No Greater Love…


The text for this sermon by Pastor Jim Kniseley is John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”  This sermon was presented on     July 1, 2007.  The display of flags lining the church driveway honors veterans living and dead who have served in the armed forces of our country.

Dear Friends in Christ,

Today we remember with gratitude and reverence those who have served in the armed forces of this nation and offered their lives on our behalf.  The scripture text for this sermon is  from today’s gospel reading, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”  I thank one of our member families for giving me this fine book, From Fields of Fire and Glory; Letters of the Civil War, by Rod Gragg.  It is one of those interactive books, containing letters that you can take out of a sleeve and see the photo of the original letter on one side and typed words on the other side.

After reading through this book and the many letters it contains, I purposefully went back and selected letters and stories that contain what I call “moments of grace.”  I was looking for times in the midst of war, suffering, terror, bloodshed and death, where there were rays of hope and acts of mercy and kindness: times when Christian love and mercy surfaced.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is well-remembered as the “Hero of Gettysburg” for so ably leading the 20th Maine in defending Little Round Top.  After the war he went on to serve 4 terms as governor of Maine and 13 years as president of Bowdoin College.  His letter in this book was written by him on June 19, 1864, when he thought he was dying, after being shot during the siege of Petersburg.  On the surgery table, he asked for a pencil and wrote these words to his wife, I am lying mortally wounded the Doctors think but my mind & heart are at peace.  Jesus Christ is my all-sufficient savior.  I go to him.  God bless & Keep & comfort you, precious one, you have been a precious wife to me.  To know & love you makes life & death beautiful.  Cherish the darlings & give my love to all the dear ones.  Do not grieve too much for me.  We shall all soon meet. Live for the children.  Give my dearest love to Father, mother and Sallie & John.  Oh how happy to feel yourself forgiven.  God bless you ever more precious one.

                                                                        Ever yours,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Lawrence

As you already know, , he didn’t die, one of the illustrations of  God’s grace in his life.  Here’s another:  he was selected to formally receive the surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s Army at Appomattox.  Lee and his troops were allowed to keep their horses and were not captured as enemies, instead asked to go home.  At the surrender, Chamberlain set an example of reconciliation by ordering the Northern troops to salute the defeated Southerners.

Another of you in this church gave me a copy of Mark Twain’s story, “The War Prayer.”  It contains an amazing message, especially for anyone who has the romantic notion that war is glorious and noble and enriching.  The setting is a Sunday morning service during the Civil War (we aren’t told if it is in the North or the South) and the church is filled and there is patriotic fervor in the rousing songs and prayers and sermon, getting folks all enthused for sending their soldiers to fight.  Then an aged stranger walks up the aisle and pushes the preacher aside and addresses the congregation:  “I come from the Throne, bearing a message from Almighty God…He has heard your prayer and will grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His Messenger, have explained to you its import.”

And the stranger goes on to explain that when the folks pray for victory there are many unmentioned results which must follow.  “You are asking God to help you tear the bodies of your enemies to shreds, to help you drown the thunder of their guns with shreds of their wounded, writhing in pain, to help you  wring the hearts of the unoffending widows with unavailing grief.  And you are asking God to do this in the spirit of love of Him who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all who are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts.  The stranger ends his message with these words:  “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it speak!  The messenger of the Most High Waits.”  Mark Twain concludes his story with these words: It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

Here is another story and letter from the Civil War.  On the first day of battle at Gettysburg, a Michigan soldier, Corporal Charles McConnell, shot Confederate  Lieutenant Colonel John Randolph Lane, and saw him drop, presumably to his death.  What happened was that the bullet entered the base of Lane’s  skull, passed through his neck muscles, narrowly missed his spinal cord and jugular vein, smashed his jaw, clipped a chunk from his tongue, and exit from his mouth, knocking out his front teeth.  Miraculously, Lane survived his wound and the war.  Decades later, he was introduced to McConnell, this soldier who shot him, who had become a successful Chicago pharmaceutical executive.  Although they had done their best to kill each other in battle, Lane and McConnell became friends.  In 1903, on the fortieth anniversary of Gettysburg, McConnell and Lane made a joint appearance at ceremonies on the battlefield where Lane was delivering a keynote speech.  Were they just being gracious or did they actually become friends?

Here is a letter that McConnell wrote to another old war friend.  The date is January 5, 1901.  Here is what he said in that letter about his old enemy and now friend: “I am intending to visit North Carolina and spend a few days with my dear old friend, Colonel Lane, who I thank God I didn’t kill!”

I leave you with a final moment of grace.  It took place not far from where we are right now.  On the banks of the Rapidan River,  It was evidence of a spiritual revival that took place among the soldiers on both sides, especially  in the years l862 and 1863.  A joint baptism was organized by Southern soldiers and a group of Northern troops on the opposite side of the Rapidan River took part.  In a spontaneous act, men from both sides joined in singing hymn at the water’s edge – forgetting for a fleeting moment the ways of war.

May the Lord help us all to work for peace in our day and never forget the lessons of war.