Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB, 29 April 2012

Texts for the Fourth Sunday After Easter (Year B) Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

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.(1 John 3:16)

Lance Corporal Matthew Croucher was a British Royal Marine reservist serving in Afghanistan in 2008 when he did an extraordinarily selfless thing. L/Cpl Crouch literally laid down his life for his friends.

During a night operation in Helmand province, L/Cpl Croucher felt a pressure against his leg and then heard the characteristic sound of a grenade falling to the ground and arming itself. He knew immediately that he had triggered a booby trap. With seconds to react, Croucher chose, not to run, but to fall on the grenade in order to save his three comrades.

"The shrapnel would have gone off with a shotgun effect and spread, so I probably would have been hit anyway if I tried to get away. So I thought the thing to do was to get on top, I thought I didn't have much hope anyway but it might give others a chance.

The first thing I did was dive on my front, I think I had seen that once on Soldier, Soldier, but then I realised that wasn't going to work, and I twisted on my back. And then I lay there thinking how long will it be before it goes off. Then there was the loudest bang I ever heard, a flash of light and I was flying through the air."

Crouch was amazed to find himself alive and mostly unhurt, and found his comrades "very grateful". He was awarded the George Cross, one of Britain's highest awards for valour, and was praised for his "extraordinary bravery, self-sacrifice and devotion to duty".No one in the military is expected to throw themselves on a live grenade to save their comrades. It does occasionally happen, and not always with the fortunate result that L/Cpl Crouch enjoyed, but it's not expected. What is expected of soldiers is that they will understand something of the idea of self sacrifice, not just in the big, dying for one's country sense of the term, but most often in the small, everyday actions that make living through hardships with others possible.

When I was on my basic training course, I often saw small examples of self-sacrificial behaviour, such as one person helping another sort out their kit, or taking a watch for someone who was too tired or too sick, or generally just putting their own needs a distant second to the needs of others. And, to be fair, I saw the opposite. I saw people who consistently ignored the needs of others and put themselves first. We used to have a phrase for these guys, that they would be the ones to "leave you wounded on the battlefield". In a strange way, though, these guys did us a service, by showing us that a collection of selfish individuals can never function as an army. For an army to function, you need enough people who get the idea of selflessness, whether in small ways or, in rare moments, in big ways like L/Cpl Crouch.

In today's second reading, a preacher of the early church, who may very well have been the author of the Gospel of John, is trying to explain to fellow believers why they are no longer just a collection of selfish individuals, but are now part of a larger organization called the Body of Christ. As part of this organization, their job is to continue to show the resurrected Christ to the world and to be his presence in the world. This presence is what First John means when he says that "we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us" (1 John 3:24).

What deoes 1st John mean when he talks about this Spirit? First, he's talking about what the church would come to call the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity which is the gift that the resurrected Jesus gives the disciples when he appears to them in John's gospel (John 20:22), as we heard in church in the gospel for Second Easter. This Spirit, which connects the Father and the Son, also connects the faithful in communion with God the Trinity and with one another, so it is a spirit of community. Second, he's talking about the Spirit which raised Christ from the dead, so it is the Spirit of life and creative energy that comes from God, and which allows the church to share in the resurrected life and presence of Christ. Third, it is a spirit of self sacrifice, in that it allows us to get past our old lives of sin and death, and to be new creations in Christ. It's the third sense that I want to focus on for the rest of this talk.

What do I mean by a "spririt of self sacrifice"? First John says that "We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.(1 John 3:16), and we hear a similar phrase in today's gospel when Jesus says that he is "the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11). So does that mean that to be a good follower of Jesus, we need to be ready to die for the sake of others? Well, yes, in part. The story of Christianity is full of people who quietly and generously gave their lives for others, though you don't have to be a Christian to act this way. The story of L/Cpl Crouch that I shared with you earlier is not a Christian story but an army story. Croucher acted for his mates, pure and simple, which is not to diminish his heroism, but simply to be real about it.

One hopes that soldiers, or anyone else for that matter, can act with total selflessness in moments of crisis, even at the cost of their lives, One hopes, but one knows that it doesn't always work that way. Not everyone is equipped for or capable of selfless altruism. Being a follower of Jesus, however, means that we don't rely on ourselves, but rather fix ourselves on the one person who was able to give himself for others, and not just for a handful of mates, but for all others. This is the point of the good shepherd language in today's gospel, because Jesus is pointing to his uniqueness, as the one person who can and who has saved us, the sheep. The distinction he makes between the good shepherd and the hired hand is about the responsibility, even the love, which God feels for us. A hired hand is just a caretaker, but a good shephered is a friend. Jesus points to this later in John's gospel when he tells the disciples that "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends" (John 15:13). He goes on to say (Jn 15:14) that he is no longer just their master, but is also their friend, and he goes on to lay down this expectation of them: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" (Jn 15:12).

The story of L/Cpl Croucher is useful because it underscores the point First John is making about what happens when we live in connection with others. First John is not talking about an isolated, "me and God" kind of relationship, but of our relationship with others. In fact, he suggests that we don't really have a connection with God if we don't have a connection with others: "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?" (1 John 3:17). Being a follower of Jesus means that we live for others more than ourselves, whether that is sacrificing our money, our time, our ego, or our physical life. It means "dying to self" as our baptismal service puts it, and living for Christ and for others in a way that fulfils what Jesus meant when he said that he came so that his followers might have life, and have it abundantly.

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.(1 John 3:16)

I suppose one could read this text as a grim call to duty, but I suggest that we try to see it as liberating, in the sense that God's friendship frees us from the tyranny of our obligations to the self, and opens the door to new connections and relationships with others, and new places to encounter God's spirit by participating in God's friendship with the world. That seems to me to be a useful amplification of the idea of having life abundantly. And who knows but whether the grenade that looks so threatening might prove to be alive, grateful, and thanked by others?


Conrad Kinch said...

Good sermon Padre. A sergeant of mine once opined that "me feinn"ers (me feinn being Irish for "myself alone") are also of use, as they gave an example of what was not to be done.

He said of one particular specimen, "Say what you like about [Smith], he certainly brings the unit together."

Howard said...

I'm quoting you in my sermon for 13 May. It's just one paragraph, so don't let it go to your head! Oh, and I will not be paying royalties.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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