“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” It’s not about words, it’s actions that matter. I think I know what the writer of 1 John has in mind. Let’s not just talk about love. Let’s not just sing pretty songs about love. Let us embody love and put it into action.
But words do matter, or the writer of 1 John wouldn’t use so many of them to try and convince us. Words do matter, or we wouldn’t lose any sleep over hate speech. Words do matter, because to speak or to write is to act. The words of 1 John are not just words, but testimony, argument, authoritative demand, and urgent plea.
Let love determine what we say and how we say it, what we do and how we act, the letter insists. Let love be the fabric that weaves together all strands of our being, let love be the pattern of our days.
And not just any love. The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and the love of power thrives in its company. No, not just any love will do.
“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” Jesus is the pattern. Jesus laid down his life for us – he sought neither power nor wealth. The center of his attention was occupied by God and God’s will, life in abundance for all. Jesus didn’t think of himself outside of these relationships – with the One he called Father, and the many he called brothers and sisters. Not once did he place himself outside of these relationships in splendid isolation. Not once did he participate in the game, where everything and everyone can become a means to selfish ends, and every action is calculated, every step and gesture and word.
Let us love, but not just any love will do. We know how easy it is to mask our desire to have as affection – or our need to control, our hunger for attention, our need to be needed, all dressed up in love-talk.
“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” Frightening words; we wonder if we’re supposed to be willing to die for each other.
Jesus didn’t wait until the end to lay down his life. Jesus didn’t wait until government, religion, and public opinion came together in uncommon accord, condemning him to death and executing him – Jesus laid down his life for us from the beginning. Every step of his, every gesture, every word, every touch, every breath was life laid down for us.
How do we lay down our lives for one another? In 1 John, the answer comes in the form of a question: “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 to help?”
The laying down of our lives begins not with a big, bold, once-and-for-all yes, but with just one small no that is not spoken, neither in word nor in action. The laying down of our lives begins with seeing a brother or sister in need and not turning away, and it continues in the slow, persistent refusal to think of ourselves outside of our relationship with that brother or sister and God. The laying down of our lives is complete when we can no longer say “I” without saying “you” and “You.”
I believe this is what Jesus calls the life abundant. I believe this is what Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon has in mind when he teaches, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” The abundance, the fullness comes with the laying down.
By happy coincidence I watched a movie last week that offers great commentary and insight on what it means to lay down one’s life. The Mission, released in 1986, tells the story of a Jesuit mission in the heart of South America.
Father Gabriel, played by Jeremy Irons, climbs the steep rock face of Iguazu Falls to bring the faith to the Guaraní, an indigenous people living above the falls. He can’t expect a friendly welcome; the last missionary to go there had been strapped to a cross and sent over the falls to his death. Father Gabriel enters the forest, and when he notices that he’s being watched, he sits on a rock, assembles his oboe, and begins to play. Soon he’s surrounded by curious warriors who listen to his music. They let him live and take him with them.
Then we meet Rodrigo Mendoza, played by Robert de Niro, who makes his living as a slaver, kidnapping indigenous people and selling them to the nearby colonial plantations. Rodrigo stabs his brother in a jealous rage, and his guilt buries him alive. Father Gabriel visits him and invites him, as an act of penance, to come to the mission with him.
So Rodrigo also climbs the falls, dragging behind him his heavy armor and weapons, tied into a net. He drags his guilt all the way to the Guaraní camp, where one of the men cuts the rope, releasing him from the weight of his past. Armor and sword are thrown into the river, and Rodrigo begins a new life. He becomes a member of the mission community, a community of peace and learning, of music and worship, where life in fullness thrives.
But suddenly the political circumstances change dramatically. The colonial powers, Portugal and Spain, have come to an agreement that portions of the land claimed by Spain would be signed over to Portugal, including the land above the falls. Portugal wants the Jesuit missions closed, in order to pursue without interference the conquest of the land and the expansion of the plantation economy based on slavery.
The Pope sends an emissary to survey the Jesuit missions and decide which, if any, to allow to continue. Cardinal Altamirano is faced with a difficult choice: If he closes the missions, the indigenous people will certainly die or become enslaved. If he rules in favor of the missions, the Jesuit order may be forced to leave Portugal and all its colonies. The decision is made: Father Gabriel’s mission is to be abandoned, along with all other Jesuit missions.
Now Portuguese troops and militia gather at the foot of the falls; Father Gabriel and Rodrigo, the former slaver, debate how to respond to the violent threat. Rodrigo once more takes up his sword that a boy has retrieved from the river; he cannot stand the thought of the people he has come to love becoming slaves. Fr. Gabriel shakes his head and says to him, “If might is right, then love has no place in the world. It may be so, it may be so. But I don’t have the strength to live in a world like that, Rodrigo.”
They both prepare for the attack. Rodrigo by organizing the defense and building weapons, Gabriel by praying and gathering women, children, and old people in front of the church.
The battle begins, the defenders fight bravely, but they can only slow down the attackers – there’s no stopping them.
Rodrigo is shot several times and lying on the ground, he watches Fr. Gabriel leading the unarmed congregation out of the burning mission compound toward the river. They sing, and all they carry is a crucifix and a monstrance, all they carry are symbols of the good shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep. The soldiers hesitate for a moment, but when the order comes, they fire, some of them crossing themselves before they pull the trigger. Dying, Rodrigo watches his friends fall, one by one, only a handful escape by running away to the jungle. Rodrigo watches until he sees Fr. Gabriel collapse, his body pierced by bullets.
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” says Jesus according to John. Rodrigo and Fr. Gabriel both laid down their lives for their friends by living with them, teaching them and learning from them, receiving their forgiveness and offering it, working with them, building a community of peace with them. Rodrigo took up arms in defense of the defenseless, Fr. Gabriel refused to live in a world where might leaves no room for love. Both died a violent death because of their commitment to that life of embodied, daily love. Who wants to decide which one made the right choice?
At the end of the film, we see a group of Guaraní children loading a few salvaged belongings into a canoe. One of the girls notices a broken violin floating in the water, next to Fr. Gabriel’s scorched oboe. She picks it up and takes it with her as they set off, up the river.
I hope that somehow, after all the brutality and loss, she will be able to play the tune Fr. Gabriel had played and invite those around her to trust the power of love.
The film doesn’t end with that scene. It ends with Cardinal Altamirano, the Papal emissary, concluding his written report: “So, your Holiness, now your priests are dead, and I am left alive. But in truth it is I who am dead, and they who live.”
This the Fourth Sunday of Easter. This is the fourth Sunday of the new song, the fourth Sunday of praise, the fourth Sunday of bold hope: might does not equal right – Christ is risen from the dead. The good shepherd continues to seek the lost and bring back the strayed, to bind up the injured and strengthen the weak. He doesn’t send out the dogs to round up the herd, or emissaries to negotiate with the wolf; he calls, he talks, he sings the shepherd song and plays the kingdom tune like only he can play it. “I lay down my life for the sheep,” is the chorus. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
Christ is risen and he sings for Jews and Gentiles, for slavers and Guaraní, for priests and warriors, for all who hear and recognize his voice in the wilderness we have made of God’s world.
Pick up the broken violin and learn to play.