During World War II, sixteen million men and around three hundred fifty thousand women took up uniforms and fought across Europe, Africa, Asia, and the oceans of the world. Out of these, four hundred and thirty-one were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award given to those in the armed services. But on October 12, 1945, President Harry Truman stood on the White House lawn shaking hands with a recipient of this honor and said, “I’m proud of you. You really deserve this. I consider this a greater honor than being president.” The young man was given this award for his heroism and devotion to his fellow soldiers, officially saving the lives of seventy-five men of the 1st Battalion, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division.
And he did it without ever firing a shot. In fact, he didn’t even carry a gun.
Desmond Doss was born into a strict Seventh-Day Adventist family in Lynchburg, Virginia. As a child,
Desmond had been raised with a fervent belief in the Bible. When it came to the Ten Commandments, he applied them personally. During childhood his father had purchased a large framed picture at an auction. It portrayed the Ten Commandments with colorful illustrations. Next to the words, “Thou shalt not kill” was a drawing of Cain holding a club and standing over the body of his dead brother Abel. Little Desmond would look at that picture and ask, “Why did Cain kill Abel? How in the world could a brother do such a thing?” In Desmond’s mind, God said, “If you love me, you won’t kill.” With that picture firmly embedded in his mind, he determined that he would never take life.
When Pearl Harbor was bombed, Desmond was working at the Naval Shipyard in Newport News, Virginia. As a conscientious objector, Desmond could have gotten a religious deferment, but Desmond wanted to do more for his country. He enlisted as a conscientious objector and asked to be a medic. His refusal to carry a weapon, something that others feared might get Doss of themselves killed, and an insistence on going to church regularly drew the anger of his fellow soldiers. One went so far as to tell him, “Doss, as soon as we get into combat, I’ll make sure you won’t come back alive.” His commanding officers thought that a soldier without a weapon would be a liability and they tried to force him out by intimidation. When that didn’t work, they declared him mentally unfit and at one point, tried to court martial him for refusing a direct order which was to carry a gun. All attempts failed. He was determined to serve his country and determined to do it without carrying a weapon.
Once it the field, the quiet unassuming medic won friends by taking care of the other soldiers in his unit with a single-minded vision to love God by loving his neighbors. When they went into combat, Doss repeatedly risked his life, never hesitating to answer the cry for a medic in the middle of a firefight. According to a biographer,
The men in Desmond’s division were repeatedly trying to capture the Maeda Escarpment, an imposing rock face the soldiers called Hacksaw Ridge. After the company had secured the top of the cliff, the Americans were stunned when suddenly enemy forces rushed them in a vicious counterattack. Officers ordered an immediate retreat. Soldiers rushed to climb back down the steep cliff. All the soldiers except one.
Less than one third of the men made it back down. The rest lay wounded, scattered across enemy soil—abandoned and left for dead, if they weren’t already. One lone soldier disobeyed orders and charged back into the firefight to rescue as many of his men as he could, before he either collapsed or died trying. His iron determination and unflagging courage resulted in at least 75 lives saved that day, May 5, 1945, his Sabbath.
Eventually, Hacksaw Ridge was taken and three days after, Desmond was wounded when a grenade landed in the shell hole where he and two others were taking cover. Even with shrapnel in his leg and hip and a sniper’s bullet in his arm, he insisted that other soldiers be taken care of before him. Desmond was willing to risk dying in that moment so that another soldier could live. “After all, that’s what he read in his Bible. Such was the character demonstrated by Jesus Christ.”
For the Sake of Others
As we get ready for this week’s lesson, I want to recap the last few weeks. In the first week of our journey we talked about what it meant to engage with God on our journey and the second week, about being pliable in God’s hands so that we could be formed into the image of Christ. And last week, we talked about imitation, truly seeking to be like Jesus in thought and deed. All these ideas are precursors, ideas that set this last week in the first part of our series. All of theses ideas are done for a reason; they are done for the sake of others.
As we come back to our scripture this morning, we find the disciples standing on the side of a hill, worshiping and doubting Jesus. I find that interesting that Matthew included that detail, “but some doubted.” After all they had experienced and seen; they worshiped – they fell before Jesus on their faces in reverence, but they also doubted – they were hesitant to believe.
In this emotional mixture of adoration for Jesus and not being sure of what they were seeing, Jesus gives them a directive, something Christians have come to know as the Great Commission. In it, Jesus tells the disciples that they will (1) go, (2) make disciples, (3) baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and (4) teach the new disciples to obey the commandments of Jesus. This Great Commission has been the basis for Christian evangelism and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the basis for missional evangelism thanks to it being a favorite term of Hudson Taylor, renowned missionary to China in the eighteen hundreds. But I want you to notice something about this commission – it is not for our sake that we do this, but the sake of others. Nothing in the Great Commission calls us to do this for any other reason than the making of disciples for their sake. Everything that Jesus commands here (all written in the imperative or you must tense), is written with those in mind who have not yet become disciples. It is our task to be and then go make disciples.
A word about disciples; a disciple is not one who give intellectual ascent to an idea. In other words, it is not someone who simply gives lip service to following the teachings of their master. A disciple is someone who has deeply studied, deeply understood, and deeply lives by these teachings so that they are prepared to teach what they know and have lived. When we say that we are to embody the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we are saying that as disciples we live as Jesus lived, minister as Jesus ministered, die to ourselves as Jesus died to his own desires, and are resurrected to a new life immersed in ways and being of Jesus.
And we do all of this not for ourselves – though we certainly benefit from it – but we do it for the sake of Jesus’s mission and for those disciples that will come after us. I believe one of the greatest problems in the church today is that the church is living for itself today, living for its comfort today, living for its politics today, living for its idols – those things it has come to worship other than God – today. Because of this, we have seen over the course of the last half century, the decline of the church in the United States and the western world. Our churches live to make themselves happy today rather than living for the disciples of tomorrow. We have failed in the commission as a church because we have lived to make false disciples who embrace our comfort, our politics, and our idols to the death of the true church and the making of true disciples.
If we are to be true disciples – those who truly live into the Great Commission, those who live for the sake of others – we will have to die to self and be resurrected as a new people: people who engage with God in honest and fervent devotion, a people who are pliable to being molded and willing to embrace the imitation of Christ, a people who are willing to think of their faith as being for the sake of others. We need people who are willing to lay aside the weapons of warfare for this age and go into the world armed only with a devotion to being true disciples of Jesus and a desire to share it with others.