Sermon delivered on All Saints’ Day, Year B, Sunday, November 1, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 25.6-9; Psalm 24.1-10; Revelation 21.1-6a; John 11.32-44.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is All Saints’ Day, where we observe and celebrate the Communion of Saints: The Church Triumphant, consisting of those Christians who have died in Christ, and the Church Militant, consisting of folks like you and me who are also in Christ and who strive to lead faithful and good lives in the power of the Spirit. Today is an appropriate time for us to stop and reflect on exactly what is our Christian hope that allows us to have such a belief in the Communion of Saints. Those of you who are familiar with my preaching know this is a topic near and dear to me, in part, because the Church in recent years has done such a terrible overall job in teaching its people sound creational theology—that creation is good and matters deeply to God, so much so that God intends to redeem it and us—and about the Christian hope of life after death. This has led to all kinds of bizarre funeral and burial practices, among others, and continues to rob Christians of real hope and power when death confronts them and they need that hope and power most. So today I want us to focus on what the NT has to say about life after death. Where are our loved ones who have died in Christ now and what is their (and our) ultimate fate?
Before we answer these questions, however, it is once again necessary for us to stop and remind ourselves exactly who God the Father is. If we labor under the false notion that God is some kind of angry tyrant who is bent on punishing us for our sins and who will gladly consign us to hell for even the smallest offense, is it any wonder that we would be fearful of our eternal fate? After all, who can measure up to a perfect and holy God? This is precisely the reason God gave Moses the sacrificial system to be used at the tent of meeting and later at the temple in Jerusalem, so that sinful people could come into the presence of a just and holy God and not die. To be sure, God hates sin and evil, and cannot be a partner with us in any way, shape, or form when we willfully sin or act evilly. But this same God who hates sin (but not sinners) has moved in a decisive way to deal with our sin. God became human and died on a cross to condemn our sin in the flesh so that God would not have to condemn us. So let us first and foremost wrap our minds around this great truth. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because of his blood shed for us on the cross (Romans 8.1-4). Punishment for sin there will be, but not for those of us who are in Christ. This isn’t because we are somehow more special than others, but because God is who God is. Elsewhere in Romans, Paul talks about being united with Christ in our baptism so that we put off our old lifestyle and put on a new lifestyle patterned after Jesus himself. In other words, in and through the power of the Spirit we are slowly (and sometimes maddeningly) transformed into becoming just like Jesus so that our future is life, not death, precisely because he is life (Romans 5.6-11, 6.3-7). God did this because God loves us and wants us to live life as he created and intends for us to live. So for those of us who are united with Jesus in baptism and faith, there is nothing to fear in death. And if we are still worried about being punished after we die or worry that our Christian loved ones who have died are now suffering at the hands of an angry God, it says more about our lack of faith in what God has done to punish sins on the cross than it says about God’s real character.
That God takes no pleasure in the death of anyone, even evildoers (Ezekiel 18.23, 32), is poignantly and powerfully on display in our gospel lesson. We see Jesus, God the Son, confronted with the ugliness and evil of death. And let’s be clear about this. Death is the ultimate evil because it robs us of everything God created us to be. We don’t see Jesus react to Lazarus’ death by saying good riddance. Dude got what he deserved. Nice. No, the first reaction of Jesus is anger and indignation over Lazarus’ death. The Greek word for Jesus being deeply distressed can actually mean snorting like an animal. Jesus, God become man, was visibly angry twice over the death of his friend and he was going to do something about it, just like he has done something about our own future death and the death of our loved ones who have died in him.
But anger isn’t Jesus’ only emotion. Moved by the grief of those who loved Lazarus, Jesus wept too, just like we weep in our grief and loss when those we love die. Nowhere does the NT tell us that our Christian hope of eternal life makes us immune to the grief and sorrow and sense of loss that accompanies death. To make such a claim would be ludicrous and cruel. In fact, grief could almost be described as the form love takes when the object of our love is removed from us. It is love embracing an empty space. It is us kissing thin air and feeling the pain of that void. So Jesus too wept for his dead friend. And while John does not tell us this, could it be that Jesus was also weeping for himself and the death he would soon have to suffer for our sake so that we could live? If Jesus was and is the embodiment of God as we believe, here is a picture, not of an angry, vengeful God who delights in our death or in punishing us. Here is a God who created us to have a relationship with him that not even death can sever, and who has acted to ensure that our future with him is life, not death, thanks be to God!
So Jesus prays to the Father and commands Lazarus to come out of his tomb. As we watch in awe and amazement with the others, we realize we are seeing a sign and foretaste of our own future as Jesus’ people. One day Jesus will call us and our loved ones out of our graves and give us new life, just like he did for Lazarus. But unlike the raising of Lazarus, our bodies will be transformed bodies, impervious to death and sickness and disorder and all the nasty things that can afflict our mortal bodies. This is what resurrection is and what it means. By definition, without a body, there can be no resurrection. So technically speaking, Jesus resuscitated Lazarus instead of resurrecting him. But if we get lost in the technicalities, we miss the point of the story. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Those of us who believe in him will live, even though we die, and those who live and believe in him will never die (John 11.25). Resurrection isn’t a theory. It’s a person and his name is Jesus. Without Jesus, there is no hope of life, only the prospect of death.
