(A message shared with the people of Friendship Church, July 31, 2005)
John Harper was a sort of 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 congregation in Chicago, there were 500 members there. (I envy that.)
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, looking for women, children, and those uncertain about where they would spend eternity, hoping to get them all safely on lifeboats.
“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 preaching 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.’That man was one of only six people plucked out of the water by the packed lifeboats. Harper was one of 1522 people who were left to die that horrible night. But at least one of the survivors owed his eternal life to John Harper’s faithful witness.
“The waves bore him away, but, strange to say, 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 been saved.’ He said again, ‘Believe [in] the Lord Jesus Christ and [you will] be saved,’ and shortly after he went down; and there, alone in the night, and with two miles of water under me, I believed...”
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 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 called 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 and 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 Bible lesson dictated the letter to the first-century church at Rome from which it’s taken. Early in that letter, Paul tells the Romans, “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel [the good news of life forever with God for all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ]; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek [which means everybody else].” (Romans 1:16-17)
Today’s Bible 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. Agonizing is better. It hurt Paul to think of anyone not knowing Jesus and facing the titanic questions of how to live and what will happen to them when they die without Christ at their sides.
Paul writes, “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. 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 their people, 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 that same sort of passion for Christ, anxious to find opportunities to present and live the good news about Jesus. But of course, it has to be done with the right motives and the right sensitivity.
Years ago, when I was in my teens, a neighbor called me on a Saturday afternoon. It surprised me because the guy had always pretty much ignored me. He asked if I were doing anything in the next few hours. Caught by surprise, I said, “No.” Long story short: He invited me to go with him to see a movie. It sounded 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 subterfuge. But I felt like he’d ambushed me.
As I sat there in the Ohio Theater in Columbus that summer’s day, I was seething with resentment through that whole movie. My neighbor’s sneaky invitation turned me against him and helped to turn me off for a long time against Jesus, especially after my neighbor high-pressured me into surrendering to Christ once the film was done.
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 Jesus Christ with them. And they don’t resent our asking them to worship with us.
I’ve told you before about something that happened in the life of 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 Jesus 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, he took a bus to Columbia and during these commutes, he struck up a friendship with a rabbi. They enjoyed one another’s company. Tryg was coming close to completing his degree requirements when he decided to ask God to give him the courage to tell his friend how important Jesus was in his life and to invite the rabbi too, to follow Jesus.
On the bus one day, Tryg told his friend that he would feel guilty if at some point in their daily conversations, he didn’t tell him about his best friend, Jesus, and ask him to follow Christ. 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? If He is, let’s ask Him to stir up our zeal for the well-being of our neighbors--all our neighbors--so that we too, can share with our friends what is most important: Jesus, the Messiah, God blessed forever. Amen!
[The true story of John Harper is from Perfect Illustrations for Every Topic and Occasion and is reprinted from "Sacrifice at Sea" by Elesha Coffman on christianhistory.net (August 11, 2000) and was adapted from The Titanic's Last Hero (Moody Press, 1997).]