“This is my commandment,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
As I have loved you. That really is the kicker in this commandment to love, which at first glance sounds rather pleasant, because who doesn’t want to love and be loved? But to love as Jesus loved—to lay down one’s life for one’s friends—that’s something else again.
You don’t often hear of someone giving up their life for their friends, although of course it does sometimes happen. This past week when I was reflecting on that line from the Gospel I found myself thinking about story of Jonathan Daniels and Ruby Sales.
I think I mentioned in one of my Holy Week sermons that Ruby Sales had led a Bible study for the diocese this Lent on Zoom back. She’s a middle-aged woman now, and I couldn’t help wondering what you would do with your life if you knew that someone else had given up his own so that you might live.
Which is an interesting question—right?—because that is exactly what we say we believe about ourselves.
Anyway, Jonathan Daniels[i] and Ruby Sales. You might have heard their story, since the Episcopal Church does remember Daniels each year on August 14 in our calendar of commemorations.
He was a native of Keene, New Hampshire, valedictorian for the Class of 1961 at Virginia Military Academy, and a seminarian at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he felt called in 1965 to go South and get involved in the civil rights movement.
In August of that year he was arrested at a demonstration with other protestors, and they were hauled off to jail—literally—in a garbage truck. They spent six terrible days in hot, overcrowded conditions before some of his group were released without any advance warning, so that when they walked out of the jail, there was no one there to take them away.
So they were waiting for someone to come and pick them up, and a few of them walked over to a small grocery store thinking to get some cold drinks. Daniels and Sales were in that group. But these two white men and two African-American women were met at the entrance by a white man with a shotgun who told them in rather vulgar language to go away.
He aimed the shotgun at Ruby Sales, and as he pulled the trigger Daniels moved to push her to the ground.
He took the shot and died instantly. He was 26 years old.
What would you do with the rest of your life if you knew someone else had laid down his own life so that you might live? Quite understandably, Ruby Sales was severely traumatized, but she went on to become a college professor and she now heads an Atlanta-based non-profit that works for racial, economic and social justice.
A couple of years ago, she told an interviewer that she often wondered what Jonathan would be doing today if he were still alive. She said, “Would he have participated in other movements? Would he have become a starchy bishop?”[ii]
I’ll tell you, from what I’ve read of his writings as a seminarian—the passion that you see in them—it’s hard to imagine him growing old and starchy. But he never got that chance.
To lay down one’s life for another. How many of us would do that? For our kids, I think. Maybe our partners. But for anyone else? Quite honestly, I have a hard time imagining myself doing it.
And because I can’t imagine it, it’s easy to take the next step and tell myself that this is one of those unachievable ideals that Jesus talks about. He talks about it, but he can’t really mean it, can he? I mean, who could do that?
Well, what I think is that there are a lot of different ways to lay down one’s life, besides actually dying. For example, laying down your life can mean dying to self. It can mean letting go of your ego, letting go of that part of us that sees and judges the world in a way that’s centered on ourselves and people just like us. Learning to see all of God’s children as God sees them.
But laying down all of the assumptions that are baked into us about who people really are, based on race—speaking for myself, I’ll tell you, it’s something I’m still learning to do.
Even though I haven’t had the opportunity to talk with you about it, from what I’ve seen about your Beloved Community book study at Church of the Ascension, I think you’re on the same journey.
And it is a journey. It’s a process. It means peeling off layer after layer of what we thought we knew.
Sometimes good people will tell me that they don’t even see color. Now, there’s an internal contradiction in that. Someone once said to me, I don’t see color. They said, I treat the Black woman I know through an organization I belong to just like everybody else. I don’t even see her color.
Of course as soon as he said that, he’d already admitted that he did see color. Which is actually a good thing! That’s part of seeing people for who they are, as God made them.
But if someone holds on to that insistence that they don’t see something that they clearly do see, then maybe they’re blind to other things, other assumptions they make without even thinking about it. And coming to a place where you can lay aside those assumptions—that’s one way of laying down one’s self.
I think Jonathan Daniels was already doing that before he went to Alabama. I think it clearly is why he went to Alabama. He left a comfortable life behind—he left a whole world behind—when he went there.
I mean, think about it. Growing up in New Hampshire as the son of a doctor in the 1950s. I was in New Hampshire for a week a couple of years ago, when my nephew got married. I mentioned to my husband that I think I saw maybe three people who weren’t white in all that time. They were cleaners at the motel where we stayed. And this was 60 years later.
Then he went to VMI, Virginia Military Institute, which didn’t admit its first Black cadets until 1968, which was more than 10 years after he arrived there as a student.
He joined the Episcopal Church in his senior year at VMI. And in Alabama, where he spent months living with a Black family, he brought his Black friends with him to a white Episcopal Church—and the members there did not welcome them.[iii]
The Episcopal Church welcomes you? Yeah, not so much.
Alabama must have seemed like a different world when Jonathan Daniels arrived there. But he had already figured out that being a child of God was bigger than just being like the people he had seen all around him all his life. In Christ, he wrote, “we are indelibly and unspeakably one.”[iv]
In today’s reading from the book of Acts, Peter’s Jewish co-workers are astounded to witness the Holy Spirit falling on a group of Gentiles. These disciples had thought the saving message of Jesus and the companionship of the Holy Spirit were just for them. They hadn’t realized yet that we are all indelibly and unspeakably one, as Daniels put it.
The whole book of Acts is really the story of how the circle of faith became bigger and bigger in those first years, becoming more and more inclusive. Those early disciples of Jesus were having to let go of so many of the ideas they had about how God’s love transcended differences.
This early movement toward a more inclusive church—it wasn’t easy. It didn’t come without struggle. It reflected the transformation of the whole community, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Then—and now—we go forward as the church. There may be individuals who lead the way, but we aren’t expected to go it alone. We live our faith as a community. Even now, we’re always learning more—together—about what it means to be disciples of Christ. That’s what being church is all about.
In the Gospel we heard, Jesus is preparing his people to go on without him. He promises them an Advocate—that’s the Holy Spirit—who will stay with them, to teach them and lead them.
May the Spirit who inspired Peter to baptize Gentiles in the first century, who empowered Jonathan Daniels to lay down his own life that others might live in the 20th, be with us and our church in the 21st, so that we might love one another, and bear fruit that lasts, as Jesus commanded. Amen.
Preached for the Church of the Ascension in Parkesburg, PA.
[i] Information about Jonathan Daniels is drawn from these sources:
“Remembering Jonathan Daniels 50 years after his martyrdom.” Episcopal News Service, Aug. 13, 2015. https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2015/08/13/remembering-jonathan-daniels-50-years-after-his-martyrdom/. Accessed May 7, 2021.
“Jonathan Daniels, 1939-1965.” https://episcopalarchives.org/church-awakens/exhibits/show/leadership/clergy/daniels. Accessed May 7, 2021.
[ii] “Black civil rights activist recalls white ally who took a shotgun blast for her.” The Washington Post, Aug. 16, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/black-civil-rights-activist-recalls-white-ally-who-took-a-shotgun-blast-for-her/2015/08/16/4e562dd8-3b74-11e5-8e98-115a3cf7d7ae_story.html. Accessed May 8, 2021.
[iii] “But My Heart Is Black,” Jonathan Myrick Daniels. Episcopal Archives. fb203f5884f1b1aa87a849938337df3f.pdf (episcopalarchives.org). Accessed May 8, 2021.
[iv] “Jonathan Daniels, 1939-1965.” https://episcopalarchives.org/church-awakens/exhibits/show/leadership/clergy/daniels