For All The Saints
I know that today is All Hallows Eve, better known as Halloween, but it's also the day before an important feast day in the historic Christian calendar... All Saints Day.
As I said, All Saints Day follows All Hallows Eve and rarely falls on a Sunday, so we typically end up commemorating in other ways.
I know it's kind of odd to think about, considering the ways we typically celebrate Halloween in our culture, but All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day (November 2nd) have all been historic celebrations or feast days throughout the history of the Church.
Our Catholic brothers and sisters seem to celebrate these days a bit more than those of us who swim in the Protestant stream of Christianity, but in recent years many Protestant denominations have begun to rediscover some of these ancient worship celebrations and make them their own.
As Presbyterians, we have a bit of a different understanding of All Saints' Day than many of our Catholic counterparts, who see it as a day of celebration and prayers offered to the venerated saints who have gone before us. And by venerated saints, I mean those who have actually been given the title "Saint" by the Catholic Church.
Presbyterians see all Christians from all times and places as "saints." So when we celebrate All Saints' Day, we remember those Christian saints in our lives who have gone on before us, and joined the Church Triumphant, as it is sometimes called, or the "great cloud of witnesses" as it is called in the Bible.
Today we're going to be thinking quite a bit about those saints who have gone ahead of us in the journey that we all share. So we'll be talking about death, grief, loss, sorrow, and sadness. But never fear, we are also going to be speaking of other things like hope, life, joy, light, and resurrection.
But first, a bit of shadow.
I've had my fair share of moments when I have come face-to-face with death. The first time was when my grandfather died when I was ten. I remember standing by his casket, touching his face and hands, and thinking he felt like a statue. I remember whispering to him as if he could hear me, half thinking that he could.
When I worked as a chaplain at Florida Hospital, I came face-to-face with death almost every day. Sometimes late at night when the code team had failed to revive someone--I was the one who had to call their family and tell them their loved one had died. Many times I would sit in the room with the deceased person waiting for the family to arrive. More than a few times I had to stand and watch while the nurses would carefully redress their body, and cover them gently so the family wouldn't see the ravages of death upon them.
I've been at the bedside of people who passed away in front of me. I've seen suicide victims brought into the ER with their grieving families. I've had people scream and curse at me when I told them I was the chaplain there to comfort them in their grief. I've had them fall into my arms exhausted and completely spent. I've held friends outside their house while first responders gathered the body of their son who had just shot himself in the head.
I've held the head of a man who was dying while he convulsed in my hands, and then barely an hour later sat in my office for a meeting with someone to talk about some church thing or another.
I've seen more of death than I ever dreamed I would see. And it never gets easier. Each time I come face-to-face with death, there is a little voice in the back of my mind that whispers to me in a not-so-gentle way... "Just you wait... your time will come."
We've all faced death and loss at one time or another. We share this with all human beings. We share feelings of grief, loss, sorrow and emptiness.
And some times the loss we experience leaves us feeling as though we've had our insides kicked out.
In his classic book on grief, A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis reflects on the deep sorrow he felt after the death of his wife. He entered a cold, dark fog and even his strong faith in God did little to keep the emptiness at bay. He went to God in grief and discovered:
"But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside."
Many of us have questions about our loss--we wonder what God is up to, and if he really cares at all. Some of us feel disbelief and even anger. Others of us feel loneliness and despair.
It's been said that there are 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I kind of think of these as the 5 stages of Whatever, because honestly, to talk about these with people when they are in the middle of feeling grief is pretty fruitless.
If you've been there before---you know exactly what I am talking about.
There is this phrase that I love so much in the Westminster Catechism, which is one of the great confessions of faith in the Reformed tradition of the Church. It says simply, "In life and death we belong to God."
What does it mean that "in life and death we belong to God?" Well, the Apostle Paul kind of summed it up like this: "We [Christians] do not mourn as those who have no hope." We believe that we are always in God's hands. That those we love--even those we have lost to death--are in God's hands, too.
Today we are going to seek comfort in our tradition, in Scripture, and in the fact that our ultimate origins and our ultimate ends are in God's hands.
