A Protestant church was conducting a revival, or mission, one Sunday evening, and the pastor announced to his congregation that he had invited a visiting minister, one of his dearest childhood friends, to give the sermon that night. With that, an elderly man—whom we’ll call Rev. Petersen—stepped to the pulpit and said, “Once upon a time, a father, his teenage son, and his son’s friend, were sailing on the Pacific coast, when a terrible storm suddenly overtook them. Even though the father was an experienced sailor, the waves were so fierce and high he could not keep the boat upright, and all three of them were swept into the ocean as the boat overturned.” Rev. Petersen paused and made eye contact with many of those in the congregation, including two teenaged boys in the back who, for the first time since the service began, looked somewhat interested.
The visiting minister continued, “Grabbing a rescue line, the father had only seconds in which to make the most agonizing choice of his life: to which boy should he throw the other end of the line? He knew his son was a believer in Jesus and a good Christian, while his son’s friend was not, and was in fact living a very sinful life. The father cried out, ‘I love you, son!’ and then threw the lifeline to the other boy, whom he pulled back to the capsized boat. As the two survivors clung to the boat, they saw the son disappear beneath the waves—and his body was never recovered.” By this point, the two teenagers in the back pew were sitting up straight and hanging on every word. Rev. Petersen, his voice trembling, continued, “The father knew his son was ready to enter into eternal life with Jesus, but he couldn’t bear the thought of the other boy dying and perhaps being lost forever—so he sacrificed his son to save his son’s friend. And that, my dear people, is the message of this passage from St. John’s Gospel. How great is the love of the God that He should do the same for us. Our Heavenly Father sacrificed His only Son so we could be saved. I urge you to accept His offer to rescue you from sin and take hold of the lifeline He is throwing out to you in this service tonight.”
Rev. Petersen slowly sat down, and silence filled the church for a few minutes, before the service continued. Afterwards, the two teenagers approached the visiting minister, and one of them said very politely, “Sir, that was a very nice story, and we thank you for sharing it—but we were talking about it, and we don’t think it was very realistic for a father to give up his only son’s life in hopes the other boy would become a Christian.” Rev. Petersen responded, “Well, my lads, you’ve got a point there. It sure isn’t very realistic, is it? But coming here tonight and telling this story to all of you good people gives me some sense of what it must have been like for God the Father to sacrifice His Son Jesus for me. You see, I was the father in the story, and your pastor over there—he is my son’s friend” (William J. Bausch, 40 More Seasonal Homilies, p. 158). The story of salvation is not only meant to be a compelling one, but also a very personal one for each of us. Jesus came into a world darkened by sin and death in order to give His life, not just for the human race as a whole, but for each of us individually—and such an incredible sacrifice demands our wholehearted response.
St. Paul (Eph 2:4-10) tells us that God is rich in mercy, for even though we were dead in sin and rightly condemned for our offenses, He brought us to life with Christ, thereby showing us the immeasurable wealth of His grace and kindness. We for our part, says the apostle, must live a life of good works as an expression of our gratitude and of our desire that other sinners may also be saved. Jesus tells us in the Gospel (Jn 3:14-21) that if we are living in God’s grace, we are not afraid of the light of truth, and are happy to dwell therein; only those who choose to remain in sin prefer the darkness—a darkness which eventually leads to an eternity of hopelessness, spiritual self-destruction, and everlasting despair.
During the French Revolution some political prisoners were locked up in a dark dungeon. One of them happened to have a Bible, but there was only a tiny window near the ceiling, and for only a few minutes a day would a small ray of light enter in. The prisoners devised a plan in which they would lift up the Bible’s owner onto their shoulders, giving him just enough light to study the Scriptures for a short while. When the other prisoners lowered him down, they would eagerly ask, “Tell us, friend what did you read when you were in the light?” (R. Kent Hughes, 1001 Great Stories & Quotes, p. 255). This is the ministry or service you and I are called to provide for all the people we know, all those with whom we have any degree of influence, and even for strangers whom we encounter by chance. Because our society has become increasingly blinded by sin, filled with error, and smothered by selfishness, our example of integrity, compassion, and joyful hope—even in the face of danger and spiritual darkness—can truly make a difference in someone else’s life. Furthermore, our willingness to stand up for what we believe, to reject the false values of this world, and to remain faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, can make it easier for others to believe that God truly is merciful and that He does indeed love them so much He would send His own Son to die for their salvation.
Two teenagers who probably weren’t too happy to give up their Sunday evening in order to attend a religious revival service listened with great interest and attention to an elderly stranger who told a compelling story—and even though the young men found the point of the story hard to accept, the visiting minister’s words actually happened to have great credibility when it turned out they spoke of a sinful young man who converted and himself became a minister of the Gospel. It’s unlikely most of us will have personal stories quite so dramatic, but the truth of this Gospel passage is meant to be just as real in our lives. Jesus came that each of us might be saved, not condemned, and that through us the loving light of divine grace might touch many other lives. May we be ever grateful for the gift of salvation, and always generous in our response to our Savior.
REVEREND JOSEPH M. ESPER is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit and pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Anchorville, Michigan. He received his Master of Divinity degree from St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. Through the years, Father Joe has lectured at Marian conferences, appeared on EWTN, spoken on Catholic radio, and written more than a dozen articles for This Rock, The Priest, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and other publications. He is also the author of numerous books, including Saintly Solutions, More Saintly Solutions, After the Darkness, Lessons from the Lives of the Saints, and Why Is God Punishing Me? In addition to Amazon, many of his most recent books are available through Queenship Publishing.