year, not to own the biggest flock, not to corner the market on wool. The Good Shepherd is the Good Shepherd in order to lay down his life for the sheep. Even for the Messiah of the world, the purpose of strength is not strength. The purpose of God’s strength, demonstrated in Jesus, is the love and service of all creation.
And here we run into another truth that can mislead us. We see Jesus’ strength and Jesus’ sacrifice (on the cross, especially) as so singular that we think our only job is to receive the gifts of Jesus’ love and forgiveness. The shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. And what’s expected of the sheep? Nothing. Maybe a little gratitude. But other than that, why should you be asked to sacrifice anything? Jesus suffered so that you don’t have to, goes the tired, old rhetorical device.
And there is truth here, isn’t there? We are called on to believe, to orient our lives in relation to what happened on Good Friday and Easter morning. But to say, “Jesus suffered so that you don’t have to,” is ridiculous. Of course you suffer. Don’t you? Don’t we all? Of course you have to do something! You’re alive, aren’t you?
Jesus’ life was singular, and miraculous, and spectacular. And we must never forget that although his life is also at times challenging, and confounding, and mysterious that Jesus’ life is the model for our lives. Follow me, he said. Come and see. Take up your cross! Jesus’ first message to us is, “BELIEVE.” Jesus’ final message to us is, “And now go out into the world and do likewise and I will be with unto the end of the age!”
The author of the letter of 1 John gets it. It’s a letter to the earliest Christian community saying, because of what we all know Jesus did, we must go and do likewise. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
Well, what does that mean, exactly? It certainly doesn’t mean that our goal is to go and get ourselves crucified or to martyr ourselves. We’re not in a death cult. We believe in the Lord of Life and we follow the religion of love.
I think that laying down our lives for one another (oriented toward life and love) is, first of all, a rejection of the philosophy that life is meaningless, that selfishness makes sense, and that ever-expanding ego is the height of our spiritual aspirations. It’s a rejection of the scarcity mindset that says there’s never enough to go around. Instead, we say, I do not lack. In fact, in Christ, I am a source of abundance. And I will share—I will lay that abundance down for others. And this is the whole point of abundance. Not abundance for the sake of abundance, but abundance for the love of others and for the sake of all.
This goes way beyond the “win-win scenario.” Scarcity thinking and selfishness are nothing more than fear. When we orient our lives around the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, fear is dethroned from our hearts. And from a place of fearlessness, we see clearly that the very concepts of winning and losing are illusions. We’re like little drops of water who suddenly realize that ice and steam are both just water in another form. Freezing and boiling don’t matter anymore. Solid, liquid, or gas, the point is our relationship to all the other little drops—enduring the joys and sorrows of life together.
Imagine a world measured and judged not by winning and losing, but by laying down our lives for one another. No more war. No more poverty. No more privilege. No more racism. No more hate speech. No more police shootings. No more mass shootings. No more pandemic. Laying down our lives for one another means practicing a radical, dangerously unselfish kind of love—a love that understands that my greatest significance as a person is located in my ability to do unto the least of these.
In our culture, we associate love with feeling. And of course, love is a feeling. That’s true. But love is not ultimately defined by what it feels like. According to the gospel of Jesus Christ that we follow, love is defined by what it does. Love is a way of life best described by laying our lives down for one another. Laying down our lives for one another means practicing a radical, dangerously unselfish kind of love. This is a love that does not count the cost. But it’s not naive; it’s a mature love. It’s not a pushover love that allows itself or others to be abused. True love—laying-down, radical love—holds power to account at every turn.
We saw this kind of love exemplified over the last year in Minneapolis in response to the murder of George Floyd. Without the moral uprising of people around the world, especially Black people, especially in Minneapolis, it’s conceivable that this week’s guilty verdict for Derek Chauvin might have turned out differently: It’s possible that he might never have been held accountable in any way at all—maybe not even charged, maybe not even fired.
And yet it’s about more than one man, it’s about more than the latest killing of a Black person in the media spotlight. This is a movement for Black lives in the United States and around the world. Are you a part of that movement? Are you willing to give yourself to it? Are you willing to lay down your lives for one another? Because that’s what’s being asked of us. As George Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, said after the guilty verdict came in, “I’ll put up a fight every day. Because I’m not just fighting for George anymore, I’m fighting for everybody around this world.” That’s a radical, unselfish, active kind of love. A love that when it touches you, your ego suddenly realizes, “This is what I was made for. Not to grow bigger every day. But to grow big enough to do this, to love like this.”
When the guilty verdict came in on Tuesday there was a sense of relief. There was no cause for celebration, exactly, because George Floyd was murdered for 9-and-a-half minutes on video in front of the whole world, and the person who murdered him was merely held accountable as we should have all been able to expect he would be. That it did happen when our justice system has such a high tolerance for Black death and such a low tolerance for police accountability of any kind was a relief, but George Floyd is still dead, a family is still heartbroken, the Black community in the United States is still terrorized, and the system is still broken, so we cannot allow ourselves to celebrate victory prematurely—to convince ourselves that the problem has somehow been resolved.
But there’s nothing wrong with feeling relief. Feel relief, but know that this struggle is just beginning, and it’s not going anywhere, and it may require you to lay something down, to give something to it. Our feelings of relief must be quickly turned into the continuing actions of love. Because as Philonise Floyd put it so well, we have to fight for everybody; as the author of 1 John said, we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations