One of the joys of using a set series of readings is that you have a broad outline for the year. The festival half of the church year is the life of Christ. The second half is the life of the Christian – growth in faith toward God and love toward our neighbor. You also get a more detailed outline for each Sunday. The readings, in theory, tie together. The collect of the day collects the thoughts of the readings, introit, etc, and focuses them into one brief prayer. A single thought around which the day can revolve. On a day like Easter everything is very easy. The joy of resurrection, which leads to forgiveness of sins and salvation. Last Sunday, Good Shepherd Sunday, we gave thanks that we have been rescued from everlasting death. It matches the image of the Good Shepherd as the one who lays down his life to save us from that old wolf, Satan.
Today, things aren’t so clear cut. We pray in the collect that God would “Grant faithfulness to all who are admitted into the fellowship of Christ’s church, that they may avoid whatever is contrary to their confession, and follow all such things as are pleasing to you.” In other words, you saved us and brought us into the church, keep us there. Keep us faithful. That’s the sort of prayer you might expect on Reformation Day, or sometime in the Fall, when the focus is steadfastness until the end.
But here it is today. The day when Jesus is talking about the “little while” when he will be taken away from them, and the “little while” after which they will see him again. Jesus predicts his death and resurrection, when he is taken away into death, and returns to them in the joy of the resurrection. If we didn’t have four great narratives of the resurrection itself in the Gospel readings, this one wouldn’t make a bad Easter reading. It’s sort of Good Friday and Easter – explained! We might expect the collect to reflect that. But it doesn’t seem to match very well. Now, anytime you have something odd like that, it’s time to take another look. What exactly is being said in the Gospel reading. Why was it chosen for the ongoing use of the church, and what does the prayer have to teach us?
First, it’s clear that the disciples don’t understand. They even say point blank, “We do not know what he’s talking about.” To believe the word rightly is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is no credit to us that we understand he’s talking about his death and resurrection. We have the whole picture in the Gospels. The disciples at that point were still on the pre-crucifixion side of things. More than that, every year at Easter the world prints articles that deny the resurrection. Sometimes they deny that Jesus ever lived. So, it’s not just that we have the Gospel accounts. Not just that we know that Jesus died on the cross. We have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, so that we might believe the promise that Jesus death was for our sins, and his resurrection was for our justification.
That we have been brought to saving faith, that we have been brought into the fellowship of Christ’s church is gift, gift, gift. Nothing but gift. It’s nothing in you that saves you. It’s God’s work bringing you to faith. And so, we have a responsibility to remain faithful. That’s easy when everyone around us is faithful. That’s a lot harder when your have to live in the world, that rejects that word of God. Jesus says that during that “little while” when he is gone and the disciples are weeping because he is dead, the world will rejoice, for the same reason. Finally rid of that Jesus fellow.
But the Collect extends that little while outward. Not just the little while when Jesus dies and before he is raised from the dead. Why are we praying that we be kept faithful? Because he has ascended to his Father, and we no longer see him. But in a little while, he will return again. While he is gone, we weep, while the world rejoices.
The world rejoices, because they can discount him, ignore him, shove him off to the side, marginalize those who follow him. The world does violence to the word of God. Jesus
Jesus uses the example of a woman in labor. Until a few years ago, giving birth truly was going into valley of shadow of death. There was a high infant mortality rate, high mortality of birthing mothers. Getting pregnant was a time of great joy, but also great fear. The moment of birth was a time of unknowing. Would the baby survive? Would the mother? The main problem with giving birth even 150 years ago, was that it could so easily end in death for mother or child. The sorrow Jesus talks about wasn’t just from physical pain, but from fear as well. Nowadays, the risk is so much less, the pain is lessened with medications. In Jesus day, it was all laid out in birth – the struggle between life and death, the pain and suffering of life in this world.
And then, once it’s over: new life, joy. The mother and baby made it through safely, and that joy was so great, the pain was forgotten. That’s how it is, says Jesus. Through the valley of the shadow of death, fear and trembling, and then joy. The church suffers in this world. So it has always been.
This week is the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. 1.5 million Christians slaughtered for the faith. This past week, 30 more were killed by Isis. The church suffers. But she is not overcome.
In our own nation, candidates for president openly say that historic Christianity is getting in the way of human rights. The church stands for the basic, common sense proposition of man and woman created by God, given to each other in marriage, for not only the fulfillment of the man and woman, but also the procreation of children.
The church stands for the inherent dignity of every human life, against a culture that wants to speak of life pragmatically as requiring a certain quality and utility to be worthy of protection. Neither of these are acceptable in our brave new world of technology and secular ideals. Our children are taught early and often to ignore that word of God which says that humanity is the high point of creation – formed by God from the dust of the earth and given the breath of life by God himself. Instead, we are a problem to be managed in the world. An accident, nothing more than random chance. And the best thing we can hope for is that we don’t damage the world too much before we die.
The world turns creation upside down. And when we try and speak the truth, the world shouts us down. Persecution will come to those who stand for the culture of life against culture of death. We must be ready. The soft comfort of previous years may not be ours for much longer. And yet, we do not despair, because God has already won the victory in Jesus Christ. He has promised that he will return to take us to be with himself. Our hearts will rejoice, and no one will take that joy from us.
We have nothing to fear from the world. Because the world will pass away. The trials and temptations we face are only “for a little while.” The rejoicing will be forever.
For now, for a little while, we don’t see Jesus as the apostles did. We still see him with the eyes of faith. In the body and blood, he is truly present for you, for the forgiveness of your sins. And the world can’t stand against that one. Because we take him into ourselves, and his life is your life. His death, your death, his resurrection your resurrection.
Death has been undone, and so we die in this world to sin. But that is all. The second death will not come for those who fall asleep in the faith. One day, those who fall asleep will be wakened. That’s the promise. The Cemetery will be emptied. A Joyful reunion. And all will be set at right.
So, our prayer is that during this little while, when the world rejoices, and when we weep, when the pains of our labors overcome us, we would have the courage to live according to God’s word, safe in ark of church. Our prayer is that we would remain faithful – not because of us and what we do – truth is we can’t do it on our own. Disciples couldn’t do it – even when Jesus told them outright what was happening. They struggled to understand.
We have the death and resurrection of Jesus accomplished for us. Now we are waiting. And times can be hard. We are often confused and angry, or sad and grieving, or struggling to live according to the hope that is in us. It’s not easy to live according to our faith, to fulfill the responsibilities that God gives us as children, parents, husbands and wives, workers and friends in this world. But promise is that we are made new in Christ. The sin is taken away. The guilt atoned for.
Now your conscience is clean. Not because of how great you are, but because of the cleansing that Christ has done. Your sin is taken away. You have been redeemed, made a new creature in Christ. So that you no longer have to live according to the old pattern of hidden guilt, and the lies you tell. You can live as a forgiven child of God, forgiven, and forgiving. The burden has been taken away. And while we still struggle here for a time, our Lord is coming back, in just a little while. And then, no one will take your joy from you.