Sunday, November 09, 2014

Remembrance Sunday

1 Thessalonians 4
13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Like most news in August, this news got little notice. The Hungarians were easing restrictions on travel to Austria throughout the summer, but in August they decided to dismantle most border defenses.

East German refugees in Hungary saw their chance. A long line of Trabants snaked their way to the border, only to be abandoned as the refugees crossed on foot. Thousands followed. Realizing their mistake, Hungary closed the border, but Czechoslovakia open theirs.

By mid-October Erich Honecker quit, still maintaining that the wall would stand for another 50 years. The flood of refugees continued heading east in order to go west, and protests broke out in Berlin. The largest, on November 4th, saw half-a-million people gather to press for change.

On November 9th, the politburo met and decided that the next day they would begin to allow people to leave directly from East Germany. The task of announcing the change fell to a local party boss, who wasn’t actually at the meeting when the change was discussed. He clearly had not read the memo handed to him before the press conference. Asked when these changes would take place, he said “immediately, I suppose.”

Announced on the 8 o’clock news, a huge crowd gathered at the border crossing demanding to be let though. Confused guards tried in vain to find a superior who would answer the question ‘do we shoot them or let them though?‘ At 10.45 the answer came: ‘Let them through.’ They were met on the other side with flowers and champagne.

Even as these events were unfolding, we in the west were feeling rather pleased with ourselves. Francis Fukuyama published his famous essay called “The End of History?” suggesting now that western-style liberal democracy had won, we would settle into a comfortable and boring future without the upheaval witnessed throughout the rest of the 20th century.

Sadly, a trail of events over the last 25 years has disproved Fukuyama, with new threats replacing old threats and those who serve to protect the peace we enjoy still being asked to make the ultimate sacrifice. Today we remember the fallen and pray for an end to war, hoping that one day we might see the end of history envisioned in 1989.

The early church lived in the same tension around the end of history. Jesus was very clear (Matt 13) with his followers that they were living in the last days. He would depart from their midst, but would return in glory to gather up believers and take them to himself. The hour and the day were unknown even to him, but the promise was sure.

For St. Paul, writing some 20 years later, there was a problem. Many in that first generation had died, leaving the thorny problem of what happens at the moment of Christ’s return. Would the dead remain dead? Did they simply miss that glorious moment, or would something else happen? The passage Lang shared was Paul’s answer:

13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of humanity, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.

‘The dead in Christ will rise first,’ he said, ‘and we that remain will be caught up with them and meet the the Lord in the air. ‘As these words are sure,’ Paul said, ‘they can be used to encourage each other in the meantime.’

What Paul didn’t expect, was the end of history delayed. Forget Fukuyama, this delay continues from the day someone in Thessalonica first opened the letter down to today. The mystery of death, and the question where salvation is located went from a short-term certainty to a medium-term question to a long-term problem. The location of salvation has troubled us throughout time, but Paul has an answer for this too.

Trust the clever Romans to prompt the answer. Paul introduced them the the idea of God’s grace: the forgiveness they would enjoy in relationship with God through Christ. But they wanted to know—how then shall we live? If we are already forgiven, do we need to go to the trouble of being upright? The grace Paul described seemed to some like some kind of free pass.

So Paul develops a response that answers both the question of how to live and the looming question of salvation seemingly delayed. And he did it in baptism:

Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

In other words, when we emerged from the waters of baptism we were already raised with Christ in newness of life. We already met the Lord in the air the moment we left the former behind and embraced new life in Christ. The mystery of the end of history remains a mystery, but we live with certainty that salvation is here, in the present, through the waters of baptism.

And the Roman problem, the question of how to live, is answered in the same way. Raised with Christ in newness of life, you must live in that way—reflecting the glory that is already within you. The grateful response to the gift of salvation is a life well-lived, walking in the way of Christ.

And how well are we doing? I would say better than you think. I’m going to let Margaret Wente tell my final story:

“[An amazing video] was made a week after the attack on Parliament. In it, a York University student named Omar Albach and two friends set out to gauge people’s attitudes toward Muslims. They took their experiment to the streets of Hamilton, on the eve of Cpl. Cirillo’s funeral, where emotions were running high. One friend was dressed in a traditional Muslim robe; the other played an Islamophobic bigot. They wanted to see whose side people would take.

What they got wasn’t quite what they expected.

As the bigot berates the Muslim, the passersby get mad. “You can’t stereotype and judge people by their clothes,” one man says heatedly. “Or their nationality or anything else, you know what I mean?”

One woman tells the bigot that what happened to Cpl. Cirillo was “awful and tragic,” then says “I don’t think that’s any reason to persecute someone just because of what they’re wearing.”

Margaret continues: “You’ve gotta love the crowd. They’re pure Hamilton. Tim Hortons drinkers, guys in flannel shirts and baseball hats. The video ends abruptly when a bystander punches the bigot in the nose.”

While I don’t think a sucker-punch is best response to overt racism, it underlines the extent to which we are moving toward our own version of the end of history. People came to these shores to leave trouble behind, to join a nation known for both a spirited defense of the weak and for peacekeepers willing to step between warring sides.

The ability to be that nation was established in Vimy and Nijmegen, Suez and Cyprus, Bosnia and Afghanistan. The sacrifices made and the sorrow shared are set in the context of the life we now enjoy. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and in all ways we give thanks. Amen.


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