Today Is a Good Day to Die

My sermon from yesterday, in the midst of a series on hymns. Yesterday’s focus was the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and I’m afraid the sermon bears substantial resemblance to a history class lecture. (The title comes, of course, from a common Klingon saying in the Star Trek universe. I think the Klingon culture in large measure echoes the cultures of the Vikings and Samurai; and the Klingons clearly mean this saying as referring to death in battle, which is not really what I’m trying to get at.)

July 5, 2015
Today Is a Good Day to Die
Matthew 16:24-28

The United States of America in the early- to mid-1800s was alive with apocalyptic fervor—with the belief that the end-times were at hand. There had been great revivals in the country, and out on the frontier, as part of the Second Great Evangelical Awakening. Our own church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), traces its roots back to a monumental revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, where one of the preachers was a Presbyterian by the name of Barton Stone. In addition to ours, several new churches were formed during this time, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, commonly known as the Mormons.

Another one was known as “Millerites”; this sect followed William Miller, who began to teach around 1831 that the Second Coming of Christ would take place in 1843 or 1844. (A quick introduction to William Miller’s movement can be found at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2008/12/strange-and-curious-sects-iv/.) When the first predicted date came and went, there were revisions made. The last of these predicted that the Second Coming, or as Miller called it, “Advent,” would happen on October 22, 1844. His followers gave away their possessions, closed their shops, left their fields unharvested, gathered in churches and on hilltops wearing white “ascension robes,” and waited. But on October 23, they all woke up to find that nothing had happened.

This event, for obvious reasons, came to be known as the “Great Disappointment,” and it pretty well did in William Miller’s movement…but not entirely. One splinter group held on, and eventually became the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

Even churches like ours, which placed high value on rationalism and intellect, were not immune to apocalyptic fervor: Alexander Campbell, another of our founders, published a periodical he called the Millennial Harbinger—that title seems to indicate that Campbell thought his publication was sounding the trumpet to announce the coming of the Millennium, the thousand-year reign of Christ on earth described in Revelation 20.

It’s small wonder that when tensions between north and south over slavery and states’ rights (which should, as many have noted over the past few days as controversy over the Confederate flag has come to the fore, actually be heard as “states’ rights to allow slavery.”), the arguments, propaganda, and language on both sides was apocalyptic. In both the Union and the Confederacy, hymns were composed portraying the Civil War as part of the cosmic battle between good and evil, which eventually ends with the Second Coming of Christ and the ushering in of Christ’s reign here on earth. (On page 313 of his A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, Mark Noll quotes one such hymn from the Confederacy, written by Henry Timrod of South Carolina during the first meeting of the Confederate Congress.)

Today’s hymn, the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” is one such hymn. The abolitionist Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics and set them to a familiar campmeeting tune that had become popular among Union soldiers, after surveying General McClellan’s troops encamped near Washington. (The tune is “Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us?”, most likely written by Philadelphia insurance salesman William Steffe in 1856. Besides Mrs. Howe’s well-known lyrics, numerous other sets were written, or made up on the spot, and passed around from unit to unit in the Union Army.) As we sang it today, with two verses that are clearly referring to the Civil War put back in, it’s clear Mrs. Howe saw the Union cause as fighting for good against evil in that cosmic battle. She alludes to a passage from Revelation 19:

“Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, ‘King of kings and Lord of lords.’” (Revelation 19:11-16. The imagery of treading the winepress of the grapes of God’s wrath is borrowed from Isaiah 63:1-6.)

In Julia Ward Howe’s mind, the Civil War was an apocalyptic conflict between good and evil, and she surely believed that the Union side was on the side of right.

Our hymnal has a section titled “National Songs,” and a couple of our most familiar patriotic songs are included, along with the lovely “This Is My Song,” which expresses love of country while leaving room for people in other nations to do the same. But if you were to look closely, you would find that the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is not in that section. Instead, it is in the section titled “Consummation.”

The Battle Hymn is a patriotic song because it is so closely connected with the Civil War—specifically, with the winning side in that conflict. But it’s not strictly a patriotic song, especially when, as our hymnal does, the second and third verses are left out, the two verses whose imagery is clearly specific to the Civil War. Technically speaking, the Battle Hymn is about the end-times, the Second Coming of Christ, the time when evil is finally defeated and God’s reign becomes fully realized here on earth, as it already is in heaven.

Julia Ward Howe saw the Civil War as part of the conflict that would eventually bring about the Second Coming and the Millennium. But the Battle Hymn is still in our hymnal because its hope for a day when God’s truth finally conquers the world was not something to be left behind, nor was it something that was fully enacted, when the Confederate general surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865. We’re still waiting for it. We’re still hoping for it.

The last verse reminds us what Jesus did for us, and what we might do in response, as we continue to expect that our God’s truth will march on and one day conquer sin once and for all. I have a tendency to change the last line as I sing it, but today I left it alone. “As he died to make us holy, let us die to make all free.” (I didn’t leave it alone entirely. I have kept the gender-inclusive update found in our hymnal; the original version said, “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.”)

Mrs. Howe, who as I mentioned was an abolitionist, meant that as a call to arms, urging folks to fight for the union and the end of slavery. Place your lives on the line, so that others might be free, just as Christ died to free us from the power of sin and death.
As I said, oftentimes I change that last line, so that I’m singing, “…let us live to make all free.” I’m not in much danger of being called on literally to die for my faith or for the sake of someone else’s freedom. Instead, I want to call myself, and all who follow Jesus, to make our lives, as Paul said, living sacrifices—to live in service to Christ and all of our neighbors near and far.

But maybe those two understandings are actually compatible, especially in light of our Scripture reading for today, in which Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” He’s not talking about “your cross to bear” in the sense of a troublesome neighbor or a less-than-ideal home life—and that second bit is something we have to be very careful with, because we never want to give the impression that Jesus means for anyone to stay in an abusive situation. What he means is that we set aside our desires for the trappings of this world, the expensive homes (or second homes), the fancy cars, jewels, fame and fortune, all that stuff; we set aside our need to be noticed, approved of, to look good in the eyes of others; and we follow the one who had even more to set aside—being in the form of God—but did so willingly and out of obedience to God, who loves us so much that he’ll do whatever it takes to bring us back into relationship with himself.

“Let us die to make all free”—not, maybe, literally, dramatically, all at once, writing that big check, as Fred Craddock once said; but little by little, a long obedience in the same direction (…as Søren Kierkegaard once said…), acting in a thousand ways, large and small, for the sake of the freedom from sin and fear and death that God has made available to all people in Jesus Christ.

“Let us die to make all free”—starting now, and continuing for the rest of our lives.

Today is a good day to die.

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