Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day, began as a remembrance for those who died on both sides in the Civil War. Over time, it has come to honor the dead in all American wars. On this occasion, it may be helpful to review what Christians believe about death.
In the 11th chapter of the Gospel of John, we read that Jesus’ friend Lazarus fell ill. When Jesus heard this, he told his followers that “this illness does not lead to death, rather it is for God’s glory.” When Jesus arrived at Lazarus’ home, his friend had died. Lazarus’ sister Martha met Jesus and, remembering Jesus’ many acts of healing, said, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus said, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said she understood there would be a general resurrection of the faithful on the “last day.” Jesus then made this remarkable statement: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Then Jesus went to the tomb and called, “Come out!” Immediately Lazarus was revived and returned to life, to the amazement of all.
The revival of Lazarus was not a resurrection. Lazarus presumably died (again) later on. Jesus’ action in this instance was a proclamation of his complete power over death, but only a partial illustration of that power. The full demonstration came when Jesus himself was killed and came back to a new kind of life. After the resurrection, Jesus suddenly appeared in locked rooms and traveled rapidly from place to place, but he went out of his way to show his followers that he was not an immaterial ghost, he had a (kind of) physical body.
Pondering these things, St. Paul instructed the church at Rome that our baptism should be regarded as a kind of death, a death to sin. Moreover, “if we have been united with [Jesus] in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” To the church at Corinth he wrote, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” The Book of Revelation describes, in colorful and mystical language, how those who trust in Christ will live with him in bliss forever.
Jesus taught his followers not to judge whether others would be saved or not. It is our job as Christians to proclaim the possibility of eternal bliss, to invite others to this rich future, and to take care that we ourselves are not left out. Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a 17th century French monk, put it this way (as recorded in the book called “The Practice of the Presence of God”): “The end we ought to propose to ourselves in this life is to become as good worshipers of God as we can, as we hope to be his perfect worshipers for all eternity.”
So as we honor and respect our war dead on this holiday, let us wish them the best possible future, a life wrapped in the loving arms of God. This future life is a reality that we can share with them.