"Jonathan and the Sixth Man"

(Heroes of Faith)

II Samuel 1:17-27; II Corinthians 8:1-12

The First Congregational Church, Columbus

June 29, 2003 -- 3rdnd Sunday after Pentecost

Rev. Ronald Botts, Preaching

On January 13, 1982 an airliner crashed into the icy waters of the Potomac River near Washington, D.C. Seventy-nine people were aboard the aircraft when it went down, and of that number, only five lived. Each of those survivors had something in common: they owed their life to another passenger whose identity still remains unknown.

Workers on a rescue helicopter reported that this sixth man repeatedly gave up his opportunity at the safety line in deference to the five others floating in the bitterly cold water. One by one they were taken away to safety but, by the time the `copter returned for him, he was gone. Seventy-three passengers had no chance whatsoever for survival; but he did, because of a decision he made, he was the 74th to die in that tragic accident.

When the helicopter pilot was interviewed later he described this individual as a brave and good man. "Imagine," said the rescue pilot, "he had just survived that horrible plane crash. The river was ice-cold and each minute brought him closer to death. He could have gone on the first trip but he put everyone else ahead of himself."

As we hear this story, we have to greatly admire this sixth man. A few minutes before he was seated comfortably on the plane. Perhaps he had been reading or thinking about his arrival and the family or friends who were awaiting him. Maybe he was just looking around at the other passengers with whom he happened to share this flight.

The plane was beginning a long, smooth descent into National airport. Then, all of a sudden, there must have been a terrible jerking, lights flickering, screams of terror, a rapid loss of altitude, followed by a tremendous impact. No one could have prepared himself for those moments or the ones which followed. Somehow he and a handful of others were thrown free from the sinking plane.

He didn't start out to be a hero that day, but that's how it ended. If the seeds of greatness weren't already planted inside of him, there's no way that he could have changed his nature in the blinking of an eye. What he did was very much who he was. He responded to crisis in much the same way as he must have lived.

The helicopter hovered overhead. A rescue chair was lowered toward him. Instead of taking it, though, he directed it to one of the others in the water. Four more times he had an opportunity to get in and be pulled to safety; four more times he allowed someone else, perhaps more injured, to have his chance. Then he must have succumbed himself to fatigue and that freezing water. Yet, even to the end, he made his own decisions and followed his conscience. He did what was needed of him without apparent hesitation.

What we do is important, but how we approach such things is equally so.

In his second letter to the young church at Corinth Paul urges the people not only to do what is right, but to do it with desire, "so that your eagerness can be matched by your completing it." Not only do it, Paul was saying, but desire to do it.

He especially makes his point in this letter in reference to generosity. The apostle lifts up the example of the congregation in Macedonia who, despite their own poverty, have given beyond their practical means for the relief of their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. In that same way Paul challenges the Corinthians to also be generous, recalling how Jesus "though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich."

Paul neither orders the people at Corinth to be generous nor sets an amount that he would like to see them give. Rather, he urges them to do the right thing and to do it with a right spirit. The result will then be both appropriate and sufficient. Desire is often the difference in overcoming the odds against success.

Of course desire alone can either be good or bad. All tyrants have desire, an eagerness how they go about governing. We can commit ourselves to lifting people up or tearing them down. That freedom of choice is ours. Paul knew that he couldn't coerce people to follow the better way, though he was straightforward in encouraging them in the right direction. He believed that if people knew the right path, they would likely take it.

Perhaps Paul looked back to the Hebrew scriptures for his examples of how men and women lives faithfully in the ways of God. Surely he knew the story of Jonathan son of King Saul, the crown prince, and a brave military commander. Yet, it is his relationship with David, a fellow soldier and later to be king himself, for which Jonathan may be best remembered. These two friends made a brotherly covenant between themselves and their love for each other was strong and genuine. If it were not for Jonathan's intervention with his unpredictable father, David may never have succeeded to the throne.

So strong was David's friendship with Jonathan, so deep his love, that when both Jonathan and his father were slain at Mt. Gilboa by the Philistines David was moved to compose the lament we have in our Old Testament reading this morning. It says, in part, "Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul… How the mighty have fallen in the midst of battle.! Jonathan lays slain upon your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love was wonderful, passing the love of women. How the mighty have fallen…."

Certainly for David his relationship with Jonathan was hardly a take-it-or leave-it matter. Either of the men would have sacrificed himself for the other. Their love for one another made a strong bond between them. What was done in the name of friendship was never measured in minimums, but was always undertaken to the maximum.

What enthusiasm do we bring to our living? What eagerness characterizes our faith? What sacrifices are we willing to make to serve a greater good? As to our Christian discipleship, are we prone to think of it in terms of the least we must do to get by or do we desire to do the most within our power?

When we affirm our belief, when we accept the way of a follower of Christ, when we covenant to be part of a faith community are we committing ourselves truly or only going halfway? And if not fully, where is the reluctance? Is it because God is unwilling to be our guide and strength or does the failing lie within us?

Life is a wonderful and grand adventure. We are given 24 hours each day to make the most of it. Hopefully we will have many years upon the face of the earth. But when our time is over, what will be remembered of us? Surely it won't be what we held back, but what we willingly committed of ourselves. It won't be our reluctance to give of ourselves, but our excesses of love and concern and generosity and sacrifice. These are what will be remembered.

Who was the "Sixth Man" aboard the airplane that day? His name will be forever unknown, but his actions will never be forgotten. Perhaps he was a fool to some, but to five strangers he made all the difference in the world. Maybe he wasn't a Christian but, if not, he did a most Christ-like thing.

That nameless man shows us the best we have in ourselves. He reveals what depth our own love can be. He inspires us to do our utmost with an eagerness born of conviction.

That nameless man is not without identity, for of him it can be truly said that here is a son of God.

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