It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known." Charles Darnley in A Tale of Two Cities

"To die will be an awfully big adventure". Peter Pan

“Will it hurt?” Harry asks this of the shade of Sirius Black in ‘Deathly Hallows’

Greater love has no one than this; that a man lay down his life for his friends

St John records these words among the last discourses of Jesus almost as if Jesus is referring to himself. John paints the scene of Jesus surrounded by his disciples on the night before he is crucified. It is the scene of the Last Supper, the foot washing, the betrayal. Jesus is giving the kind of instructions and information that one might expect of a leader who is leaving his followers without the certainty of a safe return. So he speaks a lot about unity and about love and about God and because we know in advance that Jesus is going to die it is natural to conclude that he is referring to his own sacrifice when he says ‘Greater love has no man than this that one lays down one’s life for ones friends’.

However, in a Tale of Two Cities Charles Darnley dies taking the place of Sidney Carton whom he hates; Peter Pan really only loves himself but he would die for the good and Harry goes to his death certainly for his friends but even for those who have tried to harm him.

In St Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says ‘If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?’ When Jesus says this is he suggesting that there is indeed a greater love than that of sacrificing for your friends? Certainly Paul, referring to the sacrifice which Jesus makes, seems to be saying something like this:

‘For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die.’

Then he follows it up with the revelation of who were the unrighteous for who Jesus dared to die:

‘But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ and we remember the strong language in which Father Edward Caswell’s translation of a medieval hymn puts it:

Thou, O Lord Jesus, thou didst me
upon the cross embrace;
for me didst bear the nails and spear,
and manifold disgrace

And griefs and torments numberless
and sweat of agony;
yea, death itself and all for me
who was thine enemy.

So am I saying that Jesus is contradicting himself in John’s Gospel or that John has misrepresented Jesus?

No I don’t think so. The greater love that no man can have is referring to the highest call of human affections. A man would dare indeed to die for those he loves; he might indeed as Paul says dare to die for a good man but the context of this verse is Christ’s teaching about his relationship to the Father and the relationship that he is making between his followers and the Trinity. The love which Jesus brings into the world is not the simple love of friend for friend (holy and beautiful though that is). No, the Son comes into the world to establish a new relationship between God and the world. He comes not to condemn the world but to save it, to bring it to new birth. The birth pangs are about to begin:

Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also but all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin but now they have no excuse for their sin. He who hates Me hates My Father also. If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin but now they have both seen and hated Me and My Father as well. But they have done this to fulfill the word that is written in their Law, ‘THEY HATED ME WITHOUT A CAUSE.’

Just as Jesus will love the unlovely and suffer at their hands he instructs his followers that this is their vocation as well. They are branches of the vine, members of his Body. They will be one with him in his divine Sonship and unity with the Father. They will receive his Spirit and follow him in all truth. So they will, must, love each other but they must sacrifice themselves for those who Jesus came to save.

What of us, on this Sunday in Easter as we think of the cost of discipleship – tomorrow with Matthias and on Friday when Dennis makes his profession? What is the Gospel telling you and me? Well first of all that we are his disciples and we should love one another. That is not a bad start when we think of the mess we, his disciples, have got ourselves into. Then we have to go on to love the unlovely, those who hated him without a cause. Love is our calling and love must be our message. God loves the world so much that he gives. In Jesus he gives himself and we must be the vehicles by which the world will see Jesus. Greater love has no one than this. Christ is our friend, what is he asking of you, what is he asking of me?

John Gribben CR