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1 John 3.16-24 & John 10.1-18

 This past Tuesday, Carl Erskine died at the age of 97. Erskine pitched for the Dodgers from the late 1940s to the end of the 1950s. He was the next to last living player from the 1955 squad that won the franchise’s first and only World Series title of their long tenure in Brooklyn. Only the great Sandy Koufax, age 88 and a rookie in ’55, remains. And he was the last of the “Boys of Summer,” the 13 players from the ’52 and ’53 squads who were profiled by Roger Kahn in his classic 1972 tome of the same name—The Boys of Summer.   

          In that book, Kahn recalls running into Erskine one day in New York in 1960 near Madison Avenue. Knowing Erskine had retired the previous June and returned to Indiana, Kahn was surprised to see him there at the “epicenter of the advertising world.”

          Kahn asked what he was doing in New York. Erskine told him that a clothing company had “asked him to take executive training” so he could “direct a [group] of retired athletes selling sportswear.” Erskine was thinking of buying a house in Westchester County and moving the family back east.

          Kahn enquired about Erskine’s children. “[They’re] fine,” he replied. “There are three now. And Betty’s expecting again.”

          Kahn had an appointment. So, he scribbled his phone number on a piece of paper, handed it to Erskine, and asked him to call when he got the family settled. Erskine assured him that he would. He never did.

          Sometime later Ralph Branca, Erskine’s old teammate, explained to Kahn what had happened. Betty Erskine gave birth to little boy they called Jimmy. He had Down’s Syndrome. Carl quite his job with the clothing company and stopped the house-hunt. He and Betty decided to go back to Anderson, Indiana and try to help Jimmy live as full a life as possible. [Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer, 243]

          There weren’t a lot of resources in the early 1960s to help children with special needs and their families. It was common to place the child in a group home. Branca said a lot of folks encouraged the Erskines to have Jimmy institutionalized, but they wouldn’t hear of it. Since there was no program in the schools for kids like Jimmy, the Erskines and several other families worked together to start several in the area, including the one which Jimmy attended in the local Methodist church. [Kahn, 248 & 251]         

          The Erskines didn’t stop there. Carl’s obituary reported that “Carl and Betty, alongside other devoted parents, were founders of the Hopewell Center, serving individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities.” []   In addition, Carl became deeply involved in the Special Olympics, working to promote the organization and its sports events for persons with special needs both in Indiana and around the country. Jimmy competed in both bowling and golf. Carl volunteered with Special Olympics for more than 50 years. He and Betty established a foundation to raise money for the organization.

          Because of his parents’ efforts and the new programs being established to help people with special needs, Jimmy thrived. In addition to competing in the Special Olympics, he was able to work at the local Applebee’s and he loved to swim. He outlived the doctor’s prognosis by decades, dying this past November at the age of 63. [Richard Goldstein, “Carl Erskine, a Star Pitcher of the Dodgers’ Glory Years, Is Dead at 97,” New York Times, April 16, 2024;]

          I think all of us would agree that Carl and Betty Erskine loved Jimmy. But how do we know that? None of us ever heard them say that they love him or heard them tell Jimmy, “I love you.” Most of us did not know this family’s story until this week, or even until today.

          We know that the Erskines loved their son because of what they did, because of their decisions, their choices, their sacrifices; we recognize the reality of their love because of their actions. While it is true that there are times love needs to be expressed in words, it is also true that words are empty if there are no actions to back them up. Actions demonstrate the reality of the words. The many ways Carl and Betty cared for and helped Jimmy—and helped and cared for other folks like him and other families like theirs—the sacrifices in which they laid down their lives for him and others, demonstrated the truth of their love.

          The Elder, the author of 1 John, reminds us that, when it comes to Christian love, the proof is in the pudding. Love must be embodied. Loving in word or speech is not enough. We are called to love in truth and action. (v. 18) Notice the parallelism in this verse. Word and speech are synonymous: both refer to verbal declarations of love. Truth and action are also synonymous: the truth of love is shown when it produces loving actions; actions of care, concern and compassion demonstrate that love is true.

          Perhaps the author is thinking of the separatists who have left his congregation. They claim to love their brothers and sisters, but their actions do not correspond to their words. They do not truly love because they do not love actively. Their actions are divisive and reveal that they love themselves more than their brothers and sisters. They are, the Elder writes in the verses before our reading, like Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, whose envy and spirit of rivalry, drove a wedge between him and his brother Abel and eventually led to the ultimate act of division—murder.

          Our society is all too often defined by the spirit of Cain. We are caught up in envy and rivalry. We are driven by self-interest and a competitive spirit which seek to win at all costs. In academics, athletics, business, politics and even the most basic interpersonal relationships, we are driven to succeed in securing our wants and desires and we will trample anyone who gets in the way, anyone who might take even a tiny portion of what we think is ours. This is the spirit of Cain and ultimately it is a spirit of murder because it is destructive of other people and of the just, loving relationships which give life value and beauty.

