Laying Down Our Lives…for Love

a sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter

In 1993, a young man was murdered in Minneapolis.* His killer was a 16 year old gang member named Oshea Israel. A few years ago, he was released and now lives in the same neighborhood he grew up in, right next door to Mary Johnson, the mother of the man he killed. 

How a convicted murderer ended up living right next door to his victim’s mother is what today’s Epistle reading from the 1st Letter of John is all about:

* Note: The idea for this sermon illustration came from the Rev. Shari Rates on Day1.org.  You can read her sermon here.  The CBS News reported the story of Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel on June 7, 2011.  You can read that news article here

In 1993, a young man was murdered in Minneapolis. His killer was a 16 year old gang member named Oshea Israel. He was tried as an adult, convicted, and sentenced to 25 years in prison. A few years ago, he was released and now lives in the same neighborhood he grew up in, right next door to Mary Johnson. Mary is the mother of the man he killed. It seems that several years before Oshea finished his sentence, Mary requested a meeting. She felt compelled to see if there was any way she could forgive her son’s killer, but she had absolutely no idea what she was going to say to the man. “You don’t know me, and I don’t know you. Let’s just start with that right now,” she said at their first meeting. Over time, she came to understand that he was no longer the boy who murdered her son, and she soon realized that she had forgiven him. Today, she is a counsellor for mothers of murdered children, while he visits churches and prisons to talk about forgiveness.

How a convicted murderer ended up living right next door to his victim’s mother is what today’s Epistle reading from the 1st Letter of John is all about:

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

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

Over the past few weeks, we have been reflecting on what it means to live in light of the fact of Jesus’ resurrection. How does the fact that Jesus loved us so much that he was willing give up his life for us change the way we are called to live with each other? What does John mean when he says “we ought to lay down our lives for one another?”

Without question, the first people that come to mind here are the many brave men and women whose job it is to actually live and work in incredibly dangerous situations on behalf of the rest of us. People in the armed forces, firefighters, and policemen all have jobs which place them in harm’s way from time to time. Sadly, sometimes they are called to lay down their lives for our sake in order to defend and protect the rest of us. Their actions are extraordinary, and their sacrifices are public demonstrations of the extraordinary love they have for their communities and their nation. These people are heroes in every sense of the word, and we should never forget that.

But as Christians, we are also called to “lay down our lives.” The life of a disciple is a life where we, too, are called to give up our selves for the sake of others in our community. The circumstances of our sacrifice may not be so heroic – the vast majority of us will never be called to actually die for someone else – but we are called to love one another in a way that the rest of the world would not necessarily understand.

Now, John has a very specific definition of Christian love. It is not just a feeling of warm emotion and high personal regard for other people. Oh no! Christian love means action! Christian love means going out and doing something! Christian love means a life built on self-sacrifice. In short, as Christians, we are called to love each other more than we love ourselves. To love one another so much that we are willing to lay down our lives requires that we learn to put the needs and concerns of another person ahead of our own – to give our coat when we see someone who is cold; to share our food when another person is hungry; to make time for someone who has no friends; to put the other person first. Laying down our lives means to continually ask ourselves, “what does the other person need not just to survive, but to thrive?” And then, doing something about it.

That is an incredibly tall order, and we clearly can’t do this all by ourselves. So where do we find the kind of strength and love that enables us to live in such a sacrificial way? Through Jesus Christ, the one who loved us so much, and put us all ahead of himself.

And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

Christ commanded us to believe and love.

Belief is more than just an intellectual exercise; it is a way of living, living and trusting in the love of Jesus Christ. In fact, the word “believe” actually comes to us from a word that means to love or to hold dear. In other words, belief is living as though our lives depended God. We who claim to believe in the Lord are called to actively love one another, and we are empowered by his love for us.

This community of St. Simon and St. Jude is called first of all to love one another, to care for one another, to consider the needs of one another, before we even think about going outside our own doors. Because if we cannot love each other, how can we ever expect to love a stranger? More importantly, when we demonstrate our love for each other, then when we welcome the stranger in our midst, they can see all the more clearly the love God has for them. They can see that Christ lives in us and through us. And they can see that we live in Christ.

In the end, Mary Johnson had to be willing to lay down her old life in order to forgive Oshea Israel for killing her son. Of course, she credits God for that, but she also said she had a more selfish motive. “Unforgiveness is like a cancer. It will eat you from the inside out. It’s not about that other person, me forgiving him does not diminish what he’s done. Yes, he murdered my son – but the forgiveness is for me. It’s for me.”

At the same time, Mary’s outpouring of love completely changed Oshea’s life, too. He has laid down his life as a gang member and started going to college.

And Mary hopes to see him graduate.

Thanks be to God.

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