This Year It's Personal
You're familiar with All Saints' Day. The Church celebrates it on November 1 or moves the festival to the first Sunday in November when the first doesn't fall on a Sunday. November 2 is All Souls' Day. This is the day the Church has been setting aside since 636 AD for Christians to remember their ordinary everyday loved one's who have died in Christ. All Saints' Day, in contrast, is the day for remembering the 'saints' and martyrs of Church history.
In some sense, I think it's more important to have All Souls' Day then it is All Saints'. All Christians have had ordinary grandparents, parents, spouses, children, brothers, sisters, cousins and friends fall asleep in Jesus, and we can't help but remember them. We give special memorials to the Church and flowers on the altar so that their memory might be alive to others too. On Mother's Day we give flowers for mothers and grandmothers that have long ago passed on. We are like that Statler Brothers' song about the Vietnam memorial. I think it's a mother who's at the wall looking at her son's name, and she asks God to please tell her son that "he's more than just a name on a wall."
We stand before the graves of those who died in Christ and we too think, "He or she is more than just a name on that stone." Moreover, they are more than what is lying there in the dust, under the ground, in the coffin. Their life came down to more than this, this 3 x 6 x 6 piece of ground in Austin, Texas, in Saginaw, Michigan or wherever on God's green earth they are buried and for that matter even if they were not able to be buried.
All Souls' Day is a celebration of the fact that our loved ones in Christ are still very much alive. I must pause for a moment and contrast what All Souls' Day started out as and still is among Lutherans with what it came to be in Catholicism. The Catholic Dictionary says it's "The Feast celebrated on the 2nd of November in solemn commemoration of and as a prayer for the souls in purgatory. The priest is permitted to celebrate 3 Masses on this day." The link to the false teaching of souls being in purgatory where they need our prayers and Masses to help them get out is why Lutherans dropped this festival. It's not found in the 1941 hymnal, but it was restored in the hymnal of 1982.
And I'm glad it was. There is a deep felt human need to remember those who have died. If the Church doesn't do it, Christians can fall prey to the charlatans who make their living meeting this need. Right here in Austin there are people who conduct seances offering you a chance to make contact with your lost loved one. The TV show "Crossing Over" claims to do the same thing, and if you've watched this show, I'm sure you noticed how badly those poor people want to make some sort of contact so they might know that the one they lost is really not lost.
So how do we in Christ know that our dead in Christ are not really lost? Where are we to think of them being? If they're not in that plot of ground where are they? We creatures of time, space and place always have to be able to locate something in order for it to be real. So where to do we locate all the souls who have passed on in Christ?
First of all we locate them in life not in death. This is what our Lord plainly tells us. He uses that important introductory phrase, "I tell you the truth" which the New American Standard more accurately captures with, "truly, truly." Jesus has 3 ways of marking especially important words to us. The most basic is, "I say to you." Then it's "truly," and the most emphatic way Jesus marks His words is "truly, truly." It's unfortunate that our insert reduces this important phrase to, "I tell you the truth."
Twice in our short text Jesus says, "Truly, truly, I say to you." They are right next to each other and they say the same thing. "Truly, truly I say to you, whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. Truly, truly, I say to you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live." The simple truth is that apart from the Son's Word to our loved ones they were dead even when they appeared to live. We see physical death as a crossing over from life to death. Here Jesus' radically reorients us by saying that the most important crossing over is when a person goes from the spiritual death of this life to spiritual life that the Son gives.
Our dead in Christ are not dead, but very much alive and well even as we speak. I can say this because that is what Jesus says. And Jesus can say such a radical thing because unlike every other human being that has ever lived or will ever live, Jesus has life in Himself. All other humans since the fall have death not life in them. You know that. You feel death at work in you. At some point in your life the truth strikes you that the minute you were born you began to die. O the illusion of a steady progression of life holds till you're around 25 maybe 30 but certainly not past 35. And then you start to feel death making it's claim on you. You feel it in your bones; see it in your wrinkles; taste it in your soul. Then you realize death makes its final claim on everyone in or outside of Christ.
