1 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” 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’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” 22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. 25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it.27 Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
–Revelation 21.1-4, 22-27 (NIV)
The saints are those who are moved by God’s grace to do whatever good they do. Some are married and have intercourse with their spouse sometimes for the sake of having a child and sometimes just for the pleasure of it. They get angry and desire revenge when they are injured, but are ready to forgive when asked. They are very attached to their property but will freely give at least a modest amount to the poor. They will not steal from you but are quick to take you to court if you try to steal from them. They are realistic enough to know that God should get the main credit for the good that they do. They are humble enough to admit that they are the sources of their own evil acts. In this life God loves them for their good acts and gives forgiveness for their evil, and in the next life they will join the ranks of those who will reign with Christ forever.
–Augustine of Hippo, Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, 3.5.14
I love Augustine’s description of the saints of God because the folks he describes are just like me–flawed and broken yet loved and redeemed. It is an accurate and realistic description of the saints of God because it reminds us we are saints by virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, i.e., by God’s grace alone, not by our own achievements or any inherent goodness we might have. True, some of God’s saints really do come close to achieving the full stature of Christ. Yet all the saints of God are being transformed by the presence of the Holy Spirit in us. As we read Augustine’s description of the saints, it reminds us in a very poignant way that we are God’s, warts and all, bought by the price of Christ’s blood.
Then of course we read in today’s NT lesson the wondrous promise of the New Creation, God’s new heavens and earth, that await us and of which Christ’s resurrection gives us a preview. We are reminded that despite the burdens and suffering we must bear in this mortal life, a better day’s a coming and we are encouraged elsewhere in Revelation to keep our hope and faith and to hang on. This passage reminds us that a disembodied eternity is not what we as Christians hope for. No, it’s God’s New Creation in which we will enjoy living in God’s direct presence in our new resurrection bodies that follow the pattern of Jesus’ resurrection body. Whatever that looks like it will be glorious beyond our ability to hope or imagine because God is a God who is capable of blowing our puny minds to the extreme.
All this helps us in two important ways. First, we are reminded that death is not the end, that the hurts and sorrows and frustrations and failures and everything else that is broken in this life will be redeemed and restored. Those who have died in Christ have an eternity–not just a period of time but an eternity–to enjoy God’s promised New Creation, and that gives us real hope.
As I write this, I am thinking of my mother’s last days as she lay dying in a hospital after a massive stroke. As I kept vigil at the foot of mom’s bed, I watched my beloved bride labor over mom to help alleviate her distress and I was reminded by the Spirit that this was not mom’s destiny. Neither was it her end. There was a better day a coming for her because she had faith in Christ and lived accordingly, not unlike the way Augustine describes the saints above. I also was reminded that in my wife’s labor of love, there was Christ himself, ministering to my mama.
Don’t misunderstand. Those were the longest three days of my life and at times it was unbearable for me to watch. But hard as it was, it would have been absolutely crushing had I not had the hope of resurrection that Jesus has won for those who believe in him and who put their hope and trust in him. Paul’s encouragement to the Thessalonians rang in my ears, “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4.13). No, our hope of the resurrection is what gives us hope to carry on, even in the midst of death, suffering, and despair.
The second way our resurrection hope helps us is to give us real meaning and purpose for the living of our mortal days. If we have the hope of God’s New Creation, we had better get ready for it right now. Think of it as boot camp for eternity where we must put off those things that dehumanize and degrade us and learn the virtues and characteristics of human beings as God intends for us to be. We are to be busy cultivating the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love–virtues that will transcend our mortal existence and God’s creation (cf. 1 Corinthians 13.13)–and which will help equip us to put on the full stature of Christ, i.e., help us to become like Christ, so that we will have the character that is needed and suited for us to live forever in God’s New Creation. When that happens, we will be fundamentally changed, and for the good. Our life will be characterized by love that shows itself in humble and obedient service to others in the name of Jesus. And God will use our work and our efforts to help bring in his New Creation here on earth as it is in heaven. If you cannot find hope, meaning, purpose, and real power for living in that, you never will be able to find it in this life.
So on this All Saints Day, we stop and remember our dead who have died in the Lord and celebrate. Yes, we miss them. There is not a day that goes by that I do not think of my beloved who have died in the Lord. But we take hope because we are a resurrection people. We know that while our loved ones’ soul and body have been separated for a season, body and soul will be reunited on the day of resurrection when Christ returns to finish his redemptive work and that our loved ones will be raised with new and imperishable bodies fitted to live in the New Creation with God forever.
In the meantime, we know that our loved ones are with Jesus and are enjoying a period of rest and refreshment, and we cannot be sad about that. We also believe with an informed faith that we too will join them when we die, not because we (or they) are somehow more deserving than others but because we (and they) have been bought at a great and terrible price by the God who loves us and created us to have a relationship with him forever.
This is the hope and destiny of all God’s saints, and the best news of all is that we don’t have to be some super holy or pious individual to embrace that hope and promise. We can be just like the saints Augustine described above. Thanks be to God in our Lord Jesus Christ! To him be praise and glory and honor forever and ever! Amen.