Greater love hath no man ...
Death on the river Kwai
Can anyone tell me where the river Kwai is? It is in Thailand; and is most famous in this country for one thing – its bridge. A famous film called The Bridge on the River Kwai came out in 1957. Some of you may have seen it. It is a war film; it tells the story of a group of British prisoners of war who were made to do forced labour by their Japanese captors, the task being to build a railway bridge over what is a major river.
Some years ago, during a holiday, I visited the site of that bridge. There was also a war museum not far away, which had been created to remind visitors such as myself of the horrors of the prisoner-of-war camp which had housed the soldiers who were building the bridge. We learned that the bridge was only part of the massive task of building a railway through the jungle to Burma, to the west: the prisoners were given one year to do this, whereas Japanese engineers had said it would take six. Conditions in the prison camp were atrocious. As well as being forced to work at an inhuman rate, prisoners were beaten, bayoneted, shot, drowned and beheaded on a whim. Those who remained alive faced death by starvation and disease. Around 16,000 prisoners of war died while working on the railway and the bridge.
The film about the bridge on the river Kwai has a very dramatic ending - a group of British soldiers who escape manage to blow it up, and so to set the Japanese back many months. But I want to tell you about another event which took place one day at the camp.
The prisoners had returned from a long and heavy day's hard labour on the railway, and were lined up in the camp by a prison guard. He began to shout and shriek and scream at them, because when the tools were counted at the end of the day, a shovel was missing. The guard cocked his rifle and aimed it at the prisoners. He demanded to know who had stolen the shovel. The prisoners, half fainting from lack of food and the day's long hours in the blazing sun, stood silent.
The guard continued to rant and rave. Then he levelled his rifle, and threatened to execute all of them unless the guilty man owned up.
At that, one of the men calmly stepped forward and faced the guard. "I took the shovel," he said. "I hid it, hoping to use it later to aid my escape." The guard poured a torrent of abuse over the man, then began to beat him round the head with the rifle butt. When the man fell to the ground, the guard to proceeded to kick him viciously. When the man was a bloody pulp and barely conscious, the guard shot him through the head. Then the rest of the men were allowed back to their quarters.
Later that night, when the tools were counted again, nothing was missing. The full complement of tools, including all the shovels, was there.
Reading: John 15. 9-17
Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit - fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love one another.”
Did you gather what happened at the end of the story about the prisoners? One man gave up his life so that everyone else might be spared, even though he hadn’t actually taken the shovel himself.
When Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,” he knew that he was going to die. But that wasn’t all. The prisoner who gave up his life so that the others might live took the blame and paid a price he didn’t need to pay – but he chose to do so. And that is the real message of Jesus’ death on the cross: he took the blame for the sins of others and paid the ultimate price – a price he chose to pay, because of God’s love for the world.
This may all sound like a mystery, and indeed it is. But there are lots of things in this world we don’t fully understand in science and medicine, for example, as well as in matters of religion. Sometimes we just have to take it on trust; and as we go through life, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, as Jesus said, God gradually reveals to us more of the deep truths that lie at the heart of our world.