Sermon delivered on All-Saints’ Sunday A, November 5, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. It’s a splendid time to read it and be renewed by Christian hope.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
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: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In this day and age where there is increasingly fuzzy thinking about Sin, Death, and Judgment—not to mention an increasing acceptance of gnostic thinking about the evil of the created order versus the acceptance of all things spiritual—it is vital that we Christians think straightly about the hope and promise of the resurrection. Where are our loved ones who have died in Christ right now, and what is their final destiny? Moreover, what does All- Saints mean for us who are still living in this mortal life? This is what I want us to look at this morning.
We start with the question of where are our Christian dead? While the entire Bible speaks very little of heaven, we get a glimpse of it in our NT lesson from Revelation. Many folks think these visions of the heavenly throne room are in the future, but they are mistaken. St. John is getting a glimpse of the present heavenly reality. And what does he see? The saints of God standing before God’s throne and Jesus the Lamb. There is a great multitude of them from every tribe, language, and nation—a reminder that the gospel is available to anyone with the good sense to believe and accept it—and they are worshiping their Creator and the Lamb. Visual imagery is important in St. John’s revelation, and we see the Christian dead dressed in white robes and waving palm branches. These images remind us that their sins have been washed clean by the blood of the Lamb, thus the white robes. They are no longer wearing their filthy, sin-stained garments that we all wear in this mortal life. And the palm branches they wave proclaim Jesus as God’s Messiah or anointed one, who came to die for us so that we could be rescued from our slavery to Sin, and Death which always results from it.
These visual images are reinforced by what the saints proclaim. They rightly acknowledge they are standing before God’s throne and the Lamb because of what God has done for them in Christ. “Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb!” they proclaim with great joy and wonderment. They readily acknowledge that they are in God’s direct presence only because of God’s awesome and gracious love for them, not because they have done anything to deserve or merit being there. I want to read you a quick story that I recount at every Christian funeral. It poignantly summarizes the free gift of God’s grace that flows from God’s loving and merciful heart, a deep and abiding love God has for even the worst sinners.
In 1989 Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, wife of Emperor Charles of Austria died. She was the last Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary, and Queen of Bohemia—one of the last members of the storied House of Habsburg. Her funeral was held in Vienna, from which she had been exiled most of her eventful life. After the service in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, her body was taken to the Imperial Crypt, where some 145 Habsburg royals are buried. As the coffin was taken to the Crypt, an ancient ceremony took place. A herald knocked at the closed door, and a voice responded, “Who seeks entrance?” The herald answered, “Zita, Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary.” From within came the response, “I do not know this person.” The herald tried again, saying, “This is Zita, Princess of Bourbon-Parma, Empress of Bohemia.” The same reply was heard: “I do not know this person.” The third time, the herald and pallbearers said, “Our sister Zita, a sinful mortal.” The doors swung open.
Did you get the punch line? Of anybody that we might consider by worldly standards as being worthy of acceptance into God’s kingdom, Zita was it. She was royalty and an important big-shot. But none of that made a difference to God because she, like the rest of us, was a sinner and therefore unworthy to enter into God’s holy presence. But God didn’t create us to condemn us or to remain alienated to us, and so God sent his only begotten Son to die for us so that we could have our sins washed away, be reconciled to God and live, thanks be to God! Can I hear an Amen?
Furthermore, St. John reminds us that those who stand before God and the Lamb are also rejoicing because they have come out of the great tribulation in which they suffered persecution and death. Among this great throng, then, are the martyrs who have literally given their lives for Christ. But we don’t have to be martyred to have the privilege of standing before God’s throne and the Lamb in heaven. God’s love is not particular in that way. We think of our own tribulations in this mortal life and the tribulations of those we have loved but lost for a season. If you have ever seen someone you love struggle with disease or addiction or old age and infirmity, or madness or financial, social, or relational calamity, to name just a few, you can understand and appreciate why these Christian dead rejoice that they have come through their own tribulations and now stand released from them, thanks be to God. They now have the immense and wonderful privilege of being with God and his Christ in heaven. As St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live” (Philippians 1.23-24, NLT).
