Living in the Meantime
By Fr. Grant Brodrecht
Editor's Note: The following is adapted from a sermon for the Sunday after Ascension Day, delivered at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida on May 29, 2022.
“The end of all things is at hand; be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer. And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:7-8)
Some of you probably know that three weeks ago today, May 8th, was V-E Day—Victory in Europe Day. Nazi Germany had surrendered, and the end of WWII was at hand.
But halfway around the globe, Japan still had to be defeated before that end could come in its fullness. American planners made shocking casualty projections: at least 500,000 more Americans, and likely millions more Japanese (Murray and Millet, 484-526). The beginning of the end was at hand, but for those on the ground in the Pacific theater, that end seemed as remote as ever.
On Okinawa, for example, Marine Corps Private Eugene Sledge, upon hearing the news of V-E Day, said something to the effect of, “Germany might as well have been on the moon for all we cared.” He was still in the fight; the war’s end remained far distant, tough to see through the fog of war—although in another sense the end was always at hand for Sledge and his fellow Marines, for the threat and fear of dying was omnipresent. Surrounded by rotting corpses, maggots, and much more, he likened the experience to having been cast into “Hell’s own cesspool.”
Nevertheless, despite such horror, he refused to abandon the hope that he would survive and that the war would end. As part of that hope, he refused to conform, he refused to be like those around him—in one respect at least. He refused to return the sadistic viciousness of the Japanese in kind, successfully persevering and resisting the temptation to which plenty of his fellow Marines succumbed—to live on the enemy’s terms, to mutilate bodies, to extract gold teeth from the mouths of Japanese soldiers (even while some were still living). When the war’s end did come, in the blink of an eye, with the atomic bombs, Sledge sat in stunned disbelief.
As you know, this past Thursday was Ascension Day, and like V-E Day, it marks the beginning of the end of a great struggle. But like Eugene Sledge, before that end arrives fully, we are still in a very deadly fight.
We know that in the Ascension, Jesus’s post-resurrection earthly presence ended and a transfer of sorts occurred, from one realm—the earthly—to another realm—the heavenly (Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part One, 10-15). Before the apostles’ very eyes Jesus somehow suddenly disappeared from sight, while the angels standing nearby assured them that He will come again in the same manner—in the blink of an eye—to complete the victory (Acts 1:6-11).
The Ascension most certainly does point to the end—like V.E. Day—even if it is difficult to imagine. And the Ascension might just be the most important neglected day on the Christian calendar. In addition to St. Luke—in his gospel (24:50-53) and in the book of Acts—St. Paul presupposes or alludes to the Ascension in several places (Eph. 1-2:6; 4:8; Col. 3:1; 1 Tim. 3:16), as does St. Peter (1 Pet. 1:4-5), the author of Hebrews (1:3; 10:12; 12:2), and St. John in his Gospel (chap. 14). And, for nearly two millennia, Christians all over the world have confessed belief in the Ascension—as we just did in the Creed. But if we are not careful, we might just miss it and the significance of our own lives.
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Let’s consider initially what the Ascension likely meant to a first-century audience. Apart from what literally occurred, the Ascension would have been symbolically rich to both Jewish and non-Jewish Christians.
For Jewish-Christians, it was inseparable from the Resurrection. Compressed together as one moment, the Resurrection and Ascension vindicated Jesus’s status as the Messiah, a second Moses, a second King David, who had finally come to deliver His people and rule in righteousness. St. Paul links them—the Resurrection and the Ascension—in Ephesians 1, where he speaks of God the Father having “raised [Christ] from the dead and seated Him at His right hand… far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named…” (vv. 20-21). The Resurrection and Ascension thus mark the “coronation of the king who was both human and divine all along,” as one commentator puts it (Keener, 325). Daniel 7 hovers in the background—a text that speaks of “one like a Son of Man” appearing in the clouds and being “given dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and men of every language might serve Him” (vv. 13-14).
And that is God’s mysterious project, which St. Paul and St. Peter eventually grasped, as they wrestled with the inclusion of the Gentiles into the People of God. God is making one people out of many.
You know of course that Pentecost, the next significant moment in the Christian story, comes ten days after the Ascension. Remember what occurred at that Jewish festival as described in Acts 2. Jerusalem was filled with Jews who had been dispersed throughout the Mediterranean world, with each group speaking a different language, and they heard St. Peter preaching the good news of Jesus the King to them in their own tongue. This was nothing less than a reversal of the Tower of Babel—the beginning of God’s project in Jesus Christ, through the giving of His Holy Spirit, to gather unto Himself One people. Jesus, the Passover Lamb sacrificed fifty days before, was now pouring forth His Spirit on all.
