Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. This Sunday fills an interesting, strange void in the church year. On Thursday we celebrated one of the most important days of the church year—the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus. Our Lord had spent time with his disciples teaching and instructing them in the 40 days that followed his resurrection. On the fortieth day, our Lord ascended into heaven and took his place at the right hand of the Father. He had promised his disciples that he would not leave them alone, however. Our Gospel Readings from John 16 over the past three weeks illustrated this, particularly in the reading from two weeks ago when our Lord said to his disciples: “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). Our Lord also instructed his disciples that it was necessary for him to depart from them. He had promised them that when he departed, he would send them the Helper, that is, the Holy Spirit, who would “guide [them] into all the truth” (John 16:13) and “take what is [Jesus’] and declare it to [them]” (John 16:14). We also heard on Thursday that our Lord instructed his disciples that they should wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit following his Ascension. He said: “But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49b). So, here we are on this Sunday between the Ascension of our Lord and Pentecost, which we will celebrate a week from today. Our Lord has ascended to the right hand of the Father, but liturgically speaking, the Holy Spirit hasn’t come yet. And so, this final Sunday of the Easter season invites us to reflect on “living in between.”
2. Just as this day falls liturgically “in between” the Ascension and Pentecost, so too in a similar way to we find ourselves “living in between.” Admittedly, our “in between” isn’t exactly the same as the disciples’ “in between.” We are living in the time between our Lord’s Ascension and his return on the last day. Unlike it was for the disciples, however, the Holy Spirit has been given to us in baptism, we don’t have to wait for Pentecost to come around for that to become a reality. The Spirit came to us in Baptism and he continues to come to us through the Word each and every time we hear or read it. But we are still living in an “in between” time. Because of this, and many other reasons, there is still great value in rehearsing the life of our Lord and his Church, which the church year invites us to do every year. As we reflect on the disciples experience “living in between” our Lord’s Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we can see a significant similarity to our own situation. We know that a week from now will be Pentecost. The disciples, however, had no idea that the Holy Spirit would come on that day. All that they knew was that Jesus had departed and that the Spirit was to come to them at some point. That’s kind of where we are in our own “living in between.” Jesus has ascended and he’s promised to return, but we don’t know when that will be. Much like the disciples, our own time of “living in between” is characterized by uncertainty.
3. Our life is characterized by uncertainty about when our Lord will return, but it’s also characterized by uncertainty about a lot of other things. The longer that we live in this world, the more keenly we become aware of the evils around us which seek to destroy God’s people. And it shouldn’t surprise us that these kinds of uncertainties and these kinds of evil are all around us. Our Lord tells us in our Gospel Reading for today: “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me” (John 16:2-3). These are the sorts of things that happened to the disciples. They were put out of the synagogues, which wasn’t just a religious ostracizing. To be cast out of the synagogue was to become a social outcast as well. And to make matters worse, the people around them thought that they were doing a service both to God and to their community to put these crazy Christians to death. They demonstrated themselves to be complete strangers to the Lord and his ways. Now, the details are a little bit different, but this sounds an awful lot like our world today. The world around us is complete strangers to the Lord and his ways. They think that getting rid of Christian values is a service to everyone. If you hold strongly to your Christian convictions, you will become a social outcast. We haven’t quite reached the point where people in our country are trying to put Christians to death, but that day might be coming sooner than later. The reality is our life is filled with both uncertainty and evil. And in this, our situation is not all that different from the disciples.
4. But notice what our Lord says to his disciples in the first half of verse 4 to give them comfort and consolation in these “in between” times. He says: “But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you” (John 16:4a). At first glance, it might seem like Jesus isn’t being all that helpful here. It might seem like he is saying, “When bad things happen, just remember, ‘I told you so!’” But that’s not really his point. Look back at our text. It doesn’t begin in chapter 16 verse 1. The “these things” to which our Lord is referring in verse four isn’t only the warning about the bad things to come. Our Lord also spoke words of comfort to his disciples about the coming of the Holy Spirit when he said: “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me” (John 15:26). It is this that our Lord wants us to remember, not only the warning about the bad things to come. He wants us to remember, “Yes, bad things will happen, but I have sent the Holy Spirit to be with you. I am sitting on my throne at the right hand of the Father ruling and reigning over all things in this world. And I have sent the Holy Spirit to lead you and guide you and protect you from the evils of this world. Does that mean bad things will never happen to you? Of course not. But it does mean that when bad things do happen, I will protect you and keep you in the faith.” Our Lord’s comfort to his people is that even when we experience evil in this world, he still rules over all things and protects us by his Spirit so that we will not fall away. All that we need to do is remember this.
5. To be fair though, that’s easier said than done. Memory is a complicated thing. But in the biblical way of thinking about memory, there’s no such thing as memory divorced from action. Memory isn’t something which is relegated to the mind. For example, you don’t remember someone who died by simply thinking about them, you remember someone by bringing those memories to life. You talk about those memories with your loved ones. You go to visit their grave. You make their favorite recipe while you share stories about their life with others. True and full memory involves action. This is something that our country has traditionally understood quite well at specific times. We celebrate our freedom by shooting off fireworks. We give thanks by gathering around a table with loved ones and eating turkey with all the fixings on the last Thursday of November. And, as many people will do tomorrow to honor our country’s fallen soldiers for Memorial Day, we go to the cemetery to place flowers, wreaths, or flags on the graves of fallen soldiers. Memory involves action.
6. So too is it for us as we are “living in between” our Lord’s Ascension and his return in these uncertain, evil days. Our Lord calls us to remember his promises to us through action in order that we might not fall away from the faith. We do this remembering through action. And so, every Sunday morning, rain or shine, zero degrees or 90 degrees, snow storm or warm summer day, we gather together in this room for the Divine Service. Here in the Divine Service, our whole body is engaged in the act of remembering and receiving our Lord’s gifts. And so, we stand, sit, and kneel. We speak, listen, and sing. We come to the altar to taste and see that the Lord is good because he commands us to “do this in remembrance of me.” Our Divine Service liturgy is not an empty ritual, as so many people see it. It is a rich gift of God in which he invites us to engage our hearts & minds, eyes & ears, feet & knees, mouth & tongue, and so much more in the worship of him. But as we worship, we are here primarily to receive. We receive encouragement from our brothers and sisters in Christ as we sing and speak with one another. We receive our Lord’s Spirit who comes among us through the Word read and proclaimed to bear witness about Jesus. And we receive the very body and blood of our Lord given and shed for our forgiveness under the forms of bread and wine. He speaks and we listen. He offers us himself and we respond, “Amen. Thank you, Jesus!” This is how we go on “living in between.” The world is a messy, uncertain, evil place. But our Lord’s goodness never ends. And so, every week we come to his house to remember and receive. And in that remembering and receiving, we are strengthened for our life in this uncertain, evil world until at last our Lord returns in glory to destroy evil once and for all and to usher in the new creation of eternal paradise.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.