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Saving Private Ryan, Smith, Jones and the rest of us
2nd April, 1999

By Rev Dr Gordon Moyes

My wife and I went rather reluctantly, to see the war film Saving Private Ryan. Reluctantly because of the violence and horror portrayed which makes some impact every time viewed. But we went because this was part of a true record of our history. Last week, Stephen Spielberg won an Oscar for his film which depicts the D-Day invasion landing of American soldiers on Omaha beach in 1944. The landing, the largest in history, led to horrendous loss of life. The current forced the landing craft onto the beach a kilometre away from the cleared area. The defensive obstacles were not cleared. The amphibious tanks giving them fire cover sank. The murderous German defense fire mowed them down. And many drowned in the incoming tide. The scene is violent, gruesome and unbearable.

The central plot concerns three brothers who have been killed in recent combat while a fourth may be alive behind enemy lines in Normandy. General George C. Marshall, hears of this, and turns to a letter written by Abraham Lincoln to Mrs. Bixby during the Civil War when her five sons had been killed. Abraham Lincoln promised no mother would again lose her entire family of sons. General George C. Marshall decides that the fourth brother must be found and returned home. The unfolding story is of a small team of eight soldiers charged to find and return Ryan even at the cost of their own lives.

Captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks, leads the rescue unit. Some died saving Private Ryan. The viewer lurches from one battle scene to another as the search for Private Ryan goes on.

We are spared nothing of the sacrifice, death and dark questioning whether it is all worthwhile. You ask "Is Private Ryan worth the cost?" When Private Ryan is eventually found, Captain Miller grimly says: "Earn this!" Private Ryan is returned home. The film concludes with Ryan, now an aged veteran, surveying a Normandy war cemetery, with its unending lines of gravestones. As Ryan views the stones his memories and insights are sharpened by the horror of it all. He falls to the ground at the foot of a memorial cross, in tears and wonders if he has earned this sacrifice and turns and asks his family members who have accompanied him, "Have I been good? Have I been worth the sacrifice?" His family, like people at a funeral, try to reassure him that his life has been good and that the sacrifice was worthwhile. But Private Ryan, in mature years, knows that there was nothing he could ever have done to earn his life. There was nothing in him that made him worthwhile.

The question for us is, is one's life of such value to merit such sacrifice? The film raised for me a deep theological question: "Has my life, as it has been lived, been worthy of the sacrifice of Christ for me?" We stand beneath the Cross of Jesus, and wonder:

"Died He for me, who caused His Pain,
For Me, whom Him to death pursued?"

This is a profound question for each of us. When we confront the Cross and the Crucifixion we cannot but be deeply moved. Saving Private Ryan makes its own searing comment about the death of Jesus and invites our response. Have you earned it? Has your life been worth it?

How we respond to the death of Jesus will say something very deep about our understanding of His sacrifice. That sacrifice continues to influence our lifestyle until the end of our lives. But the Bible actually raises both issues: have you earned this? Has your life been worth this sacrifice? Some people believe their good deeds since which have pleased God has earned their salvation. Others, much more humble, believe they could never be worth the sacrifice of His Son. Both of these views are wrong! The Bible makes it clear when it over-turns our common values.


One hymn writer put it very clearly:

"Not the labour of my hands,
Can fulfil Thy Law's demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone:
Thou must save and Thou alone."

There is nothing we can do to earn his sacrifice. Paul put it clearly in his letter to the Ephesians: EPH 2: 4But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved. 6And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus." Paul wants to emphasize that God "made us alive with Christ". Through His resurrection Christ has also raised from the dead all who are incorporated in Him by faith. This is the first of three verbs in verses 5-6 that describe what God has done in Christ for every Christian.

Paul declares that when we were spiritually dead in transgressions and sins, God gave us new life together with Christ. The life Christians now possess is the result of Christ's resurrection. This is all of God's grace. This is the central idea of Paul's whole theology

God has raised us up with Christ. Christ was not only raised; he actually left the tomb and appeared to his disciples. He then was raised to the heavenly realms. Likewise God has raised us from the dead and will also enthrone us with Christ. The resurrection of Jesus anticipates our resurrection and glorification at the end of the age. Not only that, but even now we share in the risen life in Christ and participate with Him in his ascended majesty. (Col 3:1-4)

We owe our salvation entirely to the undeserved favour of God. Even our faith is not a product of our own good living, but is itself evoked by the Holy Spirit. Lest faith should be in any way misinterpreted as man's contribution to his own salvation, Paul immediately adds a rider to explain that nothing is of our own doing but everything is in the gift of God. Barclay translates: "The whole process comes from nothing that we have done or could do." Paul excludes every possibility of a self-achieved salvation. V8 "and this is not from yourselves, ..not by works." It is to prevent the slightest self-congratulation or boasting. Nothing we can ever do can earn our salvation. Private Ryan cannot earn it. Neither can Private Smith, Jones or the rest of us. As the Bible says: "There is none righteous, no, not one!" There is nothing we can do to earn His sacrifice.


This is the amazing thing. In spite of every-thing you are, have ever thought and done, God still thinks you are worth the sacrifice of His Son. Even though we once rejected God, God graciously accepts us in Christ. Though God cannot approve of our sin if He is to remain righteous, God is not hostile toward those He has created. He loves us and has made possible our reconciliation to Himself. For "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that who-so-ever believes in Him, should not perish but have everlasting life." His love led to mercy and compassion for the helpless. Even though it might be only one sheep that had strayed and was lost, God still thought it worth sending his Son to seek and save it. So with us, even at the cost of His own Son's life, God sent His Son to seek and to save the lost! That is almost incomprehensible! Such is the inexhaustible mercy in the loving heart of God.

8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--9not by works, so that no one can boast." When we stand beneath the Cross of Jesus, and consider His sacrifice to save us, Private Ryan, Smith, Jones and the rest of us, we can do nothing but thrown ourselves at the foot of the Cross and ask: "Have I been good? Have I been worth the sacrifice?"

The answer is, you may have been good, but your goodness is not what saved you. It was the loving mercy of Another who laid down his life so you could be saved. Have you been worth the sacrifice? Yes, but not because of anything you are or have done. You are worth the sacrifice because God loves you.

God loves you so much that He gave His only Son to die in your place. All you can do is to throw yourself upon God's love for you and accept the gracious act of Christ's death in your place by faith.

But you will also endeavour from now on, to ensure your life will be lived in obedience and pleasing God. You will want to earn it, but no amount of righteous living or charitable acts or meritorious conduct can do that. All you can do is to receive it with thanksgiving.

That is why on Good Friday, Christians stand at the foot of the Cross and say:

"Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood,
Sealed my pardon with His blood:
Hallelujah! What a Saviour!"

Private Ryan. Smith. Jones. Or whatever your name. You have no rank, no status, no significance of your own. But God thinks you are worth it! Respond to Him with gratitude and thanksgiving!

Rev Dr Gordon Moyes


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