But there's a big difference. Our loved ones who heard Jesus' words of eternal life, lived on even at death. Though they might have appeared to us old and dried up, the baptismal waters of Jesus were a fount of life everlasting in them. Though they might have appeared malnourished, skin and bones when they died, the Body and Blood of Christ they ate while dying nourished them for eternal life.
Jesus was able to give them life because He is God in flesh and blood, and has life in Himself. Though His flesh and blood came from the very same Adam that our's did, though it was from the very same dust we are, it was joined to the Person of God the Son. God the Son imparted all the qualities of His Person to the flesh and blood that He took on in the womb of the Virgin Mary. His flesh and blood became all-powerful, all-knowing, present everywhere. Even when it died, it couldn't decay. God's eternal life radiated from His flesh and blood to the extent that even the fringes of the garments He wore had the power to heal, to give life.
If that much power is transmitted by His clothes, think then what sort of power, what sort of life energy is transmitted to those who eat and drink His very Body and Blood. If just touching the fringe of Jesus' garments could heal a women of a 12 year illness, what healing, what life, what power comes to those who have put on Christ in Baptism? If the words of Jesus could still a storm, cast out demons, and raise the dead, then the words He has given to us, "I forgive you," are certainly powerful to do what they say.
And I tell you this, it's in this matter of forgiveness that all our fears about our loved ones lay. When we remember our loved ones who have crossed over from this life that is death to that deathless life, we either remember their sins or our sins against them. Then we hear the last line of our text, "A time is coming when all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come out -those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned." As we hear this, the words, "He was a good man, a good mother, a good brother, a good friend" come up in our fallen hearts because the opinion clings to our sinful natures that people can be saved by being good enough.
Don't go there dear friends. Don't go to your loved one's goodness or your goodness because neither are good enough. As often as you say, "He or she was good enough," or, "I did the best I could for him or her," Satan sneers, "O really?" And you are toast. He has you now. You will be locked in a dialog with the devil which you can only lose. If you prove to the devil that your loved one or you are good enough for the resurrection of life than you've denied your Savior. If he proves to you that neither of you are good enough than you and your loved one seem condemned and you will despair.
Friends, don't think this text which begins with the glorious Gospel that "whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life and will not be condemned" ends with the Law of being good enough not to be condemned. What Jesus teaches here it exactly what He teaches in Matthew 25, the sheep and the goats. Before there is any mention of good works, the Shepherd divides them into sheep and goats. Sheep are those who hear His word. Then he proves they are sheep or goats by pointing to their works. Goats have no good works, yet when Jesus points that out to them, they claim they have never failed to do a good work. The sheep being forgiven of all their bad works have nothing but good works, yet when Jesus points that out to them, they claim they can't remember ever doing them.
Our dead in Christ will be raised to life not because they were good enough but because they are in Christ. His words are in their ears; His Body covers their bodies in Baptism; and His Body and Blood are in their bodies and blood in Communion. When it comes to eternal matters, the last judgment, the resurrection, remember not their goodness or badness, remember the good Christ who suffered already for their badness.
Jesus has already been to judgment bearing the sins of our dead in Christ and our's too. He was condemned, punished, and damned because no one in all the world was good enough. He gives us and our loved one's in Him His goodness through the words of absolution spoken into ears; through the waters of Baptism poured on to bodies; and through His Body and Blood given into bodies.
The only way we can find sin in ourselves or in the memories of our dead in Jesus is if we can find sin in Jesus. Can you? Of course you can't! Then let us stand at the graves of our loved one's who have passed from life to life in Christ, and know that while their bodies lay in dust, they are as much alive in Christ as we are. They join us when we celebrate the Holy Communion gathering around Christ with angels, archangels and all the rest of the company of heaven. They join us at every Baptism, every Absolution, every divine service because the souls that have passed on in Christ are always found where He is. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
All Souls' Day (11-2-03), John 5: 24-29