“Pray that my love will be without limits.” –Saint Maximilian Kolbe in his last letter to his mother.
Father Maximilian Kolbe was forty-five years old in the early autumn of 1939 when the Nazis invaded his homeland. He was a Polish monk who founded the Knights of the Immaculate, a Franciscan order whose headquarters was in Niepokalanow, a village near Warsaw. There 762 priests and lay brothers lived in the largest friary in the world. Father Kolbe presided over Niepokalanow with a combination of industry, joy, love, and humor that made him beloved by the plain-spoken brethren there.
On September 1, 1939, the Nazi blitzkrieg broke over Poland. The skies above Niepokalanow were filled with bombers on their way east toward Warsaw. Soon however, Niepokalanow itself was the target. As flames roared in the night and glass shattered, the brothers in the friary prayed.
On September 19, a group of Germans arrived at Niepokalanow on motorcycles and arrested Father Kolbe and all but two of his friars. The monks were loaded into trucks, then into livestock wagons, and two days later arrived in Amtitz, a prison camp.
Within a few weeks the brothers were released from prison and headed back to the friary. Sensing the anxiety of some of the brothers, Father Kolbe gathered a group of them before a chalkboard. “I insist that you become saints,” Kolbe said with a smile, “and great saints! Does that surprise you? But remember, my children, that holiness is not a luxury, but a simple duty. It is Jesus who told us to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. So do not think it is such a difficult thing, Actually, it is a very simple mathematical problem.” On the blackboard he wrote “w = W,” grinning widely as he did so. “A very clear formula, don’t you agree? The little ‘w’ stands for my will, the capital ‘W’ for the will of God. When the two wills run counter to each other, you have the cross. Do you want to get rid of the cross? Then your will be identified with the will of God, who wants you to be saints. Isn’t that simple? Now all you must do is obey!”
At nine o’clock on the morning of February 17, Father Kolbe was arrested by the Nazi SS. After being held in Nazi prisons for several months, Father Kolbe was found guilty of the crime of publishing unapproved materials and sentenced to Auschwitz. Upon his arrival at the camp in May 1941, an SS officer informed him that the life expectancy of priests there was about a month.
Years of slim rations and overwork at Niepokalanow had already weakened Kolbe. Now, under the load of wood, he staggered and collapsed. Officers converged on him, kicking him with their shiny leather boots and beating him with whips. He was stretched out on a pile of wood, dealt fifty lashes; then shoved into a ditch, covered with branches, and left for dead. Miraculously Father Kolbe recovered from the beating and was later moved to another barracks and reassigned to different work. All the while he continued to minister to his fellow prisoners. As Father Kolbe would work with the prisoners he would raise his emaciated arm and make the sign of the cross. Each time he thought to himself,
The cross. Christ’s cross has triumphed over its enemies in every age. I believe, in the end, even in these darkest days of Poland, the cross will triumph over the swastika. I pray I can be faithful to that end.
One morning when Father Kolbe was roused from bed there was a tension in the air. After the roll call, Camp Commandant Fritsch ordered the dismissal of all but Barracks 14. While the rest of the camp went about its duties, the prisoners from Barracks 14 stood motionless in line. They waited, hours passed. The summer sun beat down. Some fainted and were dragged away. Some swayed in place but held on; those the SS officers beat with the butts of their guns. Father Kolbe, by some miracle, stayed on his feet, his posture as straight as his resolve.
By evening roll call the commandant was ready to levy sentence. The other prisoners had returned from their day of slave labor, now he could make a lesson out of the fate of this miserable barracks. Fritsch began to speak, the veins in his thick neck standing out with rage. “The fugitive has not been found,” he screamed. “Ten of you will die for him in the starvation bunker. Next time, twenty will be condemned.” The prisoners were terrified. There was nothing worse than the starvation bunker. Anything was better – death on the gallows, a bullet in the head at the Wall of Death, or even the gas chambers. All those were quick, even humane, compared to Nazi starvation, for they denied you water as well as food. The prisoners had heard stories from the starvation bunker in the basement of Barracks 11. They said the condemned didn’t even look like human beings after a day or two. They frightened even the guards.
Commandant Fritsch walked the rows of prisoners choosing the ten that he wanted to die. After the ten had been chosen the cry rang out, “My poor children! My wife! What will they do?” “Take off your shoes!” the commandant yelled at the condemned. Suddenly there was a commotion in the ranks. A prisoner had broken out of line, calling for the commandant. It was unheard of to leave the ranks, let alone address a Nazi officer; it was cause for execution. “What does this Polish pig want of me?” Fritsch yelled.
