|Even those of you who are ignoramuses when it comes to American history have heard the name of the notorious Chicago mobster, Al Capone. But you may not have heard of his attorney, Easy Eddie, who was the skillful genius who helped Capone amass a financial empire, overseeing his entire evil operation, from bootlegging liquor, to prostitution and even murder. Easy Eddie, as you can imagine, was well-recompensed for his labors and became a rich man himself. His entire life was devoted to keeping Al Capone out of jail, yet he opened his heart wide enough to enjoy one particular blessing, his love for his only son, whom he showered with affection and a privileged upbringing. Indeed, Easy Eddie’s love for his son birthed a strange disconnect in his life: while he was paying off the judges and police of Chicago to keep Al out of jail, his son was starring at private boarding schools and preparing for a life of military service by winning an appointment to the U. S. Naval Academy. Somewhere along the narrative of his life, Easy Eddie decided to change his story. Having long turned a blind eye to the atrocities of Capone’s machine, he became an informant for the Internal Revenue Service, and his overt testimony against Capone was essential to the mobster’s conviction for tax evasion in 1934 and his being sent to prison. Skeptics say that Easy Eddie turned state’s evidence because he could see that Capone’s escapades would land him in jail anyway. Others suggest that Easy Eddie’s prime motivation for turning against Al Capone was to regain integrity in his son’s eyes and to redeem his public reputation so that his son’s future would not be jeopardized. I lean toward the latter explanation, for Easy Eddie knew what price he would pay for betraying the trust of a vicious man. Indeed, whatever his motivation, Easy Eddie paid the ultimate price for his change of heart: he was gunned down in 1937.
Hold that little tidbit of American history in abeyance momentarily while I tell you a little real-life parable. If you understand this simple parable, then you understand everything that I am trying to convey this morning. The parable comes from many years ago, when I spent time at the Apple Tree Group Camp during a church camping and river rafting trip and observed the behavior of three little girls, Sarah, Farrah, and Janie, ages three, five and three, respectively. Sarah loved to catch bugs, any kind of bugs, and she found to her amazement and wonder that at dusk our camp was suddenly graced with hundreds of lightning bugs. She began squealing with delight as she ran around trying to capture a few of the fireflies. To her amazement, her friend Farrah came running to her side with a little butterfly net; she, too, loved to catch bugs and was likewise delightedly squealing. They were laughing in pure joy over having so much fun catching lightning bugs. Two squealers became one corporate squeal, not only because they were sharing the wonder of catching lightning bugs, but they were also sharing the wonder that somebody else shared their wonder. Yet, for all of their joy, their delight felt incomplete. Their happiness could not be full until they could go find the tent of their mutual buddy Janie, and invite her to squeal and catch bugs with them, too. The three of them ran around catching lightning bugs in pure joy, squealing at a level likely to be heard by dogs miles away. If you understand this parable, my friends, you grasp the tri-part impact of Christ’s Gospel. First, God has created us to take delight in experiencing the reality of the Gospel’s redemptive grace. Second, God has created us to take delight in realizing that others take the same delight in experiencing God’s grace that we do. But third, in sharing delight with others, our joy is incomplete unless we act on the inner compulsion to go find others and invite them to open their story to the redemptive story of God, so that they might take delight in experiencing God’s redemptive grace, too.
Two basic concepts of our Gospel are interrelated, and we are considering them in successive weeks. We asked last week, “What is our concept of God?” We ask this morning, “What is the story of our lives?” Last week we noted how Paul suddenly had his concept of God changed. He had originally believed that God was to be approached through the Mosaic Law. But the more he tried to approach God through subservience to that Law, the more he became overwhelmed by his intense awareness of his unrighteousness. Guilt and remorse overcame him. He felt more estranged from God than ever. Then Paul’s concept of God changed. He discovered that God was working in the world through Christ to build a bridge that spanned the chasm of alienation between unrighteous humanity and the pure holiness of God. This was a bridge that humanity could not build, but God through Christ could do so. God through Christ justified us, accepted us, and built a bridge from the divine to the human so that all we had to do was walk across that bridge and accept God’s acceptance of us. When Paul realized that God was actively involved in history, reconciling humanity unto God’s self, then not only was his concept of God radically altered, but the story of his life was radically enlarged as well.
You see, the apostle Paul grew up as a Pharisee of Pharisees, trained by the famed Gamaliel, dedicated to the keeping the Mosaic Law and observing all Temple rules. But having had his concept of God changed, he now knew that none of those acts effected true righteousness before God. Now he knew that he was freed for personal relationship with the divine. But when he entered into this relationship with the divine, he consequentially had to begin caring about people for whom he had never given a second thought. Now this Pharisee of Pharisees found, ironically, that God’s Spirit summoned him to begin an active ministry of sharing God’s Good News with Gentiles, both the cultured Greeks and the uncouth pagan barbarians. Suddenly, Paul had to expand the scope and story of his life to pour himself out in behalf of people whom he had previously deemed outside God’s redemptive influence. He had to expand the story of his life to realize that these people who were ethnically and culturally different from him were nevertheless ripe to delight in the experience of God’s redemptive grace – just like he was. Suddenly, this Pharisee of Pharisees had to expand the story of his life and pour out the energy of his life to extend compassion upon a people he had always held in contempt. And so he declares, “I am under obligation to preach the Gospel to the Greeks and the barbarians, to the wise and the foolish.” He must share God’s Good News with the refined Greek philosophers and the uncouth pagans – all become part of the scope of Paul’s life and redemptive concern. In changing his concept of God, he had to change the concept of his life and realize that he was under obligation to share God’s redemptive story with everybody.
