John 15:12-15 A Hero's Love (Memorial Day Message)
He died a hero. 21-year old Riley Howell of Waynesville, NC, an Environmental Studies major at UNCC, jumped on a 22-year old shooter who opened fire in their classroom on May 1st (2019) of this year. Howell’s attempt to stop the shooter delayed the shooter long enough for fellow students to escape--one other was killed and four students were injured--and gave law enforcement more time to respond. On the day of his funeral hundreds, described as having a flag in one hand and a tissue in the other, lined the streets of his hometown . The heart of Howell’s life was described as one whom you knew would take care of you from the first time you met him and he always did.
Memorial Day is about heroes. Memorial Day is a time to remember heroes-specifically those who are willing to die for a cause or for another. Following the War between the States, commonly referred to as the Civil War, widows, mothers, daughters, brothers, fathers, and community grievers on both sides determined that those who fought in the war should be remembered. Whether right or wrong, each had a cause. Some fought to free slaves, others fought to uphold slavery. Some fought for a union of states, others fought for states rights. Some fought for honor and glory, others fought for a salary, a decent pair of shoes or some others personal gain. Some, like a large number of Irishmen from New York and Boston, fought to learn the tactics of war to return to the Emerald Isle to wage a war of independence against England. They didn’t follow through after too many died and the fight was taken out of many others. For whatever purpose they fought, those who remained remembered those that died and called them heroes. Decoration Day in the South, Memorial Day in the North, became the Memorial Day that we honor today. We remember those who fought, not only in that civil war but also those who fought and died physically, emotionally, and, yes, spiritually in other wars—Spanish-American War, WWI, WWII, North Korea, Vietnam, and now the desert wars of Afghanistan and the Middle East. These we call heroes.
Superheroes like the Biblical Gideon, Barak, Samson, David are vital to the human story. In movie theaters this month, Avengers:Endgame ends a 22-movie saga that spanned more than a decade. Even before the film opened it was shattering ticket presale records. Humans need heroes even if they are comic book Aquaman, Iron Man, Captain America, Spider Man, Hulk or another. We know what is good, right, and true and, yet, we know we don’t live up to the image of God, the image in which we were created. So, from the human perspective, we need people to achieve the heroic.
However all earthly heroes fail our expectations. Pete Rose, the great baseball player, is denied space on the Hall of Fame ballot because of gambling on games in which he played or coached. Other heros, whether athletes, philosophers, artists, financial wizards, business moguls, political leaders, generals in war, and, yes, spiritual leaders have their flaws and failings. Yet, God has given to mankind a place of honor and a heart of heroism. It moves us to ask as did the Psalmist (Psalm 8:3--9) “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained; What is man that You take thought of him, and the son of man that You care for him? Yet You have made him a little lower than God, and You crown him with glory and majesty! You make him to rule over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen and also the beast of the field, the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea… O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!” Even in our failings--”for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), still He graces mankind in heroic endeavors.
Some heroism leads to death. It seems the good guys always make sacrifices, suffer pain, and, like the woman in the synagogue in San Diego who took a bullet for her rabbi in April of this year or the young man in a Colorado STEM school who saved many of his classmates, or Sgt. Tanner Stone Higgins, who grew up in Yantis and Sulphur Springs, a Ranger Team leader in on his third tour of duty when at the age of 23 was killed by enemy fire. Too many heroes die in their efforts.
However, He who came to give mankind life and life more abundant, the great hero, a perfect human, the author and finisher of our faith, the Son of the Only True God, Jesus Christ our Lord proves Himself the ultimate conqueror and is worthy of our total commitment in faith and hope. He did die for us. He took our place on the cross bearing our sin. His unblemished blood was poured out/His life emptied that we might receive forgiveness and be reborn with a renewed mind and transformed life. Yet, this One who died for us has risen from the grave in victory over the grave, death, and hell. His whole life was/is the revealing of God’s love for us.
The basis of action for any hero is love. Among those honored this Memorial Day are those who made the ultimate sacrifice based on their love of country, love of honor, love of discipline to carry out their task, and/or a love for securing a way of life. It might have been a selfish love or a selfless love. Yet, hear the words of Jesus: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” Let me illustrate this love motivation. He had been a drug dealer before his life was transformed. The birth of his son had been the slap in the face he needed to examine his life. As his life changed and moved forward and as his son grew, he became a handyman for an apartment complex. As he worked on the apartments, he was temporarily living in one that needed to be repaired. When the fire started, he sought to save his wife and son. When his wife reached safety, he went back into the apartment to bring out his son. The 3-year old child had hidden in a closet closing the door. The door to the closet was now stuck. The father’s valiant effort failed as he and the child died in the fire because he could not open the closet door. When I conducted the double funeral for this dad and his son, I reminded those present that love transforms our lives. Where this man failed, our Lord Jesus has not failed. The love of Jesus is evident in His care for others--healing the lepers, the blind, the lame, the sick. His compassion for the hurting and helpless is evident in time spent and words/teachings spoken. His putting up with the misunderstandings of His disciples and His directive to them to take the Good News of His resurrection to all the world are evidence of His great love. The cross on Golgotha Hill is the greatest evidence of His love. There He died in our place and in that act, according to what He says in our text read, He called us friends. In fact, Jesus is recorded in Matthew 12:50 as saying, “For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother.” We are His friends and family all in one. Such intimacy with our Lord Christ! Even when called a servant of our God as is Moses (Deuteronomy 34:5), Joshua (Joshua 24:29), David (Psalm 89:20) or calling ourselves His bond-slave as did the Apostle Paul in several of his letters to both churches and individuals (Titus 1:1; Romans 12:1) and Jerusalem’s Pastor James, the half-brother of Jesus, (James 1:1) writing in his practical letter to believers, we are well aware that the intimacy these shared with God gives evidence that the relationship isn’t feudal but family. As Abraham is called the friend of God (Isaiah 41:8), so we have access to Him. We no longer look longingly at God from a distance but we enter His presence to talk openly, honestly, intently about the concerns of the day, the plans for the day, the pains of the day, the praise of the day, the joys of the day. Jesus’ love in sacrifice and resurrection gives us a relationship that is intimate and not distant.
We are called to live the heroic life. Jesus commands His disciples/friends, “...that you love one another, just as I have loved you.” He then defines how He has loved us by laying down His life for those responding to Him. Love can only be defined by the action that it prompts. He has not called us to a love that is complacent. He has appointed His disciples/friends to bear fruit, “...I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain…” Bearing fruit in the Christ-life is the result of love for others. He has assured His disciples/friends of a unique/intimate relationship with the Father, “...so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you.” Our requests to the Father are to be requests born of love. Self-sacrifice is the high-water mark of love. And just remember that our request is made by we who bear the fruit produced as branches from the vine. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit for apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5). Heroes know the joy of doing the right thing. Heroes love. The Christ-life is lived in such a way that we leave no doubt what it means to love our fellow man. Even if it means sacrifice. The Apostle Paul asks (Romans 8:35), “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” If we are not separated from the love of our Christ as we make our way through the trials of life, we should live in such a way that dealing with adversity, food shortages, even having a lean closet (“Nakedness” was not exposure but insufficient dress) and martyrdom (“sword” as in citizen execution) is not feared-“For your sake we are being put to death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” (Psalm 44:22 found in Romans 8:36).
Are we willing to love in a manner as heroic as the manner in which Jesus loved(?); to give ourselves so completely to God that we give ourselves for others? (John 15:17)