The prisoners gasped. It was their beloved Father Kolbe, the priest who shared his last crust, who comforted the dying, who heard their confessions and nourished their souls. Not Father Kolbe! The frail priest spoke softly, even calmly, to the Nazi butcher. “I would like to die in place of one of the men you condemned.” Fritsch stared at the prisoner #16670. “Why?” he snapped. Father Kolbe said, “I am an old man, sir, and good for nothing. My life will serve no purpose.” His ploy triggered the response he was hoping for. Fritsch asked, “In whose place do you want to die?” “For that one,” Kolbe responded, pointing to the weeping prisoner who had bemoaned his wife and children. Fritsch glanced at the weeping prisoner. He did look stronger than this tattered #16670 before him. For the first and last time, the commandant looked Kolbe in the eye. “Who are you?” he asked. The prisoner looked back at him, a strange fire in his dark eyes. “I am a Catholic priest.”
The commandant ordered his assistant to replace the weeping man with Father Kolbe and the men were led away to the starvation bunker. As the condemned men entered Barracks 11, guards roughly pushed them down the stairs to the basement. “Remove your clothes!” shouted an officer. Christ died on the cross naked, Father Kolbe thought as he took off his pants and thin shirt. “It is only fitting that I suffer as He suffered to gain the glory He gained.”
As the hours and days passed, however, the camp became aware of something extraordinary happening in the death cell. Past prisoners had spent their dying days howling, attacking one another, clawing the walls in a frenzy of despair.
But now, coming from the death box, those outside heard the faint sounds of singing. For this time the prisoners had a shepherd to gently lead them through the shadows of the valley of death, pointing them to the Great Shepherd. And perhaps for that reason Father Kolbe was the last to die.
On August 14, 1941, there were four prisoners still alive in the bunker, and it was needed for new occupants. A German doctor named Boch descended the steps of Barracks 11, four syringes in his hand. Several SS troopers and Brono Borgowiec were with him – the former to observe and the latter to carry out the bodies.
When they swung the bunker door open, there, in the light of their flashlight, they saw Father Kolbe, a living skeleton, propped against one wall. His head was inclined a bit to the left. He had a ghost of smile on his lips and his eyes wide open, fixed on some faraway vision. He did not move.
The other three prisoners were on the floor, unconscious but alive. The doctor took care of them first, then, in a moment, Father Kolbe was dead. (The above story was taken from Chuck Colson’s book, The Body.”
The story of Father Maximilian Kolbe embodies the teachings of love taught by Jesus. Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, than to lay down his life for his friends.” Father Kolbe was not a man who had a death wish, he was a man whose will was to respond to the needs of those around him as Jesus, his Savior, would respond. As a result, he offered his life for another. In our study for today I want to take us back to 1 John where we left off our study before the holidays came around. This morning we are going to take a long look at 1 John 3:11-24. Turn there and read with me.
11This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. 12Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. 13Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you. 14We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. 15Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him. 16This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 17If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? 18Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. 19This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence 20whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. 23And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. (1 John 3:11-24 NIV)
This is such a powerfully relevant section of God’s Word for you and for me as we seek to live in fellowship with Jesus day-in and day-out. John says that this is the message that we have heard from the beginning. What is the message? It is this: That we should love one another and that love is modeled for us in the life of Jesus.
In verses 12-16, John contrasts two lives, the lives of Cain and the life of Jesus. John says that we are not to be like Cain who killed his brother for selfish reasons, but that we are to imitate Jesus who laid down His life for you and for me. When we hear the story of Cain and how he murdered his brother contrasted with the story of Jesus and how He offered His life, a sinless, spotless, perfect life, for the lives of sinners like me – it is not hard to figure out that Jesus is the model that we should seek to emulate. It is the contrast of the life of hate and murder versus the life of love and self-sacrifice.
Even the most hard-hearted can easily conclude that it is more noble to emulate the life of love and self-sacrifice, but the rubber meets the road when we ask what is love? How is love to be lived out in everyday life? What does love look like in action?
Now that is a great question and one that demands our full attention, especially in this society where self-love is much more prominent than self-sacrifice. I would not presume to be able to instruct you on the finer tenets of love, but I would love to point you to God’s Word where we can find the intimate details of what love looks like in its fullest expression.
John is very specific in pointing to an event in history that fully captures the definition of love. John uses the phrase, “evn tou,tw”| (en touto), which literally means, “in this.” “In this we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” The NIV has translated the full phrase as follows,
16This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.
John did not get this model from a moment of brilliance. He did not think this idea up while he was working on a sermon. He had heard Jesus Himself speak of His willingness to lay down His life for His sheep when in John 10:11 He said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11 NIV)
Jesus went on to elaborate about His life and His willingness to give His life for those of us in need of forgiveness and a good shepherd when He said,
14″I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me-15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father-and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life-only to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father. (John 10:14-18 NIV)
John makes it clear for us that this is the model of love, the ultimate expression of love, that the world could forever point back to and know what love looks like when lived out in the life of a person.
