THE COMMITMENT QUESTION

WILL YOU LAY DOWN YOUR LIFE FOR ME?

JOHN 13:31-38

 

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            There is a little church on the Appian Way not far from the city Rome that bears the name "The Church of the Quo Vadis".  Those Latin words, Qou Vadis, mean “Where are you going?”  A beautiful legend has it that a few years after the crucifixion of Jesus, the Apostle Peter, under the threat of persecution and in great fear, was fleeing for his life, when he met Jesus.  Jesus was headed into the city, so Peter asked him the question, "Lord, where are you going?" and Jesus answered, "I go to Rome, to be crucified again."

            According to the legend the answer so pierced the heart of Peter that it turned this cowardly fugitive into a person of great resolve, and he followed his Lord back into Rome, where he gladly died.  And you probably know that tradition has it that Peter was crucified upside down on a cross at his own request, because he felt that he was not worthy to die as the Lord.

            So, a little church has been built on the Appian Way, on that spot where Peter, fleeing Rome, met the Lord coming back into the city.           He asked the Lord, “Quo vadis,” "Where are you going?"

            I share that legend because the question that Peter asked the Lord in the legend is the same question he asked him in our passage for today.  Jesus was talking to the disciples about his coming death, and his "going away."  Peter didn't understand, though he wanted to, and he asked Jesus, "Where are you going?" 

            In this passage we see all the characteristics of Peter’s personality in operation. We see his eagerness to be in front, his habit of blurting out his thoughts and feelings, his passionate love for his master, and his inability to understand him.  Jesus attempts to appease him.  “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.” 

            But Peter persists.  “Of course, I can follow you.  I will lay down my life for you.”

            Then Jesus asks Peter, and ultimately us, the commitment question.  "Will you lay down your life for me?"  It is a tough question, this commitment question, and let’s consider it as we continue our Lenten Questions sermon series.

            I'd like to come at the commitment question from four different angles.  In struggling with Jesus’ question I’ve come up with four related questions that I believe will help us unpack the implications of the commitment question.  As we answer each of the four questions we will be responding to the commitment question in four different ways, from four different angles.

            OK, here we go.  One angle of the commitment question:  “Will you make my will your will?”  “Will you lay down your life for me?  Will you make my will your will?” 

            Dr. Carl Barth was one of the premier theologians of the twentieth century. I believe it was Dr. Paul Tillich, another eminent theologian who, commenting on this great and controversial thinker said that Dr. Barth "refused to become his own follower." He went on to point out that Barth had changed his mind about some things from time to time and that he steadfastly refused to hold a previous position of his that he knew now was incorrect.

            I like that statement: "He refused to become his own follower."  Unfortunately, that's a temptation for all of us - to become our own follower - to do our own will - to go our self-centered way without respect to any ultimate demands that might be made upon us.  So, the commitment question from Jesus might come in this form, "Will you make my will your will?"

            A theologian told of a visit he had with Mahatma Ghandi, the great shaper of modern India.  After a time, the conversation turned to spiritual matters.  The theologian tactfully related to Ghandi his own personal experience of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  Ghandi quietly thought for a moment and then lamented, "My own throne is still vacant."

            That's a very sad word, but the sadder word, and the sadder picture is that of each one of us sitting on the throne of our own life.  Most of us know that the throne of our life is not vacant.  We sit there.  We seek to be the master or mistress of our fate, the captain of our souls.

            A Christian author put it well.  He wrote these words,

 

            If Christ is to have the throne of your being, He will get it only one way.  He won't take it because you happen to have left it vacant.  He won't take it by storm.  He will get it because you give it to him by deliberate, conscious, willing choice.

 

            "Will you make My will your will?  Will you allow me to sit on the throne?"  That’s another way to ask the commitment question.  Let’s consider a second way to ask it. "Will you make my style your style?"

            When I originally planned this sermon series, I intended to deal with another question Jesus asked earlier in this thirteenth chapter of John's Gospel, in verse 12.   Listen to it.  After he had washed their feet, had put on His robe, and had returned to the table, Jesus asked them, "Do you know what I have done to you?"

            You know the setting.  Jesus and his disciples came together in the Upper Room to celebrate the Passover.  Though they did not know it, my hunch is that some of them must have suspected that this would be their last Passover meal with Jesus.  If they didn't know that, or suspect it, they knew that something ominous was in the air, something heavy was weighing on Jesus' mind and heart.  And yet even in the midst of the foreshadowing of the cross, Jesus got up from the table, and took upon himself the role of a servant, girded Himself with a towel, got a basin of water, and washed the disciples' feet.

