The most well-known verse in the Bible is surely John 3:16—“for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Actually, there is ANOTHER John 3:16 in the Bible. This “other” John 3:16 is actually in the first letter of John: “we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16).
There is an other verse in the Bible, also written by the author of John’s Gospel, which is being referenced in this “other” John 3:16—“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)
In a neat conjunction, these readings, set in the lectionary for the fourth Sunday in the season of Easter, are what is being read and heard in churches around Australia on this Sunday which, in 2021, is also ANZAC Day.
ANZAC Day is a day when we think about the laying down of lives. We remember, and pledge that we will not cease remembering, those who engaged in military service, including those who laid down their lives in that service, in wars from years past: at Lone Pine and Villers-Bretonneux, on the Somme and the Mekong, on the track to Kokoda and at Hellfire Pass, in multiple places in Asia (Borneo, Malaysia, Korea, Indonesia), in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq; and peacekeeping forces working in co-operation with other United Nations forces in trouble spots near to and far from our continent.
There are so many places to remember, so many people in service and supporting them to remember, and so many who laid down their lives to remember.
To lay down your life for others is an action that those of us who have not had to face this prospect, cannot fully comprehend. To remember those who have been confronted by this reality, we can listen attentively to the stories from those who served, as they faced that prospect on a daily basis.
To remember those who laid down their lives, we can read the accounts of bravery in action, of soldiers and sailors persisting doggedly in the face of strategic errors committed by their officers. We can listen to accounts of personal hopes dashed by injuries sustained in battle.
We can pause and reflect on far too many instances of grief and sadness permeating the decades after the loved one failed to return home after serving in war. And as events this past week have reminded us, as a new Royal Commission was announced, we must work to ensure that returned veterans receive support, that they are not left to ruminate, grow in anxiety, deepen in depression, and, tragically, take their own lives in suicide.
To lay down your life takes us to the heart of being human; it reflects the essence of relationship, giving away of ourselves for the sake of another. To live our lives in such a way that the other person, the other people, are accorded greater importance than our own lives—this is admirable, this is something to be emulated, and this is something that is so difficult to achieve.
But to lay down our lives for others is to show what it is to be human; not necessarily to be prepared to die, but rather to be considerate of others, to place the needs of others ahead of our own. That’s what parents are required to do as they raise their children. That’s what couples are required to do when entering into faithful lifelong relationships. That’s what life in community means; to seek the good of the other, first and foremost.
And this takes us also to the centre of faith, for it shows how God became human amongst us: at the very core of the divine becoming human is the giving up of self for the sake of the other. Traditional Christian doctrine teaches that when God took on human form in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God laid aside the glory and honour that was seen as being the essence of the holy, transcendent God.
God came into our midst, to be as one of us, even humbling himself to be crucified, to actually lay down the totality of his human life, as a demonstration of divine love for all humanity. As the letter writer states, “we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us”. That is at the heart of the faith we share, and celebrate, today.
ANZAC Day is the most intense religious moment in the life of our nation; and on this day of remembrance, stories of bravery, courage, and sacrifice, bleed into the Gospel narrative of humility, commitment, and sacrifice. The national story hums in tune with the Gospel story. Together, they sound in harmony.
1 John 3:16 and John 10:11 evoke the centre of the Gospel, as they refer to this key dynamic, “to lay down one’s life”, and today the foundational elements of ANZAC Day resonate with the very heart of the Gospel. Laying down our life, for the sake of the other: that is how we know the love of God.
Service of others, putting others first ahead of ourselves—we say these words, we repeat these formulas, year in and year out, in our services of worship.
We say these words, and we seek to put them into practice in our personal lives, by caring for others, going out of our way to care for the sick, visiting those in need, feeding the hungry, providing clothing to the poor at reasonable prices through Op Shops, ensuring that we are a warm and welcoming community when we gather.
In this way, we follow the guidance we have heard in the letter from John: “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (3:18).
Through our words and our actions, we follow the command, following the way of Jesus, that “we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (3:16).
In this, we follow the example of Jesus that we have heard in the Gospel: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11).
See also https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/11/blessed-are-the-peacemakers/