“Earn this!”

Saving Private Ryan

Every Memorial Day we take time to remember those in the U.S. Military who have laid down their lives to defend our freedom.  And every Memorial Day I am reminded of the Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks film, “Saving Private Ryan.” As graphic and gripping as it is, it probably only begins to scratch the surface in its attempt to show the viewer the horrors of war and the terrible price that many in our military have paid to protect both our freedom and our lives.

Saving Private Ryan” is a fictional story about a rescue mission during World War II. With D-day having just occurred, the U.S. war department was overloaded with the grim task of writing letters home to notify thousands of American families that they had tragically lost their loved ones on the field of battle. Someone noticed that three of the letters were addressed to the same family – one family had lost three of their sons in one fell swoop. And that family was going to receive all three telegrams on the same day. It was soon discovered that there was a fourth son who might yet be alive, Private James Francis Ryan.

The idea of a rescue mission was briefly debated. Why risk possibly wasting the lives of an entire team for just one soldier? He was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne and had been dropped behind enemy lines, so it was anyone’s guess if he was even alive in the first place.  And he would not be easy to find even if he were alive.  But the decision was made to do whatever was possible to save the last Ryan son.  A team of soldiers, led by Captain John H. Miller (played by Tom Hanks), was sent behind enemy lines to locate and extract Private Ryan.  Their mission, though it seemed insignificant in comparison with the bigger picture of the war, was saving Private Ryan.

Spoiler alert: I am about to give away the ending.  If you have been waiting since 1998 to see this film, I apologize. (I promise that this will not ruin the movie for you.)  After a dangerous trek through enemy-occupied territory, and after suffering the loss of some of their own men, the team finally locates Ryan.  But before they can get him to safety, they have to join in a desperate last stand to hold a position against the German infantry. In the ensuing battle, Captain Miller is fatally wounded. Private Ryan rushes to his side, in shock to see the leader of his own rescue team dying right before his eyes. Captain Miller motions to him that he has something to say to him. When Ryan leans forward to listen, he says,

James, earn this. Earn it.” 

Those were his last words.

The movie then shifts back to where it opened, in the present-day, where James Ryan, now a Grandfather, is visiting Normandy, France with his family. He had been walking among the multitude of military grave markers until he found the one bearing the inscription “Capt. John H. Miller.”  He then looked up at his wife and said these haunting words, “Tell me I’ve led a good life. . . .Tell me I’m a good man.” What was he asking? With tears in his eyes, he wanted to know if he had done what Captain Miller had told him to do all those years ago. He wanted to know if he had ‘earned’ it. He wanted to know if his own life had been worthy of the death of Captain Miller and the other men who died trying to save him. Could he ever truly do enough to deserve that sacrifice?

Sometimes I think that is how we approach the Christian life.  Sometimes I think that is how we approach the Lord’s Supper too.  I think we busy ourselves trying to live up to what Christ did for us. We try to “earn” His sacrifice on our behalf, His death in our place.  We seem to forget that the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace.  It is given for our benefit. 

All too often we seem to make the Lord’s Supper all about our pledge of faithfulness to the Lord, rather than His sign and seal to us of His covenant love in the gospel.  And in so doing we approach the Lord’s table in such a way as to practically defeat the purpose for which it was given to us in the first place. But look at how 

The apostle Paul describes what we are doing when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. In 1 Corinthians 11:26 he writes,

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

When we partake of communion regularly together on the Lord’s Day, one of the things we are doing is reminding each other of (proclaiming to ourselves!) the gospel. We are reminding ourselves of Christ’s death on our behalf for our sins. So we need to hear (and see, touch, and taste!) the gospel on an ongoing basis! Why? Because we are always tempted to slide back into the “earn it” mentality of works-righteousness. We need constant reminders that our right standing before a holy God is based solely and completely on the work of Christ on our behalf.

And how long will we need these reminders? Paul answers that in v.26 as well. He says that we are to proclaim His death via the Lord’s Supper “until he comes.” We need the gospel proclaimed to us all of our lives!

Here is the clip from the movie:

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