Beyond Death: Bait, Burger, and Bible
EHV translates Ps. 48:14, "For this God is our God forever and ever. He will guide us beyond death." To the Woke world everything important is something before death. But as the Psalmists indicates there is something beyond and Bait, Burger, and Bible would tell us what.
The first thing we go to is the bait as in clickbait. You'll find this quote on websites, movie intro's, and paranormal radio. "None of the dead come back. But some stay." The citation will be St. John the Divine. For some that's John the Apostle. For others, that's another John of that era. In neither case is the quote Biblical. It's clickbait, but is it true? Of course. The dead do remain to pain us for our sins and/or grieve us for our loss. Like the armed man of Proverbs, the Dead come rushing in the moment they are gone. You recall every slight, every let down, every single one of your sins real or imagined against the dead. Or/and a sense of loss. Unrelievable, unending, unbelievable loss that depending on the closeness of the relationship will be a chasm, a valley, a canyon, uncrossable.
Everyone, those in Christ and out, those in the faith and those out feel these things. That's why Paul reminds us: "Do not be ignorant about those who fall asleep in Jesus lest you grieve like others who have no hope." Here's an example of that from Paul's timeframe. An Egyptian woman writes to a family that has lost a son. She consoles them that they did everything they could and concludes: "But, nevertheless, against such things one can do nothing. Therefore comfort ye one another. Fare ye well" (Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East, 164)! C.S. Lewis observed that practices like that of Queen Victoria putting her dead husband's clothes out for dinner every evening didn't comfort but "made the dead far more dead" (A Grief Observed, 65).
A proper translation will help us grieve rightly. It's not as some have it, "If we believe that Jesus died and rose" which puts the weight of our loss squarely on our believing or not or enough. No, it's, "Since we believe that Jesus died and rose, so also God through Jesus will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus." Jesus death for sins and sinners and His resurrection which proves God the Father stamped all sins Paid in Full is the guarantee that our dead in Christ come back with Him, and like Him. Neither vengeful, bitter, or mindful of their sins or our sins against them. As Paul ends, "Comfort one another with these words" not with clickbait about ghosts.
How can a burger be a guide beyond death? Well, it's not burger as in hamburger but Burger as in the 18th century poet Gottfried Burger. His poem, "Lenore" is about a man showing up at midnight that looks like her dead husband and wants her to come with him to their marriage bed. Off she goes into the night with him on his black horse. She asks why are they riding so fast and depending on translation he responds darkly, because "the dead travel fast." How's that comforting? That's the stuff of horror movies. You see the dead skittering across an open doorway, up the stairs, across the celling. But this is true to my life: out of nowhere come my mother, father, grandparent, or anyone of the 140 plus people I've planted in the Lord's victory garden. And as I've told many of you, one death brings back all the other deaths you've experienced. It's like a bugle call to muster. They come running back to you again and your grieving, even though it's not hopeless like others, is still grief and when all your dead come piling in, it's hard to sort out what you're grieving for whom.
You know what's scary about the fast moving dead in horror scenarios? They're dead; that's what. But in Christ the fast moving dead are not dead at all just sleeping. Remember this truth got Jesus laughed to scorn in Luke 8? And remember John 11? When Jesus refers to the sick Lazarus now dead as having gone to sleep, the disciples say, "Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better." Again, the woebegone disciples are wrong but right. They think there is no reason for Jesus to go to Lazarus because he's just asleep and anyone can wake the sleeping, but Lazarus is really dead, but in Jesus that is no more than sleep. When the fastmoving dead rise, and you can't stop them, know that they aren't dead at all in Christ. Only asleep. Their bodies are in a cemetery. That word is related to the Greek Word used right in our text: koimao - to fall asleep. Cemetery comes from the Greek koimeterion - sleeping chamber. Though buried under 6 feet of earth, though decayed to dust and ashes, it's as easy for the living Lord Jesus to raise them from the depths of death as it was for you to wake them from a nap. So when the bugle blast of another death brings them running see their eyes wide open.
