Although I grew up in the church and was taught that Jesus sacrificed himself for my sins on the cross, I didn't really learn about self-sacrifice until twenty years ago when I was a summer staffer for YouthWorks Missions.
That summer, I was told that as a staff member, my job was to model servanthood for the high school teens who came to serve. My staff and I sacrificed sleep, free time, and showers to do so. Much to our surprise, we watched as high school teens also sacrificed in big and small ways to serve our tiny West Virginian community.
On Thursdays, we explored the story of Jesus’ footwashing and then led teens in a footwashing service centered on the idea of self-sacrifice and servanthood. By far, Thursdays were my favorite day of the week. They were humbling… And holy.
As a career youth worker, I now regularly explore the idea of servanthood and sacrifice with my teens. Certainly, we do so on mission trips. But we also do so occasionally during our discussions. A favorite passage to explore during these discussions is John 15:13: No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
I’ll admit, for most – if not all – of my youth ministry career, our discussion surrounding this passage has been rather hypothetical. I’ve often asked teens, “Under what – if any – circumstances would you be willing to lay down your life for a friend?” They’ve posed responses ranging from laying down their life for a friend during a school shooting to sacrificing their life during military combat. But even during these discussions, few teens have been willing to say with any confidence that they’d actually be willing to lay down their life for their friends in the moment.
We simply value our lives too much to make that sacrifice. Perhaps we’d do so for a family member... but for a friend?
My teens say it’s unlikely.
Inevitably at this point in our conversations, teens begin looking for other, smaller examples of self-sacrifice, imagining that Jesus said instead, “No one has greater love than this, to serve his friends.”
Even this, though, is hard for teens to imagine. Those who have been on mission trips quickly point to them as examples of service, of sacrifice. But those who haven’t are often hard-pressed to come up with practical examples of servanthood and sacrifice in their lives.
It’s just not something we practice very often… Especially as Americans who value individual liberties and freedoms.
I read somewhere that Americans have not been asked to self-sacrifice since WWII.
Indeed, I’ve heard my grandparents tell stories of the sacrifices required from them during WWII.
Various items – including food supplies – were rationed.
Women returned to work while the men went off and fought the Nazis.
Collectively, our nation made sacrifices so that we could “win” the war. A greater good propelled individuals to do what seemed impossible.
Certainly, even during times of war since, we have not done so.
The Korean War was largely forgotten.
The Vietnam War divided our nation.
The Persian Gulf War was largely ignored by anyone who did not directly have ties to the military.
And after an initial burst of patriotism prompted by 9/11, the war against terror was too.
As a nation, we don’t know what it means to sacrifice for someone else. With the exception of those who were of age during WWII, we’ve simply never been asked to… Until now.
Most of us aren't even being asked to lay down our lives. We’re simply being asked to make small(ish) sacrifices in order to protect our lives (and the lives of our neighbors) during this pandemic.
We’ve been asked to stay home… Or to wear masks if we go out in public.
We’ve been asked to not go to work if we're sick.
We’ve been asked to avoid large crowds.
All in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
This weekend, I watched the news in horror as crowds of unmasked people flocked to beaches, pools, and restaurants, eager to be out of their houses after two months of quarantine.
While I can understand the need to be out of the house (I, too, am going stir crazy!), I couldn’t understand how people could do such things… Until I remembered that our nation has not practiced sacrificing for others in 80 years.
We don’t know how to do this.
But then I thought: Even though our nation is out of practice, Christians shouldn’t be.
Self-sacrifice and servanthood is central to who we are. Following Jesus means serving others.
It means putting the needs of others ahead of our own.
It means looking out for the weakest and most vulnerable among us.
It means serving.
It means laying down our lives for our friends.
Now, I realize that not everyone in our nation is Christian. Yet, many people call our nation “Christian”. If that’s the case, then why oh why is it so hard for us to make sacrifices for others?
Sacrifice may not be in our country’s DNA any longer.
But church, is it in ours?