All this reminds us that our Christian dead are conscious in some form and are aware of being in Christ’s presence, something that St. Paul believes will be indescribably good, as we’ve just seen. So to answer the question, where are our Christian dead, they are with Christ in heaven, God’s dimension. Their souls have been separated from their mortal bodies, but they are alive indeed even as their mortal bodies lie moldering in the grave. This is what Christians usually mean when we talk about life after death. But let’s also be clear about this. Our Christian dead are still dead, even though we know their souls are alive with God and Christ in heaven. And it is precisely at this point that many Christians today get tripped up. They get tripped up in part because the Church, at least here in the West, has done a dreadful job of teaching about and proclaiming our hope—the sure and certain expectation—of resurrection. There are many reasons for this, reasons that we do not have time to explore today: a loss of creational theology that posits the goodness and worth of God’s created order, especially to God; an increasing acceptance of gnostic thinking that rejects the goodness of God’s created order and is all about all things “spiritual;” and yes, sadly, an increasing skepticism about the resurrection of the dead as we continue to elevate to an idolatrous level science and human experience.
So what do I mean when I say our Christian dead are still dead? The scene from God’s throne room in St. John’s revelation is a glimpse of the present heavenly reality, not the future hope and promise of the new heavens and earth. God’s dimension of heaven remains hidden from our mortal eyes, and because it is hidden from us, we must endure the pain of being separated from our Christian dead. But that separation is only for a season. As St. John alludes to in our epistle lesson, the dimensions of heaven and earth will one day be fused together when Christ returns to consummate his saving work that he started at his first coming. When that happens, our mortal bodies will be raised from their graves and transformed into spiritual bodies, or bodies that are animated and powered by the Holy Spirit, not flesh and blood (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.42-50). Their souls will be reunited with their transformed bodies and they will get to live forever in God’s new creation, the new heavens and earth about which Revelation 21.1-7 speaks. This is what resurrection is all about, my beloved. It is about bodily existence, not some kind of ongoing disembodied spiritual existence that gnosticism advocates. As Bishop Tom Wright says, resurrection is about life after life after death. It is the end game and the culmination of God’s promise that runs throughout the story of the Bible to restore and make right his good but sin- and evil-corrupted original creation. New creation, new bodily existence, and the privilege of living in God’s and the Lamb’s direct presence, only this time with new indestructible bodies, is the essence of the Christian hope, hope again defined as the sure and certain expectation of resurrection. There is no teaching like it in any of the other major religions.
For anyone who has watched a loved one struggle in his or her mortal body, the hope of resurrection is the only balm that can really heal our aching hearts because as St. John reminds us, while no one knows what our resurrection bodies will look like, they will be patterned after Christ’s resurrection body and will surely be incomprehensibly beautiful, strong, and healthy. Only then, as St. Paul reminds us, will the last enemy of Death be fully conquered (1 Corinthians 15.26, 53-55).
Now that we have answered the questions about the current state and future destiny of the Christian dead, what about us who still are members of the Church Militant, who live our mortal lives in God’s good but broken world? Our epistle and gospel lessons have something to say about that as well. As St. John reminds us, we have the privilege of being called children of God, and because we are God’s children in Christ (and let’s be clear; only those who are in Christ are God’s children), we can look forward to our inheritance we’ve just talked about, an inheritance made possible by God’s great love and mercy for us as demonstrated in the blood of the Lamb shed for us on the cross. God’s gracious gift of salvation is given freely to us and we are called to live in the power of the Spirit, a gift we received at our baptism, as God’s healed and transformed people. This means that we strive to conform our lives, however imperfectly, to become truly human beings who bear God’s image—or to use St. John’s language, to be pure. It means, to name just a few, that we seek God’s righteousness and justice in all aspects of our lives, in how we manage our resources and treat those around us, especially those in our family. It means we are merciful and forgiving just as God in Christ is merciful and has forgiven us. It means we seek the peace and welfare of the world, especially in our own neck of the woods. We do this in response to the gift of eternal life, resurrection life, with which God has blessed us. This is why All-Saints’ Sunday is so important, my beloved. This is the Good News those on our Roll Call of the Victorious are experiencing. Remember that as we read their names in a few minutes. This is the Good News we are to proclaim and live out, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.