I buckled my son into his seat and set him up with a video game that I hoped would hold his attention for most of the flight. With the boy thoroughly distracted I pulled the Bible from my carry-on bag and thought to myself, “If the video game does its job, I’ll have three hours of uninterrupted reading.”
I could not have been more wrong.
As I opened the Bible, my silence was immediately disrupted by the man sitting next to me. “That’s a great book,” he commented. “Yes it is,” I agreed. “It could be even better,” he replied, “if they just took all the holy books and combined them into one.” “Why do you say that?” I asked. “Because the message is all the same,” he said with a clever smile, “be good!” “With all due respect,” I replied, “this is the one book that says you will never be good enough.”
Jesus said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
At the core of most religions you will find commandments and guidelines. It is true that you will find those in Christianity as well, but not at the core. You see, Christianity demands obedience to the Law of God. It tells us that anything less than perfection brings death—and with death comes Hell. In fact, the demands placed on humankind by the Holy Bible are far greater, and the consequences much more severe, than that of most other religions. But Christianity does not stop there. The Christian faith tells us of a God who left heaven—a God who came as a ransom, a sacrifice, once and for all for the sins of the world. At the core of Christianity you will not find commandments and guidelines. You will find a Savior—Jesus Christ.
I spent the next three hours of my flight listening to the man’s life story. Not only his life story, but the story of his parents, and after that, the story of his grandparents—and that’s where it got interesting. The man told me of his grandfather, who as a young man came from Sweden to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the late 1800s. This young man found work at a lumber mill, and fell in love with a young indentured servant working across town as a housemaid. The young man worked hard and saved his money until he thought he had enough to provide for the young woman. He asked for her hand in marriage, and she joyfully agreed. When she returned to her master with news of the engagement, the master informed her that she had accumulated a large debt for room and board, and that she could not get married until her debt was paid in full. The young woman was trapped.
When the young man returned to the lumber mill, he told his employer of his fiancée’s situation. The following day, the mill owner provided the young man with enough money to pay the young woman’s debt. But when he attempted, the young woman’s master refused to let her go. He accused the young man of being a thief and told him, “Your money is no good with me.” Devastated, the young man returned to the lumber mill to share the news with his employer. Without hesitation the mill owner called for his sleigh to be readied. He traveled across town, through the harsh Michigan winter, and paid the young woman’s debt in full. As a man of power and authority, his payment could not be denied. He set the young woman free… and never asked the couple for a penny in return.
As the man on the plane finished telling me the story of his grandparents, I told him, “That’s the difference!” He looked at me confused—not realizing that after three hours our conversation had come full-circle. He listened as I explained the gospel to him: “As the mill owner left the comfort of his mill to pay a debt the young couple could not afford, Jesus left the comfort of heaven to pay a debt we cannot afford. As the mill owner had the power and authority to set the young woman free, so Jesus has the power and authority to set us free. But the mill owner only paid in cash; Jesus paid in blood.” As I spoke, the man fell silent, thinking hard about what I said.
Are you trying to pay a debt you can’t afford? Are you trying to be good? Good! But good will never be good enough. Trust in the One who left heaven and traveled to the cross. Trust in him, and your debt has been paid in full.
Rev. Troy Tysdal is Director of Communications and Prayer for the Church of the Lutheran Brethren and serves as editor in chief of Faith & Fellowship magazine.