           The author of 1 John says it is not to be like this among those who are children of God. We are to love one another. One commentator says that the Elder is telling his readers that “The community [of faith] is not to be stifled by bitterness or self-interest, but galvanized for compassion toward others.” [quoted in “If You Talk the Talk, Then Walk the Walk,” a sermon by Nancy Dunn, May 11, 2003; source of the quotation not cited] This means that we are to help each other in time of need. We are to lay aside our own needs and desires in order to love others in truth and action. Like a loving spouse or a loving parent, we are to sacrifice to help any brother or sister, any person we see in need. In Carl Erskine’s personal Bible, his family found a hand-written quotation from George Washington Carver that reflected this type of patient, self-giving love: “Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant with the weak and the wrong - because sometime in your life, you will have been all of these.” [Obituary,]

Such love is not an abstract concept. Such love is embodied. The Elder says it is love that takes concrete form, like sharing our goods or money with needy brothers and sisters. [1 John 3.17] R.R. Williams observes, “Modern readers are surely justified in treating the word[s] brother [and sister] in the widest sense. All [people] are our [siblings] in the human family, and nowadays, all are neighbors. A famine relief project is as much a Christian concern as a coin for a beggar at the door” or, for that matter, as a casserole for a grieving church friend or an hour volunteering to help first graders from an underprivileged school with their reading. [R.R.Williams, The Letters of John and James, The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible, 1965, p. 41]  This type of love is a central characteristic of Christian life. It is simply how we act. It is what we do. This type of love—compassionate and sacrificial—shows unequivocally who and whose we are.                   

What is the source of this embodied, self-giving love that should define Christian life? The example of Jesus. 1 John is quite clear about this.  God’s love is demonstrated to us in Jesus’ act of laying down his life for us. God’s love is embodied in Jesus act of sacrifice. The Johannine literature is quite deliberate in pointing out that this is a voluntary act by Jesus on behalf of others. [Steven Kraftchick, “Fourth Sunday of Easter: 1 John 3.16-24; Commentary 1: Connecting the Reading with Scripture,” Connections: Year B, Volume 2, p. 241] In our Gospel reading, Jesus makes this voluntary act of sacrifice clear by declaring, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…. I lay it down of my own accord.” [John 10.11 & 18] Though Jesus doesn’t say he is doing so out of love, we know that he is because his actions demonstrate his great love for all of us. Indeed, the Divine love embodied and enacted in Jesus is one of the central themes of 1 John [see for ex. 1 John 3.16 & 4.7-10, 16] and the Gospel of John [John 3.16-17 & 15.9, 12-14].

Our response is to do the same for others—to lay aside something of our lives, our comfort, our time, our energy, our possessions, in order to express love within the community of faith and in order to embody love to people in need. Here again we have a clear echo of this morning’s Gospel reading. In John 10, when Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd, the Greek word translated “good” has the sense of “model,” something to be emulated. Jesus is not only the Good Shepherd, but also the Model Shepherd. [Sarah S. Henrich, “Fourth Sunday of Easter—John 10.11-18: Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, p. 451] His followers are to model their actions on his action. Those who bear Christ’s name are to do what he did: to give themselves in love to their neighbors. They are a community that is formed by and embodies Christ’s self-giving love.

No doubt, some of you have seen the movie “The Bridge Over the River Kwai.” It is about a group of POWs who are forced by their Japanese captors to build a railway bridge in Burma during WWII. The story is fictional, but it is based on actual events.  In Miracle on the River Kwai, Ernest Gordon describes how a group of Scottish soldiers, beaten, starved and abused by their captors, degenerate into self-interested, inhumane behavior of the most brutal kind. They are literally at one another’s throats, each trying desperately to save himself with no regard for their comrades.

One day during a count of the men’s tools, it was discovered that one shovel was missing. The officer overseeing the prisoners became enraged and demanded to know where the shovel was: Who had it? Who had lost it or broken it? When no one answered, he pulled out a pistol and threatened to start shooting men until someone produced the shovel. There was no question that he meant to do it, and so, for a moment, the men braced for the inevitable.

But then, one man stepped forward holding a shovel. The officer put his gun away, took the shovel, and then used it to beat the man to death. The other prisoners were made to pick up his body and carry it back to the tool shed for another count. This time, there was an extra shovel. After another count, it became clear that the first count had been a mistake—there never had been a missing shovel. The men realized that the man with the shovel had been innocent and he had laid down his life so they might live.

   This incident has a profound effect on the men who witnessed it. They began to act differently, to treat each other differently. One of them later remember, “we wanted to be worthy of that sacrifice.” They began to care for each other, to support and help each other in truth and action. Once they had been a collection of individuals competing to survive, looking out for only themselves. Now they became a community of brothers. So complete was the transformation, that when Allied forces swept into the camp and the Japanese soldiers cowered in expectation of inevitable vengeance, these men stood between their liberators and their captors, protecting the Japanese, shouting, “No more hate.  No more killing.  What we need now is forgiveness.” An act of sacrificial love forged these men into a community that loved one another and even came to love their captors, seeing them as “sheep from another fold.” [Delmar Chilton,, quoting Phillip Yancy, “Rumors of Another World”]                   

We too live in a community created by an act of self-giving, sacrificial love. In Jesus’ life and death, we see God’s love embodied. Jesus’ love both gathers us together into his flock and it shows us how we are to love others, within the flock and beyond.  Knowing how great a love has saved us and formed us into a community, let us strive, with the Spirit’s help, to embody love; to lay down our lives in small, ordinary, everyday ways; to help others in their need; to sacrifice for the good of others; to love in truth and action, just as we have been loved. Let us demonstrate our belief in Jesus by heeding his command to love one another.  Let us embody God’s love.