For ten years straight I helped lead High School age trail camps in the Eagle Cap Wilderness area of the Wallowa Mountains in Northeastern Oregon for the Christian Churches. After several years, during an evaluation session with other leaders, we came to the conclusion that our most successful camps were those that were held when the weather was the poorest. The difficulties that snow and rain presented (even in late August) led the campers to depend on each other more and work together better, resulting in a stronger sense of community.
In a much greater way, the challenges, danger and difficulties that soldiers face in military conflicts have led them to develop a closeness they would not have known otherwise. Tomorrow we remember one of those occasions. Sixty three years ago, on June 6, 1944, a mighty armada crossed a narrow strip of sea from England to Normandy and cracked the Nazi grip on Western Europe. The men who landed at Normandy and survived developed a remarkable bond.
One of the most haunting stories to come out of the 2nd World War of how community was brought about through sacrifice was told by Ernest Gordon, a British army officer who was captured by the Japanese and assigned to building the Burma-Siam railway. He tells in his book, To End All Wars, of joining a detail of prisoners to build a track bed through low-lying swamp land. If a prisoner appeared to lag, a guard would beat him to death or decapitate him. For most of the war, the prison camp had served as a laboratory of survival of the fittest, with every man for himself. Men lived like animals, and for a long time hate was the main motivation to stay alive.
But something happened to bring about a change. A guard discovered that a shovel was missing. When no one confessed to the theft, he screamed, "All die! All die!" and raised his rifle to fire at the first man in line. At that instant an enlisted man stepped forward and said, "I did it!" Enraged, the guard raised his rifle high in the air and brought the butt down upon his head in a crushing blow, killing him.
That evening when tools were inventoried again, the work crew discovered a mistake had been made: no shovel was missing. One of the prisoners remembered the verse, "Greater love has no man than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends." Attitudes in the camp began to shift. With no prompting, prisoners began looking out for each other rather than themselves. It was the beginning of community, a band of brothers (Philip Yancey, Christianity Today, September 2003).
"Communion" and "community" have the same root meaning. They mean fellowship, oneness and imply a group of people who work, laugh and cry together -- and sometimes, it is crying together that creates the strongest bonds. People who look out for each other, people who, as Paul says, "bear one another's burdens" become a band of brothers and sisters in Christ. Of course, it was the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf that brought our community of faith into being. Sin said, like that guard, "ALL DIE!" but Jesus said, "NO, I WILL DIE FOR ALL."
His sacrifice has brought us together, at this table, into this fellowship we call church, and we stay together as we take up our cross and follow him.