10 May 2020

The Easter Story is in the end about sacrifice. Etched on a million war memorials are the words from John’s Gospel “Greater love has no man than this but that a man lay down his life for his friends”. At our on line service last Sunday and next Sunday we are thinking not only about why Jesus died but why it was necessary for him to die. We find it difficult to get our heads round this and if it is any consolation the New Testament itself also struggles. It provides us with 4 illustrations or metaphors which we will look at next Sunday.

In the meantime here is a true story…

On the 31st of July 1941 the sirens sounded at Auschwitz indicating the escape of a prisoner. As a reprisal 10 of his fellow prisoners would die – a long slow starvation in a specially constructed concrete bunker. All day, tortured by sun, fear and hunger, the men waited as the German commandant and his Gestapo assistant walked between the ranks to select, quite arbitrarily, the chosen ten.

As the commandant pointed to one man, Francis Gajowniczek, Francis cried out “My poor wife and children”. At that moment the unimpressive figure of a man with sunken eyes and glasses in wire frames stepped out of line and took off his cap. “What does this Polish pig want?” asked the commandant. “I am a catholic priest. I want to die for that man. I am old. He has a wife and children…I have no one”, said Father Maximilian Kolbe. “Accepted”, retorted the commandant and moved on.

That night, nine men and one priest went to the starvation bunker. Normally they would tear each other apart like cannibals. Not so this time. While they had strength lying naked on the floor the men prayed and sang hymns. After two weeks three of the men and Father Maximilian were still alive and so on the 14th of August the remaining four were disposed of. At 12 50 pm, after two weeks in the starvation bunker and still conscious, the Polish priest was finally given an injection of phenol and died at the age of 47.

On the 10th of October 1982 in St Peter’s Square in Rome, Father Maximilian’s death was put into its proper perspective. Present in the crowd of 150,000 was Francis Gajowniczek, his wife, his children and his grandchildren – for indeed many had been saved by the death of that one man. The Pope, describing Father Maximilian’s death, said, “This was a victory over all the systems of contempt and hate in mankind – a victory like that won by our Lord Jesus Christ”.

Jesus’ victory was total: he died not just for one person but for us all. The Watergate conspirator Chuck Colson (Nixon’s hatchet man!) was the only member of that syndicate to serve time in prison. As a result of his prison experience, he became a committed Christian and founded the international Prison Fellowship. He visited a Christian prison in Brazil on one occasion which had the lowest rates of re-offending in the entire country. He was asked if he would like to see Death Row. He was taken to a cell block and the door was opened. Inside was a large crucifix: Jesus on the Cross. His guide whispered to him “He served time for all of us”.