Here's what I want us to hold on to today:
IN LIFE AND DEATH WE BELONG TO A GOD WHO IS IN THE RESURRECTION BUSINESS
I'll be preaching an entire sermon series on the book of Revelation in January and February, but there's this one passage from Revelation that really speaks directly into what we're talking about today so I want to dig into it a bit, and also surprisingly use a passage from the Apocrypha, the version of Scripture that our Catholic sisters and brothers use. Sound good?
Let's read some Revelation 21:1-6a:
1 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,”[a] for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’[b] or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
6 He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.
1 But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
2 In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster,
3 and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace.
4 For though in the sight of others they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality.
Or Romans 8:11:
11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of[a] his Spirit who lives in you.
I get that this is kind of hard to put your mind around, but that's what's at the heart of Christian hope---the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting, the very best parts of Creation left, the distorted parts made new, everything made right.
So what happens to us when we die? While we await the day when all of that happens?
I should say a few words about heaven, and resurrection at this point. To not do so would leave this whole discussion kind of twisting in the wind. And since heaven and resurrection are two of the biggest mysteries of the Christian faith, it makes sense that many of us probably have questions.
To begin, there is a difference when we are talking about heaven with a small "h" and Heaven with a capital "H." Heaven with a capital "H" is what the Bible refers to as the ultimate goal for God. God has a plan for the universe and that plan culminates with Heaven, a state of existence with God at it's center and newness for this world and all of us.
Heaven with a small "h" is what we refer to as the "place we go when we die."
One of my favorite theologians, N.T. Wright, has done some of the best work that has ever been done on these topics.
In his great little book For All The Saints Wright says something very profound. He declares that to say that "heaven is the ultimate goal" for Christians does violence to the notion of Christian hope. He is referring, of course, to the small "h" heaven.
The main goal of Christian hope, according to N.T. Wright is the resurrection of the body. This is the promise we have from the Scripture--that we will all one day be raised to new life, with bodies that are perfect and a world that is made completely new and awesome.
So what happens to all those who die in Christ before that happens, since we can assume the Resurrection hasn't happened? Well according to Scripture, those who die in Christ and who await the Resurrection are saints.
It's like when Jesus was on the cross and told the repentant thief next to him, "Today, you will be with me in Paradise." He didn't tell him, "today you'll be raised from the dead with me." And Paradise in this instance refers to heaven with a small "h"--to be one with God, at rest in Him.
The Christian departed, I truly believe, are in a state of restful happiness, with God, at one with God, completely content, joyful and awaiting the complete renewal of all things. Do they dream? Do they experience the creative imagination of God, the connection of God to the world and to their loved ones? I have no idea--I would like to think they do. I'm going to claim that, to be honest.
N.T. Wright explains that state of restful happiness and waiting like this: "God will download our software into his hardware until the time he gives us new hardware to run the software again." I love that. So our loved ones---they are so good. They are so good it defies all imagination.
The big question for those of us who are left behind is, "What do we do in the meantime? How do we cope with the loss, the grief, and the pain?" I have a story that might help us find a way forward.
I was officiating at a funeral, and it was a particularly sad one. A beloved husband and father died, and his grieving widow and daughters were in pretty bad shape. I looked down at them on the front row of the sanctuary, holding on to one another, weeping, broken.
A friend of the family got up to sing Amazing Grace. And the person was tone-deaf beyond all measure. I am not sure exactly why it was they thought they should have been singing. But it was bad. So bad that everyone was kind of wincing and recoiling at every rotten, sour note.
Then I saw the faces of the mother and her daughters. They softened. Then they began to smile through their tears. Then they started to laugh behind their Kleenex. They held each other, shaking and laughing--everyone I am sure thought they were weeping. The widow told me later that it was just like her husband was there with them, playing a prank on them like he always did.
They knew at that moment that God was with them and that their loved one was with God. All because of some poor tone-deaf person singing Amazing Grace.
For those of us who have been left behind--the signs of our loved ones at rest are all around us. Maybe you hear them in a phrase they used to say all of the time--a gentle breeze blowing at the right moment with the right fragrance on the wind--a memory or a moment that sends chills down your spine like you can almost feel them. Because in an eternal way---they are... right now, not just someday.
And you---go out and live.
Live as though death has no power over you.
Live as though Eternity is now because God is now all around you.
Live as though you belong in life and death to God.
Because: IN LIFE AND DEATH WE BELONG TO A GOD WHO IS IN THE RESURRECTION BUSINESS