One of the greatest war movies ever made was "Saving Private Ryan." It starred Tom Hanks as Captain John Miller, who played the leader of a platoon of men sent on a heroic journey to find and save Private James Ryan, played by Matt Damon. Private Ryan had already lost 3 of his brothers in combat, so the Army decided that he had to be saved, brought back and restored to his family. The movie follows their mission to find and save Private Ryan. Sadly, as the movie unfolds and comes to a climax, most of the men sent on this mission are killed in combat trying to save Private Ryan. In a tremendous and moving scene, near the end of the movie, Captain Miller is mortally wounded and spends his final moments with Private Ryan at his side. As he sits dying, Captain Miller looks at Private Ryan and gives him his last words—"Earn it." In his final breath, Captain Miller challenged Private Ryan to live a life worthy of the sacrifice that was made for him.
The final scene of this great movie is set in an American military cemetery in Europe where Captain Miller is buried, surrounded by thousands of other men who died in the war. Private Ryan was an old man now, near the end of his life. He had brought his family with him to Captain Miller's graveside. He remembered what Captain Miller and all the men had done for him in saving his life by giving their own. It was fresh in his mind as though it had just happened. He asked his wife if he had lived a good life. His wife did not understand what really had happened during the war. She never heard about Captain Miller's last word to her husband, "Earn it." She didn't understand the burden her husband had lived with all his life to live a life worthy of such a sacrifice.....to earn it. Such a scene is one of the greatest scenes ever filmed in movie history because of its meaning to all of us on this Memorial Day weekend.
You see, Captain Miller challenged Private Ryan with something that could never be earned by one person in the face of another's love and sacrifice for them. Private Ryan could never have "Earned it." There was nothing in this life or the next that could pay back Captain Miller and his men for their sacrifice and death for Private Ryan. Private Ryan's life was purchased by the blood of men that had given him a gift that could not be measured or earned. After all, how do you measure the value a human life? How do you put a price on something that is eternal in nature....a life? This movie raised so many amazing questions that are at the heart of our Memorial Day commemorations.
Now at the deepest level, this movie and Memorial Day are about the Bible's story of the Cross and the Lord's love for us. When the Lord Jesus died on the Cross for our sin, He fulfilled His own words from John 15:13,
Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
Our Lord's own words remind us that our lives and His life are the greatest and only gift we have to give to others. That life or gift cannot be measured or earned. No one can earn such a gift, such sacrifice or such love. Not a single person who has ever lived understands the value of the Cross or the life of the Son of God. The Bible calls such a sacrifice and gift grace. This grace is undeserved from beginning to end. Private Ryan never deserved one thing the men did for him. In a similar manner, none of us has ever deserved or even been able to fathom the love and value of the Cross for our sin. It is beyond us now and always will be.
Sadly, most people in America today are trying to "Earn it." Gallup polls over the years have demonstrated again and again that somewhere between 70-80% of the public really believes that "good people go to Heaven." In other words, people are going to make it to Heaven by something they do....."Earning it." Somewhere along the way, the Cross and its meaning are being lost. When that happens, we lose the concept of grace and the understanding of genuine thanksgiving and gratitude. When that happens, the Church is not a place of amazing grace, but a place for "good people" to hang out. In such a Church world, the focus increasingly becomes about us and what we want, not about sacrificial love for the Lord and others. The same is true in our nation, where a failure to fully understand the grace of a Memorial Day leads toward a diminishing of patriotism and fosters a sense of entitlement for the blessings we have as citizens. When an understanding and appreciation of real sacrifice, grace and love are removed from any church or a nation, things just fall apart as we are watching today all around us. Real love for the Lord and others is steadily replaced with a self love and growing narcissism.
In the end, the only thing that will bring true joy to life is experiencing a Biblical understanding of grace. When we fall on our knees and realize we can't "Earn It" we begin to live. When we realize that we can't merit or earn the Cross or the death of those we remember this Memorial Day weekend we begin to value the gift of life and the nation and freedoms we have been given. With that thought in mind, may we all stop this weekend and reflect on the Lord's sacrifice for us, His love and all the benefits He freely gives to each of us in this life and the next. May we remember and honor the countless lives that have been given in grace that we might live freely here in America. May we truly be the City on the Hill and point the world to our Lord and His amazing grace for us on the Cross that can never be earned.