Listen to Paul describe the nature of our promised resurrection bodies in 1 Corinthians 15 (this chapter should be a chapter we read so often we can almost commit it to memory).
So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.
What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” —1 Corinthians 15.42-44a, 50, 53-55.
When Paul talks about a spiritual body (pneumatikon soma), he is talking about what powers or animates or gives life to the body. Just like our physical bodies (psychikon soma) are powered and animated naturally by our bodily processes, the spiritual body Paul is talking about is powered by God’s Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. That is what will make our new bodies patterned after Jesus’ resurrection body imperishable and that is why flesh and blood cannot inherit God’s kingdom—because God’s kingdom is imperishable and needs imperishable bodies to live in it. Whatever those bodies look like, the point is that they are bodies, not disembodied spirits floating around for all eternity. That’s a teaching from Plato, not the NT!
We will need these new bodies, of course, because our final destination is not heaven, but the new heavens and earth as both our OT and epistle lessons attest. In Isaiah there is nothing ethereal about rich foods and the finest of drinks. There is very much a physical quality to the prophet’s vision of what God will one day do for his people and the nations. But it is in John the Elder’s description of the new heavens and earth that we find the most wonderfully compelling vision of our future as God’s people in Jesus. Notice first the direction. The new Jerusalem, the place where God dwells, descends to earth and everything is made new! Previously in Revelation, all evil and the dark powers behind it, have been banished to the lake of fire so that there is nothing left in the new creation to harm God’s people as there is in God’s present creation (Revelation 19.20-21). Sin is banished. So is death and destruction and sickness and sorrow and all that bedevils us. No more is God’s dimension of heaven separated from the human dimension, earth. The two are fused together so that we get to live directly in God’s presence forever. Our memories will be healed and there will be nothing but peace and goodness and happiness for us to enjoy forever. In our epistle lesson, then, we are seeing the culmination of God’s plan to rescue and redeem his good but corrupted creation. There is very much a physicality in this vision. No disembodiment. No hanging out on the clouds playing our harps. Instead, there is only God’s new world with God living with his healed and redeemed people with our new permanent resurrection bodies. That’s why we need them in the first place. If a vision and hope like this cannot fire your imagination, invoke your praise and thanksgiving to God, and serve as real balm for your grief, I don’t know of anything on earth that can.
This, then, is the NT vision and hope for God’s people in Jesus. Resurrection. New bodies and the new heavens and earth. The end game is not dying and going to heaven but rather resurrection and a new, healed creation (cf. Romans 8.22-23)! The former notion is a form of the old gnostic heresy that pronounced things of this world bad and things of the spirit world good. Not so, says the Bible. God created his creation and us good and intends one day to undo all the damage our sin and rebellion have caused and helped cause. And we have hope in being part of that new creation all because of the love and grace and mercy of God for us made known first and foremost in Jesus Christ our Lord! Amen?
So where are our dead loved ones in Christ now? To be sure they are separated from their mortal bodies. But they are with Jesus, enjoying their rest or sleep. Sleep, BTW, is a NT euphemism for death, precisely because of our resurrection hope, which says one day we will awake from our sleep of death. It is not a denial of death or a refusal to deal with it as our culture largely does today. Back to the topic: How do we know where our loved ones are? While the NT is reticent in saying much about what happens to us when we die, it offers some clues. Paul tells the Philippians that he would much prefer to go and be with the Lord than to stay in his mortal body (Philippians 1.22-24), implying that when we die we will be conscious of being with Jesus. Otherwise, how would Paul know it is better to be with Jesus than to stay here? Likewise, in Revelation 6.9-11 we see a vision of the martyrs under God’s altar in heaven calling out to God for justice, another indication that the Christian dead are aware of where they are. And of course, the most powerful testimony is found in Luke 23.43 when Jesus tells the one criminal that today he would be with Jesus in paradise, another term for heaven. If ever we worried that we or our loved ones are going to be subject to more punishment after our death, here is the best reminder that this is not true, that Paul was correct in telling us that when we die we are free of sin (Romans 6.7). The repentant criminal had no time to make amends of his life. He simply asked Jesus for mercy and Jesus granted his request. This is made even more powerful when we remember that Jesus himself was hanging on the cross and dying for the sins of the world when he granted the criminal’s request.
So the Christian hope of life after death goes like this. When we die, we go to be with the Lord where we rest in an intermediate state. Call it heaven if you like. Call it paradise. But this is not our final destination. The new heavens and earth are. Neither is a disembodied eternity our final state. A new resurrection body patterned after Jesus is what awaits us. As Bishop Tom Wright puts it, Christians actually believe not in life after death but in life after life after death! Amen. May it be so.
In closing, we remember today those we love who have died in Christ, the Church Triumphant. They, like we, are saints, not because they were perfect or perhaps even lived particularly well. They, like we, are saints because they put their whole hope and trust in Christ who loved them like he loves us, and gave himself for them, like he has given himself for us. This is why we can rejoice today, even as we miss our beloved in Christ. This is why we have Good News to proclaim to the world, the only Good News there is to have a real hope and a future. Let us, with them, proclaim our hope and future boldly so that the world might hear and see and believe, and thereby join the Communion of Saints, now and for all eternity. What a glorious vision! To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.