Sermon delivered on All Saints Sunday, November 6, 2011, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church.
Lectionary texts: Revelation 7.9-17; Psalm 34.1-10, 22; 1 John 3.1-3; Matthew 5.1-12.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is All Saints Sunday, a day in which we honor the saints triumphant, the Christian dead who have died in the Lord. The actual feast day is November 1 but when that date does not fall on a Sunday (like this year), we usually celebrate it the following Sunday (like we are doing today). All Saints Day was originally assigned to the Sunday after Pentecost and was celebrated as early as the 4th century. The Eastern Orthodox Church still observes the feast on that day. Here in the west, All Saints Day was moved to November 1 in the 8th century and the change was made official in the 9th century.
I think it is important for us as Christians to take a few moments and stop to think about what it is we are celebrating today because All Saints Day reflects the glorious Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and we all need to hear Good News on a regular basis, lest we lose heart and hope. God knows that we are beaten up on a regular basis and everyone in this room has burdens that we are bearing. So this morning I want to look at two things. First, I want to look briefly at some of the specific aspects of our hope as Christians that are derived from the death and resurrection of Jesus. Second, I want to look at what our resurrection hope can mean for us in the living of our mortal days right here and now.
So what is our resurrection hope? Where are our loved ones right now who have died in the Lord? What will happen to us when we die? I cannot give you much specificity about the venue because none of us here have experienced death to know for sure. What I can tell you with great certainty is that when we die we will go to be with the Lord. Paul tells us this in Philippians 3.20-21 when he talks about how much more he would prefer to die so that he could be with Christ. Likewise, on the cross our Lord himself tells the repentant thief that today he would be with Jesus in paradise (Luke 23.40-43). So there is apparently no wait time to be with Jesus after we die. This promise of being with Jesus when we die is echoed in John’s farewell discourse where Jesus seeks to reassure his frightened disciples and promises them that he is going to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house so that they would one day be where Jesus is (John 14.1-4). Call this place heaven or paradise or resting in Jesus. Call it whatever you want. It really doesn’t matter. What matters is the reality of the promise. Whatever else you do, embrace this promise! You will be with Jesus when you die and so are our loved ones.
We get a further glimpse of this intermediate state in today’s NT lesson from Revelation. In his vision, John describes God’s very throne room where there is a countless multitude of saints who have suffered and died in the Lord. They are there because they have been washed clean by the blood of the Lamb and because they persevered in their faith while on this earth, even to death. Moreover, they are not asleep but conscious. We know this because the multitude in John’s vision are praising and worshiping God for what he has done for them in the death of Jesus.
This too gives us additional hope because John is reminding us that God has taken care of the intractable problem of human sin and the alienation it causes by becoming human and dying on a cross. As Paul reminds us in Romans 8.3-4, in doing so, God has condemned sin in the flesh so that we do not have to remain condemned in our own sin. Note carefully that Paul tells us God condemned sin in the flesh, not humans. This means we have hope and life in our future, not condemnation and death. This is what John means in today’s epistle lesson when he calls us children of God. We have been made clean and fit to live in God’s direct presence forever by Christ’s blood shed for us, thanks be to God!
Of course, we don’t deserve any of this nor can we earn it. In fact, just the opposite. The only thing we can hope to earn is God’s condemnation and wrath because we are so thoroughly infected with sin that keeps us hostile toward God and alienated from him. But God and his love for us is greater than our sin! The hope and promise of Jesus death and resurrection is ours because God loves us and is gracious to us. He created us for life, not destruction, and has acted decisively on our behalf to make that life possible for those who accept by faith his gift offered to us. I can live with that. Can you?
Getting back to the question at hand, this resting place with Jesus is not our promised final destination. It is only an intermediate place or rest stop, grand as that surely must be (and if you don’t think being with Jesus is a grand proposition, then think of the times you have felt our Lord’s presence in a particularly close way. That should help give you the proper perspective). No, our ultimate destiny is God’s promised New Creation, the new heavens and earth.
