You Should Have Been There – Easter 4 (2)

By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.  [I John 3:16]

Maxine Glover in the “Life’s Like That” feature in Reader’s Digest [no date on page 216] wrote about that when her father retired, he enrolled – and was the only man – in a night-school sewing class.  It was a bit awkward with measurements and fitting patterns, but there was one incident that really was a class-stopper: it was when he threaded the sewing machine by lifting the machine up to the light with one hand, and as he squinted at the needle, pushed the thread through its eye with the other hand.

“You should have been there …” is a comment with which we are familiar, because, although this example is indeed a humorous story, how much more amusing it must have been to actually be there and see the amazement in the women.  After all, actually being where something happens leaves a deeper impact which words cannot fully describe.  There just is no way to duplicate experience.

There are many other circumstances where that same comment might be used.  Often being there adds powerful content that makes some event into a meaningful experience.  Perhaps it was a significant speech by a great leader.  Winston Churchill’s statement concerning the heroic British fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain, as he surveys the damage done by the Nazis, but also that Hitler’s intention to invade England was turned aside, how powerful it was to hear him say, “Never have so many owed so much to so few.”

So also with the backdrop of the terrible battle fought in that place, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was most impressive.  But it has taken those who were actually there to tell us that his concluding line has often been misquoted – not that the words are wrong, but the accents are wrong.  Often those who quote the words stress the “of,” “by,” and “for,” when apparently what Lincoln said was “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  That change of emphasis is enough to make a difference in how we understand what he said.

“Being there,” indeed, can change the what and the how as one views an occasion.  New realizations are given, and we are aware of the potent foundation that can lie behind the words.  Martin Luther put it this way: “He who merely studies the commandments of God is not greatly moved.  But he who listens to God commanding, how can he fail to be awed by majesty so great!”

This is the backdrop for the text that I read at the beginning.  John tells us that Jesus laid down His life for us.  In many ways, we of course do understand exactly what he is talking about and it gives us a powerful impression of how great is the Love that Jesus has for us.

Yet how humbling is the conspicuous difference between, for instance, when I talk about how Jesus laid down His life for us and when John says the same thing.  When John says it, it causes us to step back a bit as we become aware of how John actually stood at the foot of the Cross and watched Jesus “lay down His life” – he watched as Jesus died.  This is no sterile detached approach, and we startled by the grittiness behind what John is saying.

This is no academic idealism, instead John speaks of a reality that intrudes into our existence.  It is as he stands at the foot of the Cross looking up into face of his dead Lord, and with tears in his eyes, turns to us, saying, “And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.”

He is not talking about is some sort of occasional concession in regard to this or that arbitrary person, he is not talking about minor inconveniences – he talks from the place where he watched Jesus bleed, suffer and die.  And in the midst of persecution, he has watched other believers bleed, suffer and die.  He himself has known the sharp edge of persecution.  This is not idealism; this is not being theoretical; this is reality from which John writes.

Just what is it that has caused the tears in John’s eyes as he now stands at the foot of the Cross?  Perhaps the best way to answer that is by a series of questions that I have asked at times in Bible Classes:

How big are you in comparison to this Earth? – pretty tiny!
How big is the Earth in comparison to the Solar System? – not very big!
How big is the Solar System in comparison to the Milky Way Galaxy? – very tiny!
How big is the Milky Way Galaxy in comparison to the Universe? – infinitesimally minute.
How big is humanity in comparison to the Universe?

Once humans thought that the Earth was at the center of the Universe, but then we discovered that we merely rotate around the Sun.  Then we found out that the Solar System wasn’t even at the center, but rather is on an outer arm at the very edge of the Milky Way Galaxy.  And then we found out that the galaxy isn’t even at the center of the Universe, but rather only at its edge.  As amazed as King David was, we have even more reason to be bewildered as we repeat the words of Psalm 8[:3-4]:

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained:  what is man that You are mindful of him? And the son of man that You visit him?  For You have made him a little lower than the angels, yet You have crowned him with glory and honor.

No, as John looks up at the face of his crucified Master, his tears are not of grief, but rather of astonishment – this is the Creator on the Cross, this is God Whose head hangs low in death.  It is the profound impact that Jesus would do this for him – and for us all.  There is no reason that God should do this, not to this degree!  Is it possible to comprehend in the vast Universe why we, of all creatures that He has created, that we should be so honored – we whose track record with the Lord has left a great, great deal to be desired?  Have you ever stood next to John and seen what he has seen?  Have tears ever filled your eyes with the realization that He would do this for you?

There is a concrete reality from which John speaks – as tangible as reaching out and feeling the rough surface of the wood, of touching the cold skin of the Savior.  This is the reality with which he starts right off at the beginning of his letter, as he writes [I,1:1-4]:

He Who* was from the beginning, Whom we have heard, Whom we have seen with our eyes, Whom we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life – the Life was made manifest, and we saw Him, and testify to Him, and proclaim to you the eternal Life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us – that Whom we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.

