In the passage from John today we heard that Jesus is the shepherd who will bring all the sheep into his fold, even those who are not part of the recognized flock. He also said that he has come to this place by being willing to lay down his life for his flock. It is from that place of being willing to die, according to this passage in John, that he gained God’s choosing, God’s love, God’s mark. Or, as John puts it, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.”
This is part of the hardest thing we are asked to do - to no longer fear death. Attached to that is what I believe is even harder. The hardest thing we are asked to do is to be willing to overcome any fear we do have, and if necessary to be willing to give up our lives for others - for our family, for our friends, yes - but more than that, for our enemies. I’m not saying that we are to seek out death, or that being a martyr is the goal. What I am saying is that we are to act with all faith, and without fear even to the point of being willing to die for others, even for, maybe especially for, our enemies: for their lives, for their well-being, for their wholeness.
I want you to take a moment and think about someone that has hurt you. Someone that offends you. Maybe it is a person you know very well. Maybe it is someone you don’t really know at all: a person from a particular group of people that offends you - a person with a different religion or a person with a different lifestyle choice, a person with a different political bent or someone with a different attitude about anything that really, really matters to you. I want you to picture a situation in which you are with this person that you don’t like, perhaps don’t respect, don’t value. And I’d like you to imagine that a bad guy has come into the room and has announced that one of you is going to die that day.
I know this sounds ridiculous. But the fact is that this isn’t so far off from what Jesus was faced with. The people around Jesus were, both literally and metaphorically, dying. Their lives were lives of deep struggle. And there was a great schism: some were caught up in a legalism, they were enslaved by their understandings of their scriptures that made their lives rigid – ordered, structured, but life-less. Others were condemned for being unable to live up to those rules, being unable to bring the needed offerings, to be fully without illness or disability, or to live by a set of strict regulations that were difficult for the poorer people. All were caught up in a cycle of sin, or I would say of oppression, which meant that they were either the oppressors - the pharisees, the legalists who were making life unbearable for the rest, or the oppressed - all those considered “unclean” which included anyone who was injured, anyone who had a disability or infirmity, Samaritans, Syrophoenicians, women, children, and those too poor to pay the legal sacrifices that were required.
Some played both roles in different ways. And in those roles of oppressor or oppressed, the people around Jesus were not living. Jesus saw this, and was willing to die in his efforts to bring a different message, to bring life to all involved: confronting the legalism, lifting up the oppressed and hurting. Only this witness, this stand so strong it would die, as well as a resurrection promised and brought forth that showed they could choose a different way because even death was not something to fear: only this would prove that those paying attention did not have to follow these life-less rules, that they could live without fearing death because it too would be overcome. But the irony of it all: these very people, these people whom Jesus was trying to save were the very same people who wanted Jesus to die. These same people he wanted to help, to free, were the very people yelling for his death. In this way they were Jesus’ enemies, the enemies Jesus chose to love and to care for even to death, these were the people he was trying to reach. And he was willing to lose his life in the attempt.
Would you be willing to step forward and sacrifice yourself for an enemy like that? What if the “bad guy” in my scenario was saying that he would either kill you or kill himself. Would you choose to die, taking the chance, the risk, that the very enemy who held your life in his hands might then choose life?
It would be hard to choose to do this. Common responses might include, “They don’t deserve to live, while I die.” Or “I would be leaving behind people who need me” or just very simply “I don’t want to die.” But the reality is that everyone of these responses is a sentence about fear. Saying that another doesn’t deserve to live while you die is an expression of fear that death is not as good as life, that death is a bad and scary thing. Saying that the people you would leave behind need you is an expression of fear that new life does not await those we leave behind. And of course “I don’t want to die” is all about fear. As a country, as a community, as a bunch of interwoven cultures, we seem to be ruled in great part by fear. We fear to speak the truth, afraid someone will be angry, afraid someone will reject us. We fear to do the right thing, afraid we will get hurt, afraid we will suffer or that our loved ones will. We vote out of fear - fear about the economy, fear about people from other countries, fear that our view of the way the world should be will be changed or challenged. We go to war over fear: fear that we will be attacked or hurt, or again that our expectations of how our life should be will be challenged. Most of our news stories: people being killed because people fear them for their color, their orientation, their religion – these all start with fear. People grabbing what money they can and refusing to share with others: this is fear that there will not be “enough” for me and mine. We fail to really live because of our fear: we fail to grasp life and take risks and meet challenges, because of our fear. We fail to be the church: a people living in the good news, serving in the good news, because of our fear.
The first month I was here at this church, I shared with you this story. I share it again because I think it is so important. My first call out of seminary was to a church in AZ that was just beginning to fully explore the area of service to others. One of the ways they served the community was that they allowed an Alateen meeting, a meeting for youth who have been seriously affected by the alcoholism of other people, to take place at the church. One night a 14 year old girl was dropped off at the church for the Alateen meeting, only to discover that she was a day early for the meeting. I found her standing in the door of the church looking lost, looking confused, looking scared. I asked her if I could help her and she said she needed a ride home. This girl lived with her single mother on the other side of Phoenix, a good 45 minute drive away, and her mother had dropped her at the church on her way to work. The girl had expected to get a ride home with another friend who attended the meeting, but since she had come on the wrong day she now had no way to get home. I was scheduled to lead a meeting that evening, so I went into a small dinner group of church members who were just finishing their meal and asked them if one of them might be able to give the girl a ride home. Can you guess what they said?
The response was unanimous: “That girl could be a car-thief. That girl could be a con-artist.” “That girl could be carrying a gun or a knife and just waiting for a chance to stab somebody.”
I was floored. They hadn’t even seen this 14 year old girl, but if they had, I knew it would not have helped her because as she had piercings and tattoos and she would have, for them, only confirmed their stereotypes and reinforced their fears. I gently suggested that this might be an opportunity to help this girl have a new understanding of what it might mean to be part of a Christian community. But was greeted with the response, “God didn’t call us to be stupid.”
No, God doesn’t call us to be stupid. But God does call us to put love above our fears. While we are also invited to use our brains and all of our skills to find ways that we might love ourselves and our neighbors fully, God also calls us to refuse to allow fear to make our decisions for us. When there is a choice between acting out of love and acting out of fear we are always, always to choose love. In those moments, God calls us to take risks knowing, absolutely, that they are risks, and believing that those risks - the risks we take to care for our friend, for our neighbor, for our enemies, are none the less the only things in our life worth doing well.
Jesus came to free us from our enslavement to fear, to free us to really, really be able to choose life. But that remains the challenge. To believe to the point of being free from our fear, and free therefore to choose faith, to choose life.
That is exactly the story that we heard in the first passage that was read for today. Peter and John had moved out of and beyond fear. They stood before their enemies: the people who had imprisoned them and who now held their lives in their hands. But they were so freed by their witness of resurrection that they could speak the truth to these powerful enemies: to speak truth that might help these imprisoning people to learn and live and grow, even while it put their own lives at risk. Peter and John had experienced a risen Christ and they knew from that experience that death is nothing to be feared. Death will be overcome: it had been overcome. And because of that, they were freed, completely freed, to speak their truth, to love their enemies, to give and give all of who they were and to fear nothing. They were able even to choose to die for their enemies, to follow in Jesus’ footsteps completely because they were unafraid. As it happened, they were not killed after speaking the truth. But they could have been. Still, they still chose to live, fully and unafraid, risking speaking the truth.
I’m not saying that this kind of belief is easy. I also recognize, again, as our scriptures tell us, that faith itself is a gift. But I think that’s the gift we need to pray for most fervently. Because without that faith, we live in fear. And if we live in fear, we fail to really live at all.