What I've just said is true, but I don't think this is the real comfort of our text in regard to the fast travelling dead. The comfort is not that a death acts like a trumpet call to all our dead but that "the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first." Paul in 1 Thes. is dealing with the error there that those still alive were somehow better off than those who had already died in Christ. The trumpet call of God on the Last Day will show how things really are. The dead in Christ rise first, their souls rejoining risen, glorified bodies that our words and pictures fail at describing. Then we who are alive are changed. Paul doesn't say that here but in 1 Cor.15: "Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed" (51-2). George McDonald says we are foolish when we look at the dead and think, "Behold an old man dead!" No to speak properly says he is to cry, "Behold, a man-child born" (Phantastes, 179)! "Comfort one another with these words."
Clickbait and Burger have their uses, but the Bible is our guide beyond death to the truth that we're forever with the Lord starting NOW! Hear Paul convey this truth to the Romans surprised they don't get it: "Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were therefore buried with Him by baptism into His death, so that just as He was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may walk about in a new life" (6:3-4). In Christ, those whose bodies sleep in the grave and those of us still walking about on this side of the dirt, are both dead and alive in Christ. Wake up to this fact! Revel in this fact! This is the truth. Our dead in Christ aren't gone but gone on ahead. They're 'dead' to us but alive to God. Jesus said to those who denied the resurrection and didn't look for the life of the world to come: "Now God is not the God of the dead but of the living; for all are alive to Him." Your mom's laugh; your dad's voice; your loved one's person is very much alive and awake. You wake to that reality. When Song of Solomon says, "Love is as strong as death" (8:6), it's the Bridegroom, Christ speaking. His love for us or our loved one is not ended or even interrupted by death.
So when Paul says in our text, "And thus we shall always be with the Lord" he isn't only referring to the Last Day when the dead rise and we who are alive are changed in the twinkling of an eye. "Thus we shall always be with the Lord" refers to now and then. Chrysostom says, "Being ever with the Lord is the same as eternal life" (ACC, NT IX, 91). The moment you're baptized into the Triune God, you've passed through the portal of death into eternal life. Ranke, 19th century, German historian, came from a family of Lutheran pastors observed "'that eternity is equidistant from all points in time'" (Idols for Destruction, 32). C.S. Lewis observed, "As nothing outlasts God, so nothing slips away from Him into a past" (Psalms, 137).
The Church has never been ignorant of these truths and has lived with their dead in light of them. Augustine said, "For the souls of the faithful departed are not divorced from Christ's kingdom, which is the temporal church. If they were, we should not be mindful of them at God's altar in the communion of the body of Christ; ...We conclude, therefore, that even now, in time, the church reigns with Christ both in its living and departed members" (ACC, NT, XII, 329). Speaking of the time of the apostles to 250 A.D. one church historian says this, "The service in memory of the dead was the Holy Communion, celebrated in consciousness of the communion between Christians on earth and the Church beyond the sight of mortal men. There was a cosmic dimension to the Church and its prayers" (Church from Age to Age, 127). I've mentioned before churches where the Communion rail is in a semicircle around the altar. This confesses that as we commune on this side of heaven with the Body and Blood of Christ the rail continues around the altar to the other side of heaven where our dead in Christ commune with us in the very same Body and Blood of Christ.
Our text conveys both the present nature of the relationship and how it is all in Christ. The text begins not speaking of those who have died or are dead in Christ. It opens with, "Concerning those being fallen asleep." This is a present participle. It not about those dead or asleep in the past but those present to us now who are sleeping in their graves wherever that may be. Then with a simple reflexive pronoun "Himself: the text emphasizes that this ongoing reunion of those dead in Christ with those alive in Christ, that the Church has always confessed happens in the Holy Communion, is accomplished by the Lord personally. It says, "For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven...and so we will always (The word 'always' includes now.) be together with the Lord." Find Jesus and you've found everyone else in Jesus whether in life or beyond death. "Comfort one another with these words." Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
All Saints' Sunday (20211107); I Thessalonians 4:13-18