This tangible reality is not something that merely lies in the past.  He stood there and watched the Roman soldier thrust the spear into Jesus side and could never forget the water and the Blood that came out of his Lord’s heart.  Yet he came to understand [I John 5:8] that with the Holy Spirit, the water and the Blood – Baptism and Holy Communion – are the tangible evidence of this love from God that we can have right now in our lives of today, something we too can see and look upon, and hold and touch with our hands. These are that continuing proof that “the Life that was with the Father” is here made manifest before our eyes.

“We know love, because He laid down His life for us” – yes, indeed, we do know love.  And now John has turned to us and said, “we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.”  John has watched fellow believers suffer and die for their Lord.  Was this because they had a bunch of doctrines under their belt?  Was this because they had memorized the right answers for confirmation class?  Or was it because they too have in a sense stood with John at the foot of the Cross and had seen such love, that they really had no other choice but to so love their Lord to the degree that not even death would get in their way.

John is not talking about an obligation when he says that “we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.”  He is talking about a characteristic of love that will not let even death stand in its way, a trait of love that we receive as we also stand at the foot of the Cross and see this hallmark of God’s love manifested before us, and then reinforced through the Holy Spirit as we hold in our hands the witness of this love in the water and in the Blood.

But then selfishness intrudes – as John puts it, when we have the world’s goods, yet close our heart to our brother in need, we lose the sight of the characteristic of love that is so evident on the Cross. Indeed is a lot easier to love in word and speech, and so much harder in deed and in truth.  Truly we have much of which to repent.

Yet John has not written this without his eye firmly on the empty tomb.  Remember that he and Peter were among the first to see the concrete evidence of the resurrection on Easter morning, and when Jesus came among their midst that evening, to “handle him and see” [Luke 24:39] that He was truly alive again and had come back for their sake.  Here again John meets face-to-face with an extraordinary Love which has come to personally comfort, to strengthen, to forgive and to empower each disciple according to that believer’s needs.

And look here in Holy Communion!  Jesus does the same as He touches each of us, reassuring us that ”God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” [Romans 5:5].  Come now and experience this immeasurable love that God has for us as Jesus shares His very self and His extraordinary love so that we are indeed equipped to let nothing, not even death, stand in the way of our love for one another.

(*Note: in grammar, the relative pronoun refers to something or someone that is identified elsewhere in the sentence or the paragraph, and in the Greek it would match the gender of that referenced item; in the Greek text this relative pronoun is “neuter” (therefore is often translated as “which”), yet there is no other word in these verses that has a neuter gender – “word,” “father,” “son” are masculine, “life” is feminine.  It therefore is here assumed that, although the “wrong” gender, “the Word” is the referenced item, that “Word” Whom John tells us in His Gospel [1:14] was made flesh and dwelt among us.)

2 thoughts on “You Should Have Been There – Easter 4 (2)”

  1. Hello,

    Regarding your footnote concerning the grammar in 1 John 1:1, the neuter gender of the relative pronoun is not wrong. A relative pronoun can agree with the grammatical gender of a noun only if the noun is a single preceding antecedent noun (grammatical gender agreement) or if the noun is a single subsequent postcedent noun that is connected to the relative pronoun by a linking verb (gender attraction). If there is no single preceding antecedent noun or single subsequent postcedent noun that is connected to the relative pronoun by a linking verb, then the relative pronoun must agree with the natural gender of the idea being expressed (natural gender agreement / constructio ad sensum / construction according to sense). Even if one of the nouns is present or if both of the nouns are present, the relative pronoun can still agree with the natural gender of the idea being expressed instead of agreeing with either noun. The writer/speaker can choose any of those three things, depending on what the writer/speaker wants to emphasize. If the relative pronoun is being used like a noun, as in 1 John 1:1, then this likewise requires agreement with the natural gender of the idea being expressed, which is what we see in 1 John 1:1. The neuter is used in reference to a thing to express the idea “the-thing-which.” John is referring to a thing which was from the beginning and which has been heard and which has been seen and which has been beheld and handled. But that does not guarantee that the thing is not a person. For example, in 1 John 5:1, John says that “every the-one believing [masculine in reference to a person] … out-of the God has-been-born,” but in verse 5:4, John says, “every the-thing having-been-born [neuter in reference to a thing] out-of the God conquers the world.” Here, we see that the THING (neuter) in verse 5:4 IS the PERSON (masculine) in verse 5:1. Therefore, the THING being referenced by the neuter form “the-thing-which” in 1 John 1:1 can be a PERSON. The THING could be the “Word,” which is the “Life,” which is a Person (Jesus Christ).


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