All Ghosts Day?
Ghosts are popular again. The 1950s had “Topper”; the 70s had “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir”; then the 80s had “Ghostbusters.” 30 years go by and we have “The Ghost Whisperer”, and now CBS brings us “Ghosts”. The Church doesn’t celebrate ghosts but saints. Ghosts are from the past, haunt the present, and aren’t real. Demonic spirits, fallen angels, are real, but that ‘quote’ you find all over the internet “None of the dead come back. But some stay” is not from the Bible’s St. John. Apparently, it’s from an 1896 collection of ghost stories (“An Itinerant House”). Saints are from the past, present, and they live into the future forever. Ghosts are nothing to celebrate, so why in practice do many have “All Ghosts’ Day” instead of “All Saints’”?
Because we’re practical Sadducees. Sadducees according to Acts 23:8, “say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits,” This is the belief of scientism, unbelievers in general, and liberal “Christianity." Dead is dead. The immortality of the soul is a Greek not a biblical concept, and nothing survives dying. No self, no sin, no Savior. Our text is part of an encounter where the Sadducees try to reduce Jesus’ Biblical truth to the absurd. A woman is married multiple times because each time her husband dies leaving her childless. Each time the man’s brother, in accordance with OT law takes the widow as wife but he too dies before producing a child. She and all 7 husbands die. They ask Jesus, “In the resurrection whose wife will she be?” Because this is a question that can’t be answered, they believe they’ve proved the Bible can’t teach there is a resurrection of the dead or spirits living on.
Reduction to the Absurd, which is often used in satire, is a favorite method of agnosticism and unbelief. This earth couldn’t be 10,000 years old or less: look how old the mountains appear. Jesus Body and Blood can’t be on the altar: what happens if a fly lands on them or fire breaks out. Babies need baptizing? O so they’re sinners for crying when hungry? From a 6-day creation, to the Body and Blood of Christ being on the altar, to babies needing Baptism, to the dead going to heaven or hell, and all being raised on the Last Day, if you believe the Bible only insofar as it makes sense to you, then you don’t believe the Bible at all but your own sense. Then woe to you if you ever find yourself guilty of a sin that’s too big for you to think forgiven, an illness that is hopeless to you, a problem that is impossible for you. Paul in chains about to die for the faith says, “I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God's word is not chained” (2 Timothy 2:9). For you God’s word is chained to your way, your extent, your limits of thought.
Jesus declares, in Mark’s account, the Sadducees are “quite wrong” (12:27). That’s the RSV translation. In NIV has “badly mistaken!” KJV “greatly err.” YLT “greatly astray.” MSG “way off base.” The adjective polus is “many, much, large.” Having our dead left in the grave, safely in the past, only able to haunt us with memories and guilts, is a large mistake not an innocent faux pau. It does show the chief distinction between ghosts and saints. Only you see your ghosts. C.S. Lewis says in the expression "'I saw a ghost' and the words 'I saw a saint'.” We have “all the pallor and insubstantiality” of the ghost, and “all the gold and blue of” the saint (Lewis, Miracles,147).
In dealing with our Sadduceeism, Jesus is very blunt about our “great error,” our ‘bad mistake.’ Mt. 22:23 using same word plana? He says, “You err (plana? ) not knowing neither the Scripture nor the power of God.” And in Mark 12:24, again using the same word plana?, Jesus says, “Is not this why you plana? (err) not knowing by revelation the Scriptures neither the power of God.” Christ goes to the OT, the same one that Liberal Christians reject as teaching the resurrection of the dead, to prove by means of a verb’s tense that the dead are alive now and so able to rise. Moses ‘calls’ Yahweh the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is the God of living people not of dead people or of ghosts.
And what about Heb. 12 pointing us to being surrounded by a great crowd of living witnesses not by haunting ghosts as we run this race called life? It says: “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.. Let us run the race marked out for us.” But even so, Heb. 12 doesn’t tell us to focus on the saints, but on Jesus, saying, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” Focusing on Jesus we see He didn’t take on the nature of angels but humans. He wanted to redeem flesh and blood, not bury and forget it in the grave. He in a fallen world took His perfect flesh and lived without blame, stain, but in pain, our life in our place. Every single point you fall, and you don’t even know them all, He stood. Where you leave stench, stain, and failure, Jesus left roses, sunshine, and success, and yet, He the guiltless is the one tried, convicted, and crucified in place of us guilty ones. He did all this, suffered all this in flesh and blood. Into the grave goes His flesh and blood to be raised by the Father as proof Jesus succeeded in paying for and redeeming flesh and blood. But there’s more: Jesus left tangible things to transmit to flesh and blood sinners His Holiness: Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, Holy Communion.