When we allow the Gospel of Jesus Christ to enter our souls, we must know that it is meant to enlarge the story of our lives. If Christ’s story grips us and Christ’s Spirit fills us, we can no longer live just for ourselves. We can no longer live just for our immediate family and our close circle of friends. We live under obligation to expand the story of our lives and take an interest in people to whom we have never given a second thought. We have a responsibility to share God’s Good News with people toward whom we have never had any compassion. When Christ’s story enters our lives, His Spirit enlarges the story of our lives to care about people we would otherwise consider alien to us. Does that involve risk? Absolutely. The book of Romans is filled with Paul’s anguish over how he has failed to communicate the glory of the Gospel with his own people. But having experienced Christ’s joy, he knows he is under obligation and spiritual compulsion to enlarge the story of his life and reach out to the Greeks and the pagans and to share news of God’s joy with them. And so we ask, how much has the story of Jesus Christ enlarged the story of our lives?
When I think of the family of God, I think of us as a people who have received Good News. And Good News is irrepressible. To receive Good News is to feel the urge to share it. No woman receives a beautiful diamond engagement ring and hides it. No grandparents receive a picture of their newest grandchild and put it away. No golfer finds a wonderful new golf course and keeps that knowledge to himself or herself. No! Good News is irrepressible. One of the great consequences of our wonderful church camping and river rafting trips is that it turns people into evangelists. Having experienced warm and meaningful community around the campfire and having shared the common delight of beholding the exquisite beauty of the mountains, people come home and find people they love and say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to come do this with us ! There is this great family of faith at Vineville Baptist Church, and you need to come experience their warmth.’ Good News is irrepressible, and if you have experienced the redemptive joy of Christ, we live under compulsion to recruit others to delight in what delights us. Having experienced Christ’s joy as God has connected us unto the divine love, we live under compulsion to help others have an opportunity to connect that joy, too.
Over the last few years a number of social analysts within the Christian community have bemoaned the fact that ours is no longer a church-going culture, that ours is a thoroughly secularized world. More recently, similar analysts have opined that those who lose contact with their church family during this pandemic era may never return to a community of faith. That is certainly a distinct possibility. But these uncertain times are also a time of great spiritual opportunity. There are dozens of people living around us who are not connected to anything, certainly not to any community related to matters of ultimate concern. Their lives cry out for a sense of belonging; they hunger for the same joy and sense of purpose and joy that delights and sustains members of the family of faith. Not all who feel that hunger and thirst will seek to satisfy it. But others are ripe for a word of invitation and inclusion. Does issuing that word of invitation and inclusion involve risk? Sure. But we are under obligation to share God’s Good News with those around us, and though some invitations to come sample our fellowship will fall on deaf ears, even those who don’t respond to our invitation immediately may come to regard it as a seed of interest that comes to fruition in their lives eventually.
How often do you ask yourself, ‘How large is the scope of my life’s story? How large is the vision that feeds my personality? How do I derive purpose and satisfaction? From what do I gain spiritual sustenance? Having delighted in the story of Christ, how delighted am I to share that delight with others?’ Jesus declares himself to be the “true vine.” None of us is naturally a part of Christ’s living vine. All of us are engrafted by God’s grace into this living vine that we might enjoy spiritual life. We delight in the experience of being engrafted into this living vine – it is the foundation of our salvation and the source of our spiritual nourishment. But, having been engrafted into Christ’s living vine and having delighted in the presence of others who have been engrafted, we are under obligation to go out into the world and find others who would also benefit from the same experience of grace. That is how the story of Christ becomes enlarged enough to encompass the world. When we open ourselves up to Christ’s story, we open ourselves up to care about the stories of others, and we thereby enlarge and enrich our own story immeasurably through caring about others’ lives. You might think, hey, I am just one person; the efforts of one single member in the entire body of Christ might not make that much of a difference, might not have that much impact upon others. But I tell you, you might be wrong.
You see, in World War II, there was a young fighter pilot assigned to protect a vital aircraft carrier in the South Pacific. His six-plane unit was entrusted with the responsibility of protecting the USS Lexington from Japanese bombers. However, when this young pilot took wing, he soon discovered that a nine-member Japanese bomber squadron was fast on its way toward the Lexington, and he was the only one in position to intercept. He dove into the Japanese squadron, seeking at the very least to break up their battle formation. In the process he shot down five planes and damaged another, forcing the attack group to retreat. None of the Japanese bombers reached the Lexington. That young pilot would soon be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for, in the words of the citation, he embarked “on one of the most daring, if not the most daring, single action in the history of combat aviation.” Without a doubt, this young man’s actions saved the lives of hundreds. But he was unable to enjoy the fruits of his award very long; he was shot down on a night mission over Gilbert Island in November of 1943. But you have heard his name: his name was Butch O’Hare. One of the busiest airports in the world, Chicago’s O’Hare Airport is named for him. And if you have ever walked through that airport, you may have walked past a replica of the plane that Butch O’Hare flew.
I suspect that you already know what I am about to say next. Butch O’Hare happened to be that only son of Al Capone’s lawyer, Easy Eddie. It may be that in witnessing his father’s willingness to change and enlarge the story of his life and reorient himself around the principle of integrity, his son was powerfully influenced to enlarge the story of his own life so that he would heroically lay down his life that others might live. For when we enlarge the story of our lives, we never know what infinite repercussions might ensue.