“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” – John 15:13-14
Jesus spoke these words to his disciples, his friends, as they left the upper room after the Passover meal. He had washed their feet and was imparting his final memorable words to them as they made their way to the garden. What would our final words have been to friends at such a time? Jesus and his closest friends were on their way to pray, where he knew he would be betrayed and had already been betrayed. He knew he would eventually lay down his life, not only for them, but for all nations at all times, including, but certainly not exclusively, for ours.
He spoke to them not only as their Rabbi, but as their friend with great love and care. His impending sacrifice was not to be the first, for he had lived a life full of tiny deaths, full of service, compassion, and love for them all.
These famous words of Jesus were not only an extension of his “farewell speech” before his death, but an extension of his directive to remember him as he washed their feet and as he broke the bread and passed the cup (John 13, Luke 22:14-20). He was asking them to honor him by imitating him.
In reading this passage, and every passage about Jesus, we not only marvel at the beauty of his divinity and humanity, but also marvel at how we are called to the task of imitation. In every way, Jesus is our example. If we want to know what God looks like, God looks like Jesus. If we are left wondering who God is, we look to see who Jesus is.
Jesus, in the greater context of this passage, is reminding his friends it is costly to follow him. Yet, he invites them into an abundant life through abiding and resting in him. This passage follows a discussion of Jesus as the vine. In this analogy, we are branches which derive our sustenance from his richness and life. Without our obedience, we wither. Jesus leaves his friends new commands. His command is love. His command is peace.
Yesterday was an American holiday. It is what has inspired me to write this post. In the last few days I have read the above verse from the Gospel of John pasted over red, white, and blue standards with helmets or bald eagles or praying hands in the background. To be consistent with Jesus’ intentions, however, this verse cannot be applied to those who die in battle for their country, although it is ubiquitously misused in this way. Engaging in war is agreeing to play by the rules of the empires of this world. This is not the way of Jesus. Whether or not pacifism resonates with us, however we read the Sermon on the Mount, and in whatever way we interpret America’s presence in the world, we must understand that when Jesus lays down his life, he does so without being embroiled in battle against the Roman government or military. His sacrifice was a complete submission to the loving plan of the Trinity.
I make this point not to discredit anyone who has fought in a war, and certainly not to disrespect anyone who has lost a friend or a loved one in this way. But if we are to quote Jesus, we must hear him as he intended his words to be heard. We must apply them faithfully as hard words of grace delivered by the Christ who refuses to fight back. And so, we must deeply consider: what does it look like to follow Jesus?
Our identity is part of the problem. If we see ourselves essentially as American, Japanese, Canadian, German, Kenyan, etc., we will be blind to the teachings of Jesus that assume we are citizens of a “better country” (Hebrews 11:16). If we are honest with our nations’ history and military entanglements, we will recognize that countries do not consistently fight on the side of altruism and justice, that we are easily deceived by our national agendas. Regardless of how we view America’s military involvement on the international stage, one thing is clear from this passage: Jesus has no expectations for his friends to take the world by force.
To help us remember and focus on this truth, I am grateful for the vision of the Cosmic Christ who supersedes all nations and identities, yet lovingly embraces them as his own. This notion of the Cosmic Christ is found in the earliest creeds of the Christian faith, proclaimed among the earliest churches, naming Jesus as co-equal with God and Creator of all worlds.
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Colossians 1:15-17
If we belong to this Jesus who is “before all things,” we will not laud those who promulgate killing in the name of democracy or sovereignty or economic welfare or any other politically deemed good. Our ideology may have noble purposes, but we look to the Lion who is a slain Lamb and who proffers us the tree of life with leaves for the healing of the nations (Revelation 5:5-6, 22:2). The Creator, this Cosmic Christ, is not in need of our national defense.
If we follow Jesus, we will not recognize or participate in the ways of power and coercion. We will not try to rationalize the need for violence. Instead, we agree with Jesus that God’s way of peace is mightier than our insistence on force.
Bearing our cross (Luke 9:23) and dying for our friends are hard tasks, but we often dismiss these commands of Jesus by putting a false faith in the military, the factious, those walking in the ways of violence or power. Peter’s intention was good when he slashed at Malchus’ ear (John 18:10), but both the Jewish Rabbi and the Cosmic Christ condemns it.
“Put your sword back” (John 18:11).
We cannot follow Jesus and conflate our gratitude for his sacrifice with those who die in battle. He has called us to follow by a very different path. We may not all be called to stand in the place of physical death for a friend, but daily we are called to die little deaths in the way of humility, compassion, selfless love, and devotion to the Christ who walks in the way of peace.
“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Colossians 1:19-20