But Jesus says more than that Abe, Ike, and Jake, all dead and buried for over 300 years, bodies, and all trace of them, long now dust blowing in the wind, are alive. “For to Him all are alive.” You going to go by what you see or He sees? What you say or He says? “All” not some, not most, but all are alive to Him. Look up Arnold Bocklin’s “Isle of the Dead”; do it while listening to Rachmaninov’s symphonic poem by that name inspired by a black and white print of that painting. Contrast this with the clouds of witnesses eagerly watching our game of life or later in Heb. 12 the saints coming to “thousands and thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect.” You sense Bocklin and Rachmaninov see nothing but pallor and insubstantiality, but we the golds and blues of touchable saints.
In Acts 17:28, Pauls says that in God we live, move, and have our being. Paul is quoting the pagan poet, Epimenides of Crete, who lived 600 BC. Then He quotes the 4th century BC pagan poet Aratus saying, “We are His offspring.” Do you get it? Even the pagans know this much Biblical truth, a truth that is widely disbelieved and denied today. All are alive to Him whether in life or death. Death is a barrier to us not to the God who is Life. No one is long gone to the God who is Eternal. Heb. 4:13, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to Whom we must give account.” Death does not end the relationship between God and Man. Again, God the Son took on flesh and blood to redeem that relationship, but outside of Him in unbelief, the relationship still goes on until the judgment of the quick and the dead sends those outside of Christ to be with their father, the devil, forever and those in Christ to be with their Brother and their Father forever.
The Gospel accounts of the interchange between Sadducees and Jesus in the Temple don’t just say the crowds were astonished but that others hostile to Jesus, the teachers of the law, said what Jesus said is beautiful. That is one meaning of the word NIV translated as “well”. It’s beautiful in that it’s fitting. Why? The Sadducees’ error denies there is a resurrection in which all must give an account. Wrong. No one is left sleeping in their grave for what Churchill called “the Big Sleep” and others have styled “dreamless sleep.” Nope, all are alive to Him. Nobody sleeps through the judgment. There is a day of reckoning when earth and sea will give up their dead.
All will be raised says Jesus in John 5, and saints will be shown to be righteous in Jesus and those outside of Him will be given a chance to show their righteousness apart from Jesus. They will sputter about how they ate and drank in His presence – not how they ate and drank His presence as those who commune with Jesus’ flesh and blood do – and how He taught in their streets (Lk 13:36), not taught them as He does us. They will sputter how they never failed to do this and that. But Jesus will show how outside of Him and His holy life, outside His keeping of the Law, His forgiveness, all they did was fail. That’s how it is for us too outside of our Baptism washing us, outside of Absolution separating our sins from us as far as east is from west, outside of the Communion of His Body and Blood feeding us forgiveness, life, and salvation. As for all those who thought dead is dead, death is sleep, or worse death means automatic heaven for all, Jesus thunders, “I never knew you. Depart from me you workers of iniquity” (Lk 13:37). “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Note hell was not prepared by God with flesh and blood in view.
Our world has cycled back to ghosts. For unbelief, for materialism, you are left with the choice between lifeless corpses and immaterial but living ghosts. For now, the world would rather daydream about ghosts from the past living on with no day of reckoning. The Christian view is more consistent. In mid-20th century Lewis says, "As nothing outlasts God, so nothing slips away from Him into a past" (Psalms, 137). A mid-19th century Lutheran says, “But death makes or restores more bonds than it breaks" (Krauth, Con. Ref., 85). That’s cool. Finally, the 4th century Augustine says, "’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’" (City of God, 20.9). The Comanches never spoke the name of one of their dead "for fear of being haunted by specters from the Shadow Land" (Blakely, Come Sundown, 371). We speak the name of our dead in Christ because they are still with us in Christ at His Supper “evermore praising” Him. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
All Saints’ Sunday (20221106); Luke 20:37-40