            Let me read now verses 12-15:

 

            Do you know what I have done for you?  You call Me Teacher and Lord - and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.

 

            The style is clear, not only here, but throughout the Gospel: the style of a servant.

            Two great incidents took place in the Last Supper Room in Jerusalem on the night before Jesus was crucified.           In the first, Jesus took bread and wine, symbols of His coming death, and handed them to His disciples, and said "Do this in remembrance of me,”  and we did that very thing last Sunday.  In the second he took a towel and basin and washed the disciples’ feet.  In other words, in the Upper Room Jesus tied together worship and work, communion and service.  Jesus put the style of a servant at the very heart of the Christian life.

            An African native was asked by a missionary, "Do you know Jesus?"

            "No," he replied, "but I know Tom Lamke, a friend of his."  Tom was living Jesus’ style.

            So that's the second lesser question that will help us answer the big question. "Will you lay down your life for me?  Will you make my style your style?"  And now the third question. "Will you make my love your love?”   This is not much different than the style question, but we ask it to underscore the very heart of commitment.

            Dr. Maltbie Babcock, 110 ago at the historic Brick Church in New York City, said in a sermon: "If people cannot believe in Christians, whom they have seen, why should they believe in Christ, whom they have not seen?"

            They will never see Jesus unless they see him in us, unless they see him in the way we live and love. One of my favorite theater stories is about Charlie Chaplin, the great actor of the silent movie era.  In 1950 he was directing a play at the Circle Theater in Hollywood.  He became frustrated at the way the rehearsal was going on stage and to the surprise of all the actors, the great director leapt up out of his seat in the house, jumped on the stage, pushed one of the actors off the chair, sat down, and said, "Excuse me please, I want to sit here for awhile.  I need to see how it feels." 

            That's a cue for us.  We need to put ourselves in the place of others, feel what they feel.  Not sympathy, but empathy is the dynamic of loving with the love of Christ.

            In a footnote in some hymnals is a phrase which most Protestant churches removed from some of the early versions of the Apostles Creed: "He descended into Hell."  The reason scholars took it out was that there is scant Biblical evidence for it, but but it’s still there, albeit with a footnote, and some are glad it is.  A chaplain in a mental hospital was  working with patients to prepare a worship service.  When they came to the Creed they discussed whether or not to leave it in or take it out, and one of the patients said, "It has to be there!  I have to know that he has descended into hell with me!"  He's been there and back with us.  He knows what it means to be human.  In the same fashion we need to be there for others in the hell of their lives, loving them as the hands and feet of Christ.  Jesus continually asks the question: “Will you make my love your love?”

            The final lesser question that will help us get to the ultimate commitment question, “Will you lay down your life for me” is “Will you make my power your power.”

             I heard a story recently that speaks to that, a story about a slow moving panel truck and a narrow winding road.  A woman traveling out east got behind this slow moving truck, and because of the nature of the road, never had a chance to pass the truck.

            To make matters worse, the truck would stop every few miles and the driver of the truck would get out of the cab carrying a broom and would proceed to beat on the side panels of this truck.  After a few moments of this, he would return to the truck and drive on for a few more miles, very slowly, until he would stop and proceed to do the same thing with the broom again.

            After thirty minutes of this, the woman finally got out of her car and went up to this man hitting the sides of the truck with his broom.  As calmly as she could she asked him why he continued to do this every few miles.  He replied, "Ma’am, this is a one ton panel truck, and in the back here I've got two tons of canaries.  If I can't keep half of them up in the air I can't drive my truck."

            It was a question of power.  We can’t affirmatively answer the first three questions without Jesus’ power.  We can't be strong in our serving without receiving strength which is beyond ourselves.  We can't forever be out and about giving away what we don't have.  So Jesus asks, "Will you make my power your power?

            An Anglican Bishop was asked to speak at a Christian conference somewhere in England.  For many weeks, he did not respond to the written invitation.  Finally the correspondence secretary for the Conference wrote the Bishop an insistent note, "We must know," he said, "if you're coming. We need to make our plans."

            The Bishop wrote back that he was waiting for the guidance of the Holy Spirit on the matter.  He would let them know in about four weeks.  The exasperated secretary fired back this letter. "Bishop, please don't bother.  Cancel the invitation.  We're not interested in having anyone speak to our Conference who lives four weeks away from the Holy Spirit!"

            How many weeks away from the Holy Spirit do we live?

            Will you lay down your life for me?

            Will you make my will your will?

            Will you make my style your style?

            Will you make my love your love?

            Will you make my power your power?

            Amen.