Two Questions about All Saints
This holy day is set aside to remember those in Christ who have died. As we do, two questions come up. Where are they right now and how'd they get there?
Only once you've lost some one real close to you will the question, Where are they right now?' tease your mind. Where is that person whom you loved, laughed, and lived with for so long? Where are you to picture them right now?
You know what Disney's answer is? They're not in graves; they're not in heaven; they're in your heart. If only I had a nickel for every Disney movie I've seen where someone puts their hand on the chest of a weeping child and assured them that grandpa or dad or Uncle Pete isn't gone at all; he's right here.
See how nice and tidy that is? No messy grave, no thinking about decaying to dust. No ashes to ashes, dust to dust as punishment for being a flesh and blood sinner. Just sweet memories. But it works the other way too. No trying to picture heaven for a child. No stumbling around trying not to say too little or too much about heaven. Just point the child to his heart and there is his loved one. This also does away with the nasty little fact that there is a loss, a separation, a going way. Not if grandma, or Aunt Mary or Mom is right here for the rest of your life.
But some of that is true, isn't it? Our loved ones are in our memories. But eternal life isn't someone eternally remembering you. If it is, our great, great grandparents would be eternally lost because who on earth remembers them now? Once a mother called me panic stricken; she could no longer remember the sound of her child's voice. Was that child now lost? Disney would say, Yes.' Christ says, No!'
Where are they now? You know what unbelief answers? They're only in the ground. They're on their way back to dust. They will never be seen, heard, or touched again. Unbelief says we are nothing but chemicals and minerals. There is no mind only a collection of brain cells. There is no heart that loves only chemicals that make you feel a certain way. There is no eternal soul only a material body that ceases to be once the mechanical pump called a heart ceases to beat.
Well where does Christ say His dead are right now? We're tempted to say the direct opposite of unbelief. Unbelief points at the grave and says, "There and there alone is your loved one. Buried beneath six feet of dirt on his/her way back to dirt." And we're tempted to hear Christ saying the opposite, "That's not them anymore." But dear friend it is. That's why the Church has always so carefully cared for the bodies of the dead and marked their graves. That's why we still mark them today. The headstone is statement to all. This is not the end of the body that rests here. God isn't finished here.
There's a powerful passage at the beginning of the novel Moby Dick where a preacher in a whaling community is contrasting those whose loved one's are buried versus those whose loved ones are lost at sea. "Oh! Ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass; who standing among flowers can say here, here lies my beloved; ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these." There's another powerful passage in the apocryphal Revelation of Moses. God stands before the grave of Adam, and says, "Adam, Adam." And the body of Adam answers from the grave. "Here am I Lord." And God replies, "I promise thee the resurrection."
Those mortal remains are your loved one. DNA would say so; God says so. He proclaims, "I will call these very ashes, these very molecules no matter where they have been scattered back together on the Last Day, and those very eyes you knew, looked into, and loved will see you again. Those hands that are bones will be flesh again to hold you." You didn't just love a soul; you loved a body. And so did God. He didn't just send His Son into the world to redeem souls but bodies that's why He lived, suffered, and died in a body.
But Christ says more than our loved ones in Him are in the ground right now. They're also in heaven. Stephen called for Jesus to receive his soul in heaven at the moment of death. Jesus said to the thief, "Today (not someday) you'll be with me in Paradise." So that's where you're loved one in Christ is right this very minute. As you stand before God today singing His praise, so Revelation shows our loved ones in Christ standing before the throne of God crying out, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb." As you serve your Lord Jesus day and night, so says Revelation they are in heaven serving Him day and night.
But there's a difference. You hunger; they don't. You thirst; they don't. The sun beats upon you causing you to protect your skin and shield your eyes; the sun never beats down upon them. You cry; they don't. Revelation doesn't just say that God wipes away their tears as we would. No, it says God wipes their tears out of their eyes. He takes away any reason they could have for tears. You take the best divine service you've ever been to: one where you were keenly tuned to the wondrous reality that in Communion the Lord of heaven comes to earth with His angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven. That's what your dead in Christ know and experience now and everyday they've been separated from you.
What a glorious answer to where are our dead in Christ right now! Their bodies sleep in the ground waiting to be raised, and their souls live in heaven praising the God who created them, redeemed them, and will raise them. But there are two questions about all saints. The second is, "How'd they get to where they are right now?"
Disney tells you your dead live on in your heart, and how does that happen? By being memorable, by giving sage advice, by sacrificing for those you leave behind. Disney can live with this because that describes they're make-believe characters. They're always saying something memorable, something sage, or sacrificing nobly. But it ain't me. I won't make it to everlasting life, even in someone's memory, that way. Neither will my loved ones. I can remember this or that about my mom, dad, grandparents, and others who died in Christ. But truthfully, it's only a faint ember that bursts again into flames every now and then. It's sure no eternal flame like the one burning at the grave of President Kennedy.
Unbelief says the dead are gone. They were only chemicals and minerals arranged to think, move, and talk; once that ceased that was it. But few people really believe that. The idea of an afterlife is found in every civilization ever discovered. And most have a good afterlife and a bad one. What gets you into the good one? Good works. Being a saint. Good people go to a good afterlife or those who die a hero's death. You aren't paying attention if you haven't noticed this. You'll find it in songs. A person is in heaven because they did good things on earth. TV and movies regularly make this same confession. Often it will be by some grizzled ruffian who gives his rugged benediction that his fallen comrade or friend must be with God, in a better place because he sure deserved it.
Once more I am toast and so are all my loved ones in Christ if where they are right now depends on them having done good things down here. You didn't know my grandmother on my mom's side or my grandfather on my dads. These weren't saintly people. They weren't as the Gospel reading appointed centuries ago for All Saints describes those who are blessed. They weren't merciful, pure in heart, and they certainly weren't peacemakers.
So where does that leave my surly grandparents? Where does that leave my loved ones who've died but didn't live squeaky clean lives in Christ? Where does that leave me? Where does it leave you? It leaves me outside of heaven looking in. It leaves me staring at the grave of my loved one and wondering if maybe, after all, they didn't have what it takes to get into the divine service before the throne of God.
But what does our text tells us? Does it say: "The people in heaven have made their dirty robes white by the good works they did on earth?" Does it say, "The saints in heaven are those who've washed their dirty robes and made them white in the blood they shed by a hero's death?" Does it even say, "The saints in heaven robes are white because they confessed their faith in Christ to the point of a martyr's death, so their blood made them white?" No, it says, "They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb."
That the saints do good works is true, but their good works don't merit heaven. No one, not any of my loved ones in Christ or even any of the famous saints like Peter, Paul, John, or Luke had the purity of heart needed to see God. Take Paul for example. He said that no good thing dwelled in his flesh. He said, "The good I want to do; I don't do. The evil I don't want to do; I do." So how'd he get into heaven? The same way your loved one did and you will. In Christ; in His innocent blood shed for your sins. In His holy blood poured out to cover your unholy life. It's the blood of Christ that washes away any and every sinful stain on your robe. Though you can't forgive yourself; though someone else won't forgive you, your sin or sins can no longer stain a robe washed clean in the blood of Christ.
Jesus shed His blood on the cross for sinners. He puts His blood in the Waters of Baptism for sinners; He paints it over the lives of sinners with the Words of Absolution. He gives His blood in Communion to sinners to drink, not just for forgiveness, but for life and for eternal salvation. Jesus wants us to be sure of where the dead in Christ are right now and how they got there. Right now they are where Christ is, and they got there by His good works and shed blood that they were washed in, forgiven by, or drank. Any questions? Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
All Saints' Day (Observed) (20061105); Revelation 7: 9-17