The New Creation will be ushered in at Christ’s Second Coming. John alludes to this in today’s epistle lesson when he talks about us becoming like Christ when he appears (cf. also 1 Thessalonians 4.13-5.11; 2 Thessalonians 1.5-2.16). What John is talking about, of course, and what Paul talks about massively in 1 Corinthians 15, is the promise of a resurrection body, a body that will be like Jesus’. In the New Creation there will be continuity but there will also be radical transformation, our mortal bodies included. Our body will no longer be powered by flesh and blood. Neither will we be weighed down any longer by the sin that is part and parcel of our fleshly being. Instead, when Christ returns, our mortal body will be raised from the dead and transformed to be like Jesus’ resurrection body. Whatever that looks like, our new body will be indestructible and impervious to all that can afflict our mortal body, and it will never die.
God’s space (what we call heaven) and our space (what we call earth) will be fused together into a New Creation. Evil will be banished forever and we will get to live directly in God’s presence with our new resurrection body (cf. Revelation 21-22). I cannot get any more specific than this because Scripture does not get more specific. But whatever the New Creation looks like, it surely must be so mind-blowingly wonderful that we can only begin to think about the possibilities with our finite minds. If your hope and imagination are not fired by this vision that the NT reports, if your heart does not leap with joy over this promise, it is only because I have done a lousy job in trying to articulate it for you. And if that has happened, I apologize.
This, then, is our Christian hope. When our body dies we who are in Christ go to be with the Lord, not because we are deserving but because we have been washed clean by Christ’s blood shed on the cross for us. In Jesus’ place, heaven if you like, we will get to rest and be refreshed in Jesus’ healing and loving presence as we await his final return to finish the redemptive work he started when he became human. When that happens, we will know in full the reality of our final destiny, the New Creation—a radically transformed and fused heaven and earth where evil, death, and suffering are forever banished and we will have a new and wonderful resurrection body, animated by the very Spirit of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 13.12).
Why then would we be ultimately sad for our loved ones who have died in the Lord as we remember and honor them today? And what do we have to fear? As Paul tells us in that magnificent passage from Romans 8, if God is for us, who can be against us? Not even death can separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord! We have nothing to fear because there is now no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ Jesus. This is our hope and our destiny and this morning I encourage and exhort you to embrace that which is offered to you freely so that you too may find strength and hope and purpose in the living of your days.
That’s all well and good, you say. But what does the resurrection have to do with us right now? What about that mission statement of ours, Changed by God to make a difference for God? What does the resurrection hope have to do with that? Sounds pretty future oriented to me. Good questions! What our resurrection hope reminds us is this. Creation matters a great deal to God. He has promised to redeem it and us, and we had better pay attention to that because it means we have work to do right here and now.
Moreover, if we have the hope and promise of living in God’s direct presence forever in his New Creation, we had better get busy and start working on developing the kind of Christian character that will allow God to shape us into the humans he created us to be. This is where the beatitudes in today’s Gospel lesson come into play because they point to the only kind of character that will be suited to live in the New Creation, character that is selfless, humble, merciful, gentle, and peaceable, among others. Contrary to what some have maintained, the character traits Jesus talks about in the beatitudes are not impossible goals. They are evidence that we are growing in faith, hope, and love by the power of the Spirit living in us right now.
These Christian character traits will also equip us to do the work Jesus calls each of us to do on his behalf so that he can use us as agents of his healing love and redemption for his broken and hurting people and world. It is a holy and awesome honor and call, and putting on the character of Christ, i.e., developing the the kind of Christian character the beatitudes illustrate, is a surefire way to guarantee that we live our life with meaning, purpose, and power.
Suffering there will be, but the consistent message of Scripture is to take heart, retain our hope that is is Christ, and hold on, even in the face of massive suffering. God is in control and will redeem all that is wrong in his world because God is greater than the evil that afflicts us. Not only that, we also have an eternal future that is secure; again, not because we are worthy but because we have a God who is gracious beyond anything we dare imagine or hope for. And when, by God’s grace, we learn to appropriate the present and future hope of the resurrection, we know that we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be praise and honor and glory forever! May we, with the rest of God’s saints, rejoice in the great and glorious gift that is ours through Jesus Christ our Lord. Alleluia!
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.