This is a crucial lesson for us. A lesson that is crucial because in our day love takes so many forms, love has so many definitions, and many of them are mutants that have nothing to do with the expression of love given by Jesus. It is a crucial lesson for us on another front in that John says that our walk with Jesus can be judged by our willingness to live out His love in everyday life. The first lesson that John lays before us is the lesson of sacrifice.
John says that since Jesus was willing to literally give His life for us that we should be willing to give our lives for our brothers if the situation calls for it. John Stott writes, “The Cross is an example to copy, and not simply a revelation of love to admire.”
This is a lesson in love that is so foreign to us who live in America because rarely if ever do we hear stories of our neighbors or friends who have been called upon to face death for another person. This may be a foreign idea that is hard for us to grasp, but the fact of the matter is that we have brothers and sisters across the world who are being called upon each day to give their lives for the sake of the Gospel.
This is a good lesson for us to become familiar with because even though at the present time we may not be facing this predicament, we do not know what the future holds. There may come a time when you or I are faced with the question of life and death for the name and cause of Jesus. If we dismiss this scenario as something that God would never allow us to face in our lives then I can assure you that we will fail the test, if, or when, if it comes.
John goes on to point out an additional character trait of Jesus’ followers. Not only are we commanded to be willing to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters, but we are called to respond to those in need with Jesus’ love. John says in verses 17-18,
17If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? 18Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.
This is such a powerful section of God’s Word because it includes every single one of us. I have often heard, and I have said myself when I have seen wealthy folks give large sums of money to some ministry – “Wouldn’t it be great to be able to give like that!” John says, “If anyone has material possessions…” The New English Bible translates the same phrase as “If anyone has enough to live on and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?”
The Greek word which means, “material possessions” or “enough to live on” is used by Mark when he tells us the story of the offering being taken up while Jesus was present. Mark writes,
41Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. 43Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything-all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41-44 NIV)
Jesus shines the light of blessing upon a poor widow who didn’t have much of anything in this world, but who was willing to give what she had to God. It is so easy for me to look at those who have been blessed by God with material wealth and say “It would be such a blessing to be able to give like them if only I had the means to do so.” That is a cop out, a weak argument that won’t hold water. It is a blessing to give period. We are blessed by God with what we have whether it is much or little and we are commanded by God to live life with an open hand, a generous heart. John says that this is a real test of genuineness of our love for God.
John questions the presence of the love of God in the heart that is closed to those in need. John’s language is so vivid when he uses the phrase, “klei,sh| ta. spla,gcna” (kleise ta splagchna), to describe the person who sees someone in need and does nothing. The New International Version of the Bible has translated this phrase as “Has no pity,” but “to have no pity” is far too puny of a phrase for the idea that John is trying to convey. The Greek phrase means, “to shut up, or to lock up, one’s heart.” When any follower of Jesus who has enough to make it through today sees someone in need and locks up his heart to the person’s needs then how can the love of God be in him?
How many times have we seen someone in need and turned the key to our hearts? How many times have we seen someone in need and said, “Well, if they would just get a job then they wouldn’t be in that shape?” How many times have we seen someone in need and said, “What do you expect? Look at the their family, there is no way that they will ever make it out of their mess.” How many times have we seen someone in need and walked away never even giving them a second thought? John’s response is “How can the love of God be in such a person?”
In a very real way laying down our life for someone is much easier than having to pay attention and opening our hearts each day to those around us who are in need. When was the last time you were called upon to die for someone else? When was the last time you saw someone in need? Case closed.
God leads into our path every day those who are in need and we are commanded by Jesus to respond as He would respond – to give what we have. Opening our heart may mean giving an hour of our time to someone who is lonely and needing someone to talk to. Opening our heart may mean giving someone a ride to the doctor who doesn’t have any family around to help. Opening our heart may mean buying someone a sack of groceries who is hungry. Opening our heart may mean taking a kid under our wing who doesn’t have a daddy to attend his ballgames, offer man-to-man talks about life, or encourage him along the way. Opening our heart may mean helping someone financially when the bottom drops out of their life and they can’t make ends meet. The lists of opportunities to open our hearts is endless, but we need to know that He who calls us to respond to those in need will equip us with precisely what we need to respond. I will assure you that we will only be able to open our hearts when we begin to walk with the Lord each day. A Sunday morning commitment will never suffice.
