6th Sunday of Easter Reflection by Paul Nicholson
What do you value? What is valuable to you? Take a moment and think about that—make a mental list. I imagine that our lists would vary in some ways, and in others be similar. For example, we might compare our valuables and find that one list has a lot of things on it, a lot of tangible “stuff”—the stuff of Life. Another list might include things tangible, like people—loved ones, family, co-workers—and less tangible, like relationships, feelings, belonging. Maybe your list includes the conceptual: freedom, integrity, compassion, purpose, resolve, vulnerability. Over the years of my career as a musician, I have learned that my business inventory really has only one commodity that can be readily valued, quantified: my time. So I care a lot about how I spend my time. My list also includes good health and the good health of all those I love. In addition I have things that, in the past, were not of value to me, both tangible and intangible, but now are prized. My understanding of these things has changed over time, giving value.
Jesus says in the Gospel reading for today, “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Since childhood I have understood the phrase “to lay down one’s life” as dying, a deliberate act for the sake of someone else, someone deeply loved. In the five years since my mother died, I often reflect on the sacrifices she made for me throughout my life. It is startling to think she had a successful career before becoming a mother, that she had a social life together with my father before the demands of family kept her home, and that she “laid down” so much of her life for my sake. Three years ago, after my friend Brent died, a colleague said something that turned my understanding of this passage upside down. She was asking about me, and the state of my head and heart after his death, as I went about the business of Executor for his estate. She said, “Do you ever feel as though you are laying down your life for him?” That question stopped me in my tracks. I had never thought of my love and caring for Brent as a “laying down of my life for my friend.”
This has led me to reconsider what Jesus might be saying in the reading. Laying down one’s life is not exclusively the act of dying, though certainly that is what comes to mind when I think of Jesus’ death. It is also the sacrifice of the parent for the child, the teacher for the student, the priest for the congregation, the spouse for the spouse. It is the giving up of all that the self desires and a giving over to the one who is loved, the one in need. To lay down one’s life in love is to care more about another than your own ego-driven priorities dictate. It is a way of living (and dying) that models unconditional love and acceptance. This new-to-me understanding of Jesus’ words has brought with it the realization that my mother and my friend Brent, in their patient resolve and calm acceptance of death and dying, were laying down their lives in a way that blessed me profoundly. In their love expressed toward me, and in their words and deeds I find value, meaning, and purpose. I firmly believe that through their act of dying my faith is strengthened, that I am better equipped for living and for laying down my life for others. This is what I think Jesus is calling us to consider.