As the story in Acts continues, the Spirit moves beyond Jerusalem, extending outward to Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth, in Luke’s familiar formula (Acts 1:8). God is about the task of forging one people out of the earth’s many peoples under the Kingship of Christ. It is a divine project, a divine narrative that we—even in our little church in Oviedo, Florida—get to participate in as we anticipate Christ’s Coming and the end of the age.
To Jewish Christians, the Ascension’s significance would have been unmistakable: Jesus is the long-awaited King. Recall St. Paul’s words in Philippians 2:9-11: “God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” Every knee and tongue.
And so Roman Christians also would have understood the Ascension in royal terms. Recall the Roman notion of apotheosis—the emperor’s exaltation and deification at death and then his passing on of the status or title “son of god” to his heir. St. Paul’s various references to the exalted Christ imply that even Caesar is subject to Jesus! As N.T. Wright puts it, “There is a sense in which Jesus is upstaging anything the Roman emperors might imagine for themselves, He is the reality, and they are the parody” (Acts for Everyone, Part One, 14). Wright says bluntly, “Jesus is Lord, and Caesar isn’t” (Surprised by Hope, 130).
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Perhaps we do not need such a reminder in our cynical age, but no president or ruler at the head of a seemingly all-powerful nation-state is Lord. Furthermore, any nation’s attempt to bring one people out of many peoples—with the U.S. as the prime historical example (see Brodrecht, Our Country) following the Roman Empire—any such attempt is a parody of the reality, which is the Church, the Body of Christ into which we have been incorporated (see Mascall, Christ, the Christian, and the Church, and Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church).
In thinking about our country, and with an eye to Memorial Day tomorrow, a remark by C. S. Lewis offers a crucial reminder to us. Speaking to anxious young men following the Nazi invasion of Poland and thus the start of World War II in Europe, he said, “A man may have to die for [his] country, but no man must … live for his country. He who surrenders himself to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself” (“Learning in War-Time,” The Weight of Glory, 53).
You and I belong to the God who made us and to the God who, in Christ, has “rescued us,” St. Paul says in Colossians, “from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins…. In Him all things were created, … visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities…” (1:13-16).
In short, the Ascension, when coupled with the Resurrection, signifies Jesus’s enthronement as “the world’s true and rightful King” (Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part One, 14). All of history will one day be completed and summed up in Christ—not in any ruler, nation, or ideology.
I might add at this point, that America, like any nation for the Christian, has always been Babylon—not Israel—though perhaps this hasn’t always been apparent to American Christians (see, for instance, Noll, Hatch, and Marsden, The Search for Christian America; Handy, A Christian America; and Heclo, Christianity and American Democracy). Christians always live somewhere, within some particular society and country, but we are always to live as aliens and strangers, “making use of earthly and temporal things,” in St. Augustine’s words, “as a pilgrim in a foreign land, who does not let himself be taken in by them or distracted from his course towards God” (City of God, 19.17). This has been historically difficult for many American Christians to recognize. Note, by the way, that St. Peter speaks in such terms earlier in his first epistle, from which our text comes (1 Pet. 1:11). With the Ascension—like V.E. Day—the end of all things is at hand for the aliens and strangers to whom he was writing.
The King is on His throne, ruling over every power, spiritual and earthly, while we await the full manifestation of His victory. From a 30,000 feet, theology-of-history altitude, this is great and hopeful news—and it is true (see von Balthasar, A Theology of History)!
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But, there is still a life on the ground to be lived in the meantime. This can all be very abstract, while Christ’s Second Coming can appear forever away, shrouded by the haze of the combat that is this mortal life—like the end of World War II to Eugene Sledge. Diseases and viruses, wars and natural disasters, batter us and kill us, the body breaks down, we make bad and stupid decisions that harm others, our families break apart, and those dear to us die. Sometimes life seems like nothing but a living Hell. We are still grieving over the recent deaths in our parish, and we are left speechless by the massacre of innocents in Texas.
The larger culture seems to be visibly decaying before our very eyes; a sterile, narcissistic, and nihilistic culture of death palpably envelops us. Obsessed with individual autonomy and obsessed with sex, we call evil good and good evil, the crooked straight, and the straight crooked. Our country is experiencing political division rivaling that of the 1850s; an economy rivaling that of the 1970s, if not the 1920s before the crash; and an international situation rivaling that of the 1930s.
Civil war, depression, and world war loom. We groan and long for things to be different, but a sort of resignation might set in, a biding of our time, a “waiting for heaven,” if not simply giving in and conforming to the culture. Though none of us are immune, teens and young adults are particularly susceptible to the loss of meaning and hope that pervades our time, as the sociological data continues to bear out (see Smith, Souls in Transition, and Barna reports for Millennials and Gen Z).