Fred Craddock was speaking to a group of ministers one day when he said,
To give my life for Christ appears glorious. To pour myself out for others…to pay the ultimate price of martyrdom-I’ll do it. I’m ready, Lord, to go out in a blaze of glory. We think giving our all to the Lord is like taking a $1,000 bill and laying it on the table-’Here’s my life, Lord. I’m giving it all.’ But the reality for most of us is that he sends us to the bank and has us cash in the $1,000 for quarters. We go through life putting out 25 cents here and 50 cents there. Listen to the neighbor kid’s troubles instead of saying, ‘Get lost.’ Go to a committee meeting. Give a cup of water to a shaky old man in a nursing home. Usually giving our life to Christ isn’t glorious. It’s done in all those little acts of love, 25 cents at a time. It would be easy to go out in a flash of glory; it’s harder to live the Christian life little by little over the long haul. (Darryl Bell, Maple Grove, Minnesota, quoted in Leadership, Fall Quarter, 1984, p. 47)
What is truly amazing, the truest of all miracles, is that which can not be learned in a classroom or in a lesson etched across a blackboard, it can only be learned through experience. When we give of our lives to help those in need we are the true recipients of the blessing. I am not talking about a one-time act of self-sacrifice where a person says, “Well, I go to church and the preacher keeps telling me that I need to help those in need. I guess I will help that guy down the street who is going through a tough time.’ That kind of giving will get you nowhere. As a matter of fact, you will probably end up more miserable than you were before you gave. On the other hand, for those who surrender their will to the will of the Father and commit their lives to living a life of sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel – they will be blessed.
David Livingstone, the great missionary to Africa, once said,
People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. Can that be called a sacrifice that is simply acknowledging a great debt we owe to our God, which we can never repay? Is that a sacrifice which brings its own reward in healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny? It is emphatically no sacrifice. Rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, danger, foregoing the common conveniences of this life-these may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing compared with the glory which shall later be revealed in and through us. I never made a sacrifice. Of this we ought not to talk, when we remember the great sacrifice which He made who left His Father’s throne on high to give Himself for us.
David Livingstone never made a sacrifice? If you were to study the life of Dr. Livingstone you would probably come to a different conclusion, but Dr. Livingstone was able to say that what others saw as a sacrifice he saw as a privilege. Dr. Livingstone understood John’s lesson in sacrificial love lived out in everyday life.
In verses 18-20, John encourages us once again by saying,
18Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. 19This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence 20whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
It is interesting to ponder John’s instructions for us to not love with words or tongue, but with actions and in truth. There seems to be a division in the Body of Christ that goes back to the days of the great debate between the more liberal churches and the more conservative churches. Most of you probably aren’t even aware of the debate, but it is important to know so that we can avoid the mistakes both sides made in their effort to be “right.” The more liberal churches believed that the “social Gospel” was the epitome of Christianity. What we need to do is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and meet the needs of the poor and we would be right with God. There was no urgency to winning people to Christ. The more conservative churches believed that this was missing the mark. What really needed to take place was evangelism, reaching people for Christ, not being concerned with everyday needs. Both sides were wrong. It is not an either/or proposition my friend. We are to do both.
We are called to live sacrificially in sharing the Gospel with all people. Your voice and mine will be heard much clearer if we are willing to weep with those who weep and share in their deepest hurts. By doing so we will be able to share the love of Jesus with them in a powerful and lasting way.
There is a wonderful blessing that rises up from loving our brothers and sisters in a sacrificial way – we will be reassured that we belong to the Lord and we will be at rest in God’s presence. What a comforting word. I know folks that, because of their lifestyle, they are uncomfortable in the presence of Christians much less God Himself. When we choose to live sacrificially and love our brothers and sisters then we will be at rest, peace will permeate our souls, and we will have confidence that we belong to the Lord.
John uses an interesting word to reassure us that we can know beyond a shadow of doubt that we are the Lords. John says we can know that we are the Lords if we love with actions and not merely with words. The Greek word for “know,” “gnwso,meqa” means, “know, have knowledge of, learn, understand; perceive, discern; recognize, be very certain, remember.” The word clearly points out to us that there is a certainty that we can possess that most believers miss out on. I can’t tell you how many people I have talked to who have said, “I hope that when I die I will go to heaven.” My friend you do not need to hope – you can know with certainty that you are God’s child and that His Kingdom is your home.
For us to have that certainty it is of greatest importance for us to receive Jesus as Lord and Savior of our lives and to walk intimately with Him each day. There is no room for an outward religious appearance while possessing a hard heart. There is no room for a form of godliness to be evident in your life and mine – we must abide in Christ.
Jesus said that in the end there will be many who have thought they have done good, even done good in His name, but that He will let them know that He never knew them. It is the same word John uses concerning our ability to know that we are God’s. Jesus said,
21″Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:21-23 NIV)
It is not enough to do good, we must do God’s will. For us to do God’s will we must walk with Him each and every day, listening to His voice while we study His Word.
Where do you stand today? Do you have the certainty that you are God’s child? That Christ had made your heart His home? If so, then do you see the evidence of His love being demonstrated in your daily life? Jesus commands us to pursue a lifestyle of imitation and not admiration. If you’ve never accepted Christ into your heart then won’t you invite Him in this morning?