Bishop David Silk
“Greater love has no one than this – to lay down one’s life for one’s friend”. (John 15:13) So says Jesus on the eve of his crucifixion.
The words have, of course, been borrowed with both justification and sensitivity by those searching for a suitable epitaph for many a hero, from those who died in battle to those who lost their lives, or immersed them, in the service of others. None of them, however, could be described as wholly free from fear or reluctance.
Of course, such a use of Jesus’ words is secondary. Those who gave their lives for comrades in arms, those who devoted themselves to great causes and the poor – poor, both indeed and in spirit, and the martyrs of the Church, all laid down their lives for someone or something, but there is a character in the laying down of his life by Jesus which is unique and unsurpassed. So he says in today’s words for reflection, “the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me. I lay it down of my own free will”
Oblatus est quia ipse voluit – “He was offered because he willed it” says the ancient Maundy Thursday antiphon. He purposes to die. That determination is clear from the time of his Baptism as the Messiah; the Lord’s Servant and Lamb of God – it is easy to confuse the two words in Aramaic. During the last week of his mortal life he established a pattern of a journey from Bethany over the hills, down the Mount of Olives, through Gethsemane, over the Kedron and into the city. On Palm Sunday, Monday and Tuesday he returned the same way, for there is no other track. On Maundy Thursday night he lingered in Gethsemane to await, invite arrest. Nailed to the cross on Good Friday he survived but six hours – two or three days was par for the course – and gave up his spirit at three in the afternoon. Never before or since has anyone prepared so intently to die, giving the most meticulous care and single-minded determination to die in a particular way, at a particular time and at the hands of particular persons.
And not only did he lay down his life at will, but he took it up again when he chose – for choose he did by virtue of that mysterious oneness with the Father who raised him from the dead. “?In my Father’s house are many rooms…I will come again and take you to myself” (John 14: 1,3). Was ever a promise so honoured? Indeed he says that he lays down his life “in order to take it up again”.
For this self-giving, this offering of himself to pass through the ultimate experience and dread of us all, to return and show we need not fear, for this acceptance of the command of the Father, the Father loves him. In the end what matters is obedience. What matter is that we might make our wills one with that of our Father so that we – sick and whole – may offer all our living and dying to and for and in him.
“Greater love has no one than this – to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”. Is it not a greater love which lays down one’s life for an enemy? A specious point, for by laying down his life for his friends and his enemies, and the countless departed and unborn whom he did not know in the flesh, he gave them all the opportunity to be his friends.
David Silk is Bishop of Ballarat, Australia.