But such a response to life is not Christian. We are not nihilistic existentialists—we are not those who have no hope, and we do not grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13).
Some have said that with the Ascension the Christian religion became a “religion of waiting” (Pelikan, 42). True enough—but there are different ways of waiting, and maybe a better word would be “preparation.” Christianity has always understood life to be a transformative, preparatory journey. Preparation, frankly, to die and then be in presence of God for eternity—but also preparation to be scorned and persecuted along the way by the wider culture for our devotion to Christ and to His Church, to which this morning’s gospel alludes.
St. Peter’s audience lived in what we could call a pre-Christian culture, while I suppose you could say we live in a post-Christian culture (at least by some measures). In both cases the threat of rejection and persecution by one’s neighbors was and is real. The temptation to resignation, to giving up hope and giving in—to conforming to the world—is powerful (DeSilva, 745-748).
There might be times when we feel as though we are barely holding on—like Eugene Sledge on Okinawa—but Christ is coming again—the end has begun—and although history might appear to unfold without meaning, we would be well-served to remind ourselves often of St. Peter’s words in his second epistle: “One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Pet. 3:8). It is hard for the young to grasp this, but as you grow older, you realize how quickly life passes. Life has been variously likened to a bubble, a leaf, or a vapor—fragile, tossed about, and fleeting (Taylor, chap. 1).
Rather than passivity or conformity, then, St. Peter insists that we should intently strive to lead a certain kind of life, one that is sober; interesting word, sober—not drunk, of course, but more broadly, a life that is restrained, self-controlled, disciplined, serious—not overcome by all sorts of desires or emotional responses to what life brings or to what the larger culture valorizes and regards as good. And thus not to live simply as the world lives, though we are usually pretty good doing so anyway while supplying a Christian veneer. A sober life is a serious life, a life that is steadily attentive to God through prayer and, above all, by a fervent life of charity, as St. Peter counsels—particularly within the Body of Christ, though certainly not exclusively.
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Life has always been precarious and dangerous, and the end of things has always been at hand, personally and cosmically. Our awareness of this understandably waxes and wanes, depending on the historical moment. But maybe, precisely because we live in such a time as we do, it is all the more important to keep a theology of history at the fore of our hearts and minds.
But this requires deliberate, disciplined effort. With that in mind, St. Peter counsels prayer and charity, and there’s no better place to begin than by praying the Daily Office. I know we have been told this over and over, in homily after homily—but praying the Daily Office will help to lift us out of ourselves and our own problems and situate us within the much larger, hopeful redemptive-historical narrative that is Christianity, while also cultivating within us, by the power of that Holy Spirit given following the Ascension, a disposition of charity, as we remember the Body of Christ and others before God. Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi—the way we pray will shape what we believe and the way we live. After the Ascension, Christianity is a religion of waiting, but waiting as preparation—it is not a religion of passive resignation or conformity.
We are involved in a fundamentally mysterious, cosmic struggle that is playing itself out in human history, at least in part, and in a manner we barely, if at all, comprehend (Eph. 6:12). But we cling to our hope that the war will end, and we confess and believe that Jesus Christ will one day come again to judge the quick and dead—and that in the blink of an eye.
Permit me to close with a prayer from the great seventeenth-century Anglican divine Jeremy Taylor, from his manual, The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying, which is all about preparation:
“O Merciful God, Father of our Lord Jesus, Who is the first-fruits of the Resurrection, and by entering into Glory hath opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers, we humbly beseech Thee to raise us up from the death of sin to the life of righteousness, that being partakers of the death of Christ, and followers of His holy life, we may be partakers of His Spirit and of His promises; that when we shall depart this life, we may rest in His arms, and lie in His bosom…. O suffer us not for any temptation of the world, or any snares of the Devil, or any pains of death, to fall from Thee. Lord, let Thy Holy Spirit enable us with His grace to fight a good fight with perseverance, to finish our course with holiness, and to keep the faith with constancy unto the end, that at the day of Judgment we may stand at the right hand of the throne of God, and hear the blessed sentence of ‘Come, ye blessed Children of My Father, receive the Kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world.’ O blessed Jesus, Thou art our Judge and Thou art our Advocate; even because Thou art good and gracious, never suffer us to fall into the intolerable pains of Hell, never to lie down in sin, and never to have our portion in the everlasting burning. Mercy, sweet Jesu, Mercy” (321-322).
Fr. Grant Brodrecht is an American historian (PhD Notre Dame) and author of Our Country: Northern Evangelicals and the Union During the Civil War Era. He teaches at The Geneva School in Winter Park, Florida and is a deacon serving at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida.