John Harper was a sort of child prodigy. A Scotsman born in 1872, he came to faith in Jesus Christ at the age of thirteen and within four years, he’d begun getting notice as a convincing preacher with a passion for helping people to know and follow Christ.
In 1896, he started a church in London. Beginning with a core of 25 people, thirteen years later, when he left to become pastor of a church in Chicago, the London church had 500 members.
In 1912, Harper and his six year old daughter took a trip on the maiden voyage of the HMS Titanic. When the Titanic hit an iceberg and began to sink, John Harper made sure that his little girl got safely onto a lifeboat and then began running up and down all the decks of the ship. He looked for women, children to get onto lifeboats. He also looks for those uncertain about where they would spend eternity, hoping to incite them to throw themselves into the arms of risen, life-giving Jesus.
“Survivors report that he began...” telling anyone who would listen that eternal life belongs to all who will turn away from their sin and trust Jesus Christ with their lives. “He continued [telling others about Christ] even after he had jumped into the water and was clinging to a piece of wreckage (he’d already given his lifejacket to another man.)”
Four years later, Harper’s final moments were recounted by a Titanic survivor at a large public gathering in Hamilton, Ontario: “When I was drifting alone on a spar that awful night,” said the man, “the tide brought Mr. Harper..., also on a piece of wreck, near me. ‘Man,’ he said, ‘are you saved [from sin and death by Christ]?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I am not.’ He replied, ‘Believe [in] the Lord Jesus Christ and [you will] be saved.’
“The waves bore him away, but…brought him back a little later, and he [asked if I had allowed Christ to save me yet]...’No,’ I said, ‘I cannot honestly say...[that I have…].’ He said again, ‘Believe [in…] Jesus Christ…’ and shortly after he went down; and there, alone in the night, and with two miles of water under me, I believed...”
That man was one of only six people plucked out of the water by the packed lifeboats. Harper, on the other hand, at age 40, was one of 1522 people who were left to die that horrible night. But, as we see, at least one of the survivors owed his eternal life to John Harper’s faithful witness.
For Harper, dying was not the most frightening prospect he faced as the Titanic sank; the most frightening prospect was for the thousands who surrounded him to enter eternity without believing in Jesus Christ as the advocate Who covered their sins and charitably gave them a place in God’s kingdom.
Do you and I have that same passion, that same zeal, for those who are living this life apart from the empowering presence of Jesus?
Do we ever give a thought to the thousands of people immediately around us who, day in and day out, try to live life without the lifeboat of Jesus Christ to see them through good and bad times?
Do we really care about all those who haven’t sensed that they can call out to Jesus to save them from their sins, from death, from everlasting separation from God?
Sometimes, I’m afraid, I’m so bent on just getting through my day and I so desire to “get along” with others, that I allow my passion and my love for my neighbors to be forgotten. I don’t tell them about Jesus.
Shame on me for that!
Shame on me for lacking the passion of a John Harper!
This was the passion with which the writer of today’s second Bible lesson dictated the letter to the first-century church at Rome from which it’s taken.
Early in that letter, the apostle Paul tells the Romans, in a passage I also mentioned last week: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. [A gentile being every other human being who isn’t a Jew].” (Romans 1:16)
The gospel, the good news of new life for all who repent and believe in the crucified and risen Jesus, this gospel, Paul is saying, is God’s one and only way of changing a person’s eternal destiny from the death and condemnation for which we are ticketed from birth, to eternal life with God.
Today’s second lesson, from a later chapter in Romans, finds Paul contemplating his fellow Jews who had rejected Jesus. Contemplating is too tame a word to describe what Paul is doing. Paul really wasn't a tame man. Agonizing is a better way to describe his ruminating about his fellow Jews.
It hurt Paul to think of anyone not knowing Jesus and facing the titanic questions of how to live in this world and what will happen to them when they die without Christ at their sides. He dreaded the thought of any one, especially his Jewish kindred, entering a Christ-less eternity!
Paul writes, “I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs [The patriarchs being Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob], and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah [Jesus, Himself, also by God’s choice, born into this world as a descendant of Abraham], who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.” (Romans 9:1-5)
In this passionate passage, Paul was pleading with the non-Jews among the Christian believers in Rome to never forget his fellow Jews. It was the Jews, he said, who first bore testimony about the gracious God Who came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ. They shouldn’t be written off or ignored, Paul argues. They too, need Jesus.
As John Harper knew on that fateful night in April, 1912, you and I who follow Jesus Christ are called to live with passion for Christ, anxious to find opportunities to present and live the good news about Jesus, so that none of our neighbors will die condemned for their sin.
We believe that “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son does not have life.” (1 John 5:11-12)
And we believe of Jesus what the apostles taught when standing before hostile authorities: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
But of course, sharing this good news--this gospel--must be done with the right motives and the right sensitivity.
When I was in my teens, a neighbor called me on a Saturday afternoon. It surprised me because the guy rarely had much to do with me. He asked if I was doing anything in the next few hours. Caught by surprise, I said, “No.” He invited me to go with him to see a movie. The title made it sound like a comedy, but turned out to be an evangelistic drama.
I might have gone willingly with the guy had his invitation been forthright and honest, even without his deception.
But, as it was, I felt like he’d ambushed me.
As I sat there in the Ohio Theater in Columbus that day, I was seething with resentment. My neighbor’s sneaky invitation turned me against him and only buttressed my resistance to Jesus.
My resentment was heightened after my neighbor tried to high-pressure me once the film was completed and someone had come out onto the stage to issue an evangelistic invitation, into surrendering to Christ as we sat in the theater following the film.
When our motive is genuine concern for others though, I have found that people don’t object to our putting in a good word for Christ.
I’ve told some of you about what happened one day with one of my favorite seminary professors, Trygve Skarsten.
Tryg was the son of Norwegian immigrants and he grew up in New York City, where as a teen, he was a member of a gang. In his late teens though, no doubt as the result of the patient praying and quiet witness of his parents, Tryg gave his life to Christ and went off to college and then seminary.
After serving as a pastor for a few years, he went back to New York to get a doctorate in New Testament studies at Columbia University. Every day while enrolled there, Tryg took a bus to Columbia’s campus.
During these commutes, he struck up a friendship with a rabbi, also a daily rider on the bus. They enjoyed one another’s company. Tryg was coming close to completing his degree requirements when he asked God to give him the courage to tell his rabbi friend about how important Jesus was in his life and to invite the rabbi to follow Jesus too.
On the bus shortly after he'd started praying, Tryg told his friend that he would feel guilty if at some point in their few remaining daily conversations, he didn’t tell him about his own relationship with Jesus, and ask his friend to follow Christ, too.
The rabbi smiled at Tryg and replied honestly, “My friend, I can't take you up on your offer. But I am deeply touched; only someone with great love in his heart would share what is most precious to him with his friend.”
Is Jesus the most important Person in our lives?
Is He the most precious thing we have, the best thing we can share with our friends?
If Jesus is any of these things to us, let’s ask Him to stir up our zeal for the eternal well-being of our neighbors--all of our neighbors--so that we too, can share with them what is most important to us, what is most precious in all times and in all places: Jesus, the Savior, the Messiah, God-in-the-flesh, our King. Amen!
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This is the text for the worship message yesterday morning. A slightly different version of this was shared with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, in 2008.]