To be a Christian often means living in the undefined spaces of tension between things that together cannot be true and yet are. Take today for an example. In the Christian calendar, today is the seventh Sunday of Easter and the first Sunday after Ascension. Also today, many Christians in the United States will reflect upon the lives lost over the centuries by the United States Armed Forces as a church prelude to Memorial Day on tomorrow.
As a Christian who sometimes preaches behind pulpits like this, days like today are hard. On one hand, today can be nothing other than a continued celebration of Easter and a remembrance of our Lord and Savior’s ascension to Heaven to rightfully reign at the right-hand of God the Father. No name is higher than Jesus and no sacrifice greater than his. Jesus alone is worthy of my praise and adoration. Easter and our Lord’s Ascension can be shared with none.
And yet, it is the day before Memorial Day. My father is a Lt. Colonel. He has warred in Afghanistan & Iraq. My family, like so many others, has suffered death in World Wars, Vietnam, and other conflicts. My heart cannot escape the sadness, pain, and loss of my family, those in this room, and those around the Earth.
Today is Easter. Today is Memorial Day Sunday. Though it is not possible to fully honor the one without diminishing the other, both are.
Now, my Vanderbilt training gives me two general options to address the tricky situation of today.
The first would be to embrace the radical; ignore Memorial Day and preach only on Easter or, more radical still, preach on Easter and chastise y’all for even considering any sort of remembrance of the “American war machine.”
The second option would be to preach what many would like to hear on a day like today, the standard Memorial Day Sunday sermon.
For me, neither option works. The first option is just plain mean and the second requires me to shirk my call to proclaim Christ and the Good News of his life, death, and resurrection.
Since the answer to today’s quandary will not come from the halls of Vanderbilt Divinity School, I’ll ask you to join me at the place I sadly seem to never look to enough for my answers, Holy Scripture.
Today we read from the first chapter of Acts. In the forty days since his resurrection, Jesus has once again been a daily, physical presence with his apostles. Jesus has walked with them. Comforted them. Eaten with them.
After forty days, I’m sure the apostles had already started to forget that Jesus had been away — dead — for three entire days just a little over a month ago. Though they stood alongside the firstborn of the New Creation, the apostles were back to trying to figure out how and when, Jesus was going to rid Jerusalem of the Romans.
After years of discipleship, it came as a shock to the apostles when their “normal” post-meal question and answer session ended with Jesus ascending to Heaven. They could do nothing but look upward in an attempt to process what had just happened.
What were they supposed to do while they waited for the Holy Spirit?
How long was a “few days” anyways?
Was Jesus gone for good this time?
If God wasn’t restoring Israel through his messiah, how was he planning on doing it?
Had Scripture been wrong about the messiah?
In the awe of seeing God the Son ascend to his throne, the fearful feelings of despair and lostness thought left by the empty tomb on Easter day, returned for the apostles.
Ad-libbed Story about High School
It can be hard to move forward when you suddenly find yourself without your mentor, friend, or loved one in a time of trial. The temptation to despair is strong. The inclination to freeze and await another’s instruction natural.
The apostles were frozen in shock at Jesus leaving them once again. They stood staring at the sky for a very long time. Looking down and moving from the Mount of Olives would be to acknowledge what had just happened. So long as they continued looking where Jesus had gone he hadn’t finished leaving yet, the moment was not complete and could not be followed by another.
In a moment of weakness, the apostles had allowed themselves to believe the lie of absence. Like me, they doubted who they had become and needed someone to remind them who they were.
In this moment of crisis two angels appear. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky?” Why, indeed? The apostles know who they are. They know who Jesus is. They have firm testimony in Christ’s resurrection. For years, they have stood at Jesus’ side learning. With their own eyes, they have seen God initiate his kingdom on Earth. They were not alone. They did not need to wait for instruction. Jesus had already told them what to do.
In the River Jordan Jesus had shown the apostles how to die to self and bring the world into the embrace of God. Before he died, he gave them the key to his to his eternal body and blood as they supped. Ten days after his ascension, the Holy Spirit would come to birth the church to be filled with the hard-earned knowledge the apostles had learned at his feet.
This is the message of Easter. Jesus is too big for absence. He consumes absence and replaces it with the Eternal Life-Giving presence of the Triune God.
The presence of God, however, is not a salve to hide the pains of wartime or other loss. God assumes the pain. He takes it within himself. He covers it in infinite love. In God, we still feel the pain of suffering and loss. We still cry. We still miss. We still morn.
Further, in unity with all who are in Christ Jesus we feel the great pains and loss of our brothers and sisters throughout all time. The burdens of war are heavy. The pains of the martyrs, too. The sorrows of mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters. All this and more dwells in the blessed Communion of Saints.
But, but, but, we are also invited into the great, eternal surplus of infinite love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This love overshadows all.
Remember those who have died. Recall the vision so many have had for this land as we close in song today with “America the Beautiful.” Feel God’s pain for the sin and death that have thwarted this vision.
But above all, let us all remember that we are children of God. By his death on the cross, Jesus has freed us to embrace God’s love. Though we are lost, though we are scared, though we forget who we are and stand frozen staring at the sky, Jesus meets us where we are and frees us to do his will. Jesus lived. Jesus died. Jesus rose again and then ascended to his Father in Heaven. But, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” Thanks be to God! Amen.