Our Substitute

I have had the honor being the pastor of many wonderful military personnel. One of those fine people was World War II veteran, Colonel Glen Pennywitt, a 90-year-old member of Central Baptist Church in Sanford, Florida, where I was the pastor from 1996-2006. Glen had the distinction of serving two different military branches during his career, first the Navy and then the Air Force where he reached the rank of colonel.

After high school, Glen enlisted in the US Navy and served part of his six years aboard Pacific Fleet submarines. At that time, it was possible to “swap positions” with another “qualified” submariner of the same rank. Glen had met Electrician’s Mate Second Class, Eugene Coffey, who held the same position as him, yet served on a different sub. The two men negotiated a swap of their positions.

Pennywitt’s new assignment was on a sub in Pearl Harbor. On December 7, 1941, he was on one of the shipyard docks when Imperial Japanese Navy airplanes attacked.  He was close enough to the invading aircraft to see the faces of the enemy pilots. On that day, he heroically helped rescue US Navy survivors from the water during the siege.

At first, one might think that Glen Pennywitt made a bad swap with Eugene Coffey who’s new assignment was on the USS Squalus, a submarine operating out of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, far from Hawaii. Yet on Tuesday, May 23, 1939, the Squalus sank during a test dive. Twenty-six crewmen died, one of which was Eugene Coffey, the submariner who took Gene Pennywitt’s place. His willing substitution saved Glen’s life.

In the same way, Jesus willingly took our place on the cross of Calvary. He was our substitute. The Bible says, “He Himself bore our sins in his body on the tree; so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).

The USS Squalus story does not end there. The day it sank, thirty-three surviving crewmembers were trapped inside the sub, 243 feet beneath the Atlantic’s surface, on the ocean floor. The desperate men, unable to save themselves, huddled around a lamp in a forward torpedo room as they were quickly running out of oxygen.

The Navy sent a crew of four enlisted rescue divers. They reached the downed vessel. The only way the surviving Squalus crewmen could communicate with the rescuers was through Morse Code tapped by a hammer on the interior sub hull. One of the messages from the anxious men was “Is there any hope?” The answer was “YES”. All 33 souls were saved!

As a postscript, the US Navy did not leave the Squalus on the ocean floor. They “raised” it, renamed it the USS Sailfish, and commissioned it into service during World War II.

In the same way, because Jesus, our Substitute, rose from the dead (Mark 16:6), He raises us to “walk in newness of life”(Romans 6:4), gives us a “new name” (Revelation 2:17), and commissions us to go and tell our lost and dying world that “there is hope” only in the risen Christ (1 Peter 1:3). Share that good news with someone who needs to hear it.



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