Tuesday, November 5, 2013
They are not dead... they live!
We have had a hard month of funerals; some of us are still wearing the fresh wounds of our grief. All Saints’ Day is both the welcome day to remember with joy those who departed this life in faith and a day of painful memories. The trouble is that thoughts of the saints often end right there – with thoughts, sorrows, and tears over those whom we have loved and lost to death. It may seem that all we have are memories, photos to rekindle forgotten moments and cemeteries in which to remember the dead. But those who depart this life in faith still live. They are not lost to us. Their voices sing with ours in worship separated by time but joined in praise of God, and they wait with us for the great and blessed reunion to eternal life.
It may seem obvious but it still needs to be said. God is not a God of the dead, a God of memories. Jesus says that because we call Him the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not dead but live! God is the God of the living and those who live with Him on another shore are no less alive than we who live right now. The Lord is not the refuge of the hopeless but the fortress of the hopeful. Do not allow yourselves to be consoled only by memory. God offers us no mere memory of the past as our consolation but the present unity of the saints and the future blest reunion. He gives us no dream to hold on to but the reality and fact of our own joyful resurrection to eternal life through Christ's resurrection.
St. Paul warns against grieving as the ignorant who have only their memories. We grieve as the hopeful who look for and anticipate the resurrection reunion with Christ and those who have gone before us. Jesus insists that the faithful dead have already passed to life eternal (John 5).
Those who live in Christ by baptism and faith do not live for this life only. They live this life in His grace and they live the life that is to come by faith, until they see it face to face. Whether we life or die, we belong to the Lord, says St. Paul. We live even when we die. The faithful who have departed this life in Christ are not gone from us or lost to us. They have preceded us to the place where we too shall go. They live already what we live by faith, they behold the Lord face to face, they know the beautific vision of God’s presence, and the blessed rest, rejoicing, and requiem of heaven, prepared for them and for us in Christ.
But they are also right here with us. Not some vague spiritual reality accessed by mediums or spiritualists but voices until with us each Sunday in the great "Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth". I wonder some times if we even hear it week after week. Therefore with angels and archangels, with patriarchs and prophets, with apostles and evangelists, and with all the saints, WE ALL JOIN in laud and magnifying Your holy name, evermore and always and forever praising You and singing the unending hymn... If you listen, you can hear their voices – by faith if not by ear. They are not lost to us and we are not lost to them but we are united in praise right here in the Divine Service.
My Scandinavian tradition has a half circle communion rail. The half circle you see represents the church on earth called and gathered by the Spirit of God. Though you do not see it, the circle continues and is completed by those who have gone before so that here and now we anticipate the reunion promised, we see by faith what we wait to see with our eyes.
Our comfort and hope are not a grave and a tombstone but baptism and life, our death with Christ and our resurrection with Christ, not the continuation of the broken life we live now but the eternal life which is beyond imagination to those of us so rooted in this present life but already fully realized by those who have gone before. We are not there yet but right here, right now we anticipate what is coming according to God's promise – a little bit of heaven, the saints, all of us together.
Here is where our architecture fails us. From earliest Christianity the entrance into the Sanctuary was meant to mirror the entrance into heaven. Through art and symbol, painting and tapestry, rich appointment and architectural design, we are transported from earth to heaven. Then somehow we lost our way and built structures with blank walls and an industrial feel – buildings that were in conflict with what happens in the Divine Service when we anticipate what is to come, the foretaste of the feast to come, the promise of the eternal marriage supper of the Lamb in this moment of time and in this particular place – the mystery of the means of grace.
I hate it when we disguise death, when we speak of the dead as having “passed away” or expired. Let us at least be honest and real. They died. But as bad as it is when we hide death behind useless euphemisms, it is even worse when we Christians disguise our hope behind sentiment – when we are content with memories, when we fail to recall the hope that is ours in Christ, and when we ignore how near the saints are to us and we too them in the Divine Service that prefigures and anticipates the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in heaven without end.
How sad it is that we have allowed ourselves to be content with only memories. We no longer go to funerals in the church but go to funeral homes for celebrations of life. We act as if we are left with only a past without a future, a hope of a yesterday restored instead of a promised future fulfilled? If that is true, then we do not know Christ and His resurrection. Yesterday is not our comfort. Today is our comfort. Where the saints lend their voices with ours singing Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Sabaoth (power and might). Tomorrow is our comfort. The feast to come which this is our foretaste.
All Saints and All Souls days are not really about the dead but the living. For the dead in Christ are not dead at all. They live – not some fake or imaginary life but a life more real than even the one we live now. For our lives are fragile, lived out in the shadow of death. The life we will live in the resurrection cannot be broken, harmed, stolen, or hurt. It is not merely that it is eternal – not some extension of the present fragile existence – but that it is the blessed life beyond all human imagining, wherein all our enemies are gone and only joy is left. We live this life by faith. The blessed dead by sight.
Don’t you dare content yourselves with memories when the promise of God is life and reunion! Don’t you dare settle for sentiment when Christ died and rose to give you new and eternal life! Don’t you dare exchange the hope and promise of the saints in light for a yesterday you cannot rekindle! Today we come, remembering the saints, rejoicing in the promise of the resurrection, and demanding from God nothing less than His full promise, eternal life with those whom we love who have departed this life in faith. Amen!