Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Lesson on the Love of God from 'The 15:17 to Paris'

From left to right: Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone

(First Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on February 18, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Genesis 9: 8-15; Psalm 25; 1 Peter 3: 18-22; Mark 1: 12-15.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: First Sunday of Lent 2018]

Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone have known each other for most of their lives.  They met when they were students at Freedom Christian School in Fair Oaks, California (near Sacramento).  Unfortunately they misbehaved quite a bit during their years at the school, and consequently each of them spent a great deal of time in the principal’s office.  But they all turned out okay, and after graduating from high school all three ended up joining different branches of the military.   In August of 2015, the three friends decided to meet in Europe for a little reunion and a well-deserved vacation.  It was during the course of that vacation—on August 21 to be exact—that these three American servicemen got on a train in Amsterdam that was bound for Paris.  They expected to have a relaxing, uneventful trip—but, as you know if you’ve seen the new Clint Eastwood-directed movie, The 15:17 to Paris, that’s not what they got!  What they got was a confrontation with a 25-year-old Moroccan terrorist, who had an assault rifle and nearly 300 rounds of ammunition on him.

Several people tried to stop the man when he initially attempted to take over the train, but they failed to do so.  Finally, when he had the opportunity, Spencer Stone jumped up out of his seat and ran down the aisle toward the terrorist, who immediately pointed his gun at Stone to shoot him.  However, the gun (by the grace of God) jammed, and Stone was able to tackle the man.  Then, with the help of his two friends and some others, he disarmed the terrorist and knocked him out.

They then tied him up and handed him over to the French authorities.

It’s hard to know how many lives these three brave men saved that day on that train from Amsterdam to Paris, but, in all likelihood it was a lot—given the fact that this guy had all those rounds of ammo on him!  And so it’s not surprising that the President of France awarded Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos that country’s highest decoration shortly after the event on the train took place, making them “Knights of the Legion of Honor”.

Of course, they were also hailed as heroes back here in the United States—and rightly so!

I mention this today because I think the sacrifice that these three servicemen made back in August of 2015 on that train to Paris, can help us to appreciate the sacrifice Jesus Christ made for us 2,000 years ago on the cross of Mt. Calvary.

Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone put their lives on the line to save other people—men and women and children whom they didn’t even know.  That was awesome.  But they also did what they did for themselves; they did what they did in order to save their own lives.  There was a personal motive as well as a sacrificial motive to their heroic actions that day.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  The fact that they wanted to save themselves is a good thing; it doesn’t diminish what they did in any way, shape or form.  However, what it does do is to ELEVATE what Jesus Christ did for us by his incarnation, passion and death.  Jesus, remember, didn’t come into this world for himself and for his own personal gain.  He didn’t need to take on human flesh.  He didn’t need the spiritual benefits of his passion and death.  He didn’t need to have his sins forgiven (because he didn’t have any).  He didn’t need to be redeemed.  He didn’t need salvation.

Jesus had no “personal motive.”

Everything that he did in his earthly life; everything that he did in his 3 year ministry; everything that he did on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, he did totally and completely—100 percent—for us!   St. Peter says it perfectly in today’s second reading when he writes, “Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God.”

In that verse, of course, Jesus is “the righteous” and we are “the unrighteous”.  St. Peter is reminding us here that Jesus had nothing to gain in his divine personhood by being born into this world of the Virgin Mary and suffering and dying on the cross.  The “righteous one”, after all, was (and is) God, and God has no needs.  Jesus Christ did what he did out of pure, selfless love—for you, for me, for every human person.  Peter makes that clear in this verse.

The love of God is something that we should reflect on often in our lives, but especially during this holy season of Lent.  So I’ll close my homily today by giving you a suggestion on how to do that during the next 40 or so days.  First, go to the movies!  If you want to meditate deeply on the love of God this Lent, go to the movies sometime in the near future and see that film, The 15:17 to Paris.  It’s playing right now at Regal Cinemas in Stonington.  By the way, the really interesting thing about this movie is that Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone play themselves in it!  Director Clint Eastwood wanted historical accuracy in the film, so he basically had the three soldiers re-enact the event on camera with some actors.  That means the way it’s depicted on the screen is the way these three men remember it happening.

In that sense, at least, it’s not “just a movie”.

Then, when you’re finished watching the film, spend some time in prayer—either in a quiet place at home or maybe at the adoration chapel at Immaculate.  And during that prayer time think about what you saw in the movie: how these three men risked their lives to save themselves and the other passengers on that train—especially Spencer Stone, who would have certainly been killed if the terrorist’s gun hadn’t jammed like it did.  Imagine how grateful you would have been to him and his two friends for the great things they had done for you, to save your earthly life.

Then spend some time (some quality time) thinking about Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior, and the even GREATER things—the perfectly selfless things—he did for you, to save you from sin and Satan and eternal death, and to give you the kingdom of heaven for an inheritance!  You might want to read one of the Passion stories in the gospels to help you in this regard.

If you do this meditation well, you will definitely end up grateful.  You will be deeply grateful for the sacrificial love of the three servicemen in the film—but you will be ETERNALLY GRATEFUL for the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior.

Which, of course, is exactly what you should be.