This year our celebration of the Ascension falls on the same weekend we remember those who gave their lives in service to our country. That reminded me of a story about a young man named Patrick who grew up on a farm in the Midwest. He graduated from high school and had already established himself with a small business providing feed for the local farmers to supplement his other income from working his parent’s farm. A young lady from school who had her eye on him – although it seemed he barely noticed her – invited him to the Sadie Hawkins dance in his senior year and from then on they were inseparable. They married in the December after they graduated and a year later they had a beautiful little daughter. They anticipated living a modest but fulfilling middle class life in the middle of America.
Then his draft notice arrived. Even though Pat had seen other friends drafted, it had never really dawned on him that he might be. He thought he had escaped that terrible war in Viet Nam that seemed mired down in politics and complications like the soldiers who became mired as they slogged through the muddy rice paddies in the scenes they saw on the nightly news. His young wife begged him to be careful, to keep his head down, not to be a hero. She wanted him to return to her and to be a father to their little daughter. That worked for a while- for over a year Pat managed to avoid injury. He was well-liked and respected in his platoon, made up of guys even younger than his 21 years, he was the “old married guy.” He lived for letters from home and shared the stories of his little girl growing up.
Then one day his squad was ordered to move ahead on point for the platoon following them. Something didn’t seem quite right, they questioned if they were walking into an ambush. But the order stood, and so they moved ahead. Just as they got to the point where they were too far separated for cover from the platoon, the enemy opened fire. As his buddies were falling, one dead and others injured, Pat became the hero he never intended to be. He called to the able bodied to grab the others and retreat, he would cover them. He stood up and successfully held off the enemy long enough so no one else died, and then he was cut down. To this day, his family remains proud of him but they still wish he did not have to make that choice.
How could God understand and be able to console such families in their sorrow if God had not come to the earth in the person of Jesus? That is the difference between our faith and others, even the other great monotheistic faiths, Judaism and Islam. For example, Hebrew scripture is full of examples of God being in relationship with human beings, but there is always a separation between the human and the divine. God is certainly loving and caring, sometimes judgmental and even capable of meting out devastating punishment. But in the Old Testament, God cannot truly empathize with the human condition because empathy requires sharing the same experiences.
In the Gospel stories, God became fully aware of the human condition through the Incarnation, becoming fully human in the person of Jesus. It was clear to Jesus’ followers that he was a real human being who shared in their joys and sorrows, their failures and their triumphs. They had to come to the understanding that he was also divine. In the New Testament, even after Jesus ascended to be one with God again, there is a new empathy with the human condition. We can see this, for example, in the letters of Paul, who had never met Jesus, yet had no doubt that God fully understands and empathizes with all of humankind.
Jesus had to be reunited with God in order to fulfill the reason for becoming incarnate in the first place. God had decided it was necessary to come to earth and become fully human in order to spread the message of grace, mercy and justice through the person of Jesus. But while he was here, he also experienced life as a human being for the first time. God is all-knowing, all-wise – as we say, omnipotent – yet God had never participated in the human experience before. God always had intentions, hopes and dreams for humankind, but had never actually walked the earth as one of us.
Because of the ascension, God understands what it is like to be us. God in the person of Jesus learned what it is like for those who are poor, outcast, suffering and afraid. Jesus had friends and family whom he loved and he mourned the death of loved ones. He experienced betrayal. He knew great sorrow and great joy. He showed us that God gave us life to live in abundance, not at the expense of others but rather enough to share with them. Jesus knew when it was important to be serious, and on occasion he demonstrated righteous anger. Yet he took great pleasure in being in relationship with people, in enjoying the natural world and he really liked a good party. Most of all, through his genuine and authentic love of life and love of humankind, he showed us how to love one another.
Jesus is never gone from us. His death, resurrection and ascension culminated in his gift of the Holy Spirit, which we celebrate on Pentecost. That was not a one-time only event. We are given the gift of the Spirit in our baptism, which comforts, strengthens, and empowers us. We are able to fulfill his mission because we know that he fully understands what it is like to be us. Jesus lived, died and was raised from the dead in a particular time and place, but he is not stuck there. He is the Jesus of everyone, everywhere. We are united in baptism and we come together each time we partake of the bread – his body given for the life of the world, and in the wine – his blood poured out for the forgiveness and love of all.
God is able to understand us and comfort us, even in our most terrible moments. Because he suffered a violent death, Jesus was able to truly be with Patrick as he gave his life in order that his buddies might live all those years ago in Viet Nam. Because Jesus lost loved ones when he lived on earth, his Holy Spirit was able to truly empathize with and comfort Pat’s family in their grief. Because God in Jesus was one of us, we can trust in God’s promises and be confident of God’s presence in our lives. Amen.