All Saints’ Sunday–November 4, 2018
Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9, Psalm 24, Revelation 21:1-6a, John 11:32-44
I’ve always felt All Saints Day services are a strange mixture of sadness and celebration, for as we remember those who have died—our grandparents, parents, children, family, and friends—we can’t help but re-experience the sadness we felt when they died, even if that was decades ago. We never stop missing their presence and love in our lives.
But it is also a celebration precisely because we’re remembering people we love who are now flooded with so much presence of Christ that their suffering has ended. We are happy for them, and we pray that one day we will be reunited with them.
Mary and Martha are devastated that their brother, Lazarus has died, but they also hope to be reunited with him on the Day of Resurrection which most Jews believed in. Jesus weeps yet he also knows the day of reunion is coming.
Today it is appropriate to both grieve and celebrate.
But to better understand what exactly we are celebrating, we need to unpack the vision we just heard from the Revelation to John, because our operating assumptions may cause us to misread and misunderstand what the promise of God for those who die in Christ.
First of all, notice this vision is not about our loved ones’ souls floating off to heaven after they die. I realize that is the pervasive understanding in the church, that when we die our body falls away, our soul floats off to heaven. End of story. This is pretty much what Plato thought, but it is a thin gruel compared to what Jesus taught.
This view is only partially right. When we die, we do lose our body and we are drawn into God’s nearer presence. Remember the so-called good thief on the cross who says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” And Jesus replies, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Paradise is a garden where the person is present to God in a new way. So when Jesus and the thief die on Good Friday, they are together in Paradise, the divine Garden. When the brain stops working, the false self with all its failed “emotional programs for happiness”, to quote Thomas Keating, ceases to exist.
What is left is the True Self, who we are and always have been in God. This is a rapturous feeling to be freed from all those destructive and reactive emotional programs and we are free to love and to be love. This is indeed Paradise. This, the Bible teaches, is what immediately happens in life after death.
But the good news presented in the New Testament does not end there. For on Easter Day, Jesus, but not the thief, is resurrected by the power of God—resurrection means Jesus’ True Self receives a glorified body, a human body with divine properties—he can show up and disappear and he can touch and be touched, and cook fish on the grill as in John 21.
Many Jews believed Resurrection would happen to all the faithful on the great Day of the Lord at the end. The church proclaims it happens to Jesus in the middle of time. And that it will also happen to the thief and to our loved ones when they too receive their glorified bodies.
But what do we need a resurrection Body for, if we are just supposed to float around in heaven, like a Ghost? So let’s look more closely at the vision John reveals to us:
“I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God…See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them”
Notice: we are not floating up to be with God in heaven but Heaven is coming down to us so that heaven and earth are joined together. Just as heaven and earth are joined together in Jesus, so too in John’s vision they are joined together because now Heaven has come down to us.
John continues: “God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
If we are invisible souls we wouldn’t have any tears for God to wipe away. Now death is defeated and all our mourning, crying, and pain are in our past. So in the phrase of Scholar and Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright: the New Testament vision is not just that there is life after death, but that there is also life after life after death. See his book Surprised by Hope
This is the meaning of the sentence we proclaim every Sunday in the Nicene Creed—“We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Or as the Apostles’ Creed has it: “I believe…in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”
I realize most of us have internalized the disembodied understanding of life after death, and have trouble imagining this life after life after death. It is like trying to understand what color is—red, blue, and green—if you are blind.
And of course we can only talk about these mysteries in symbolic language.
But look what we gain if what the Bible teaches and the Church proclaims is true—we not only get to see our loved ones, we also get to hold them. I will never forget the first time I got to hold, Eleanor, my first grandchild—it was a very different experience from seeing her picture.
In the New Jerusalem we get to take walks, sing, and dance as we celebrate the triumph of Triune God over sin and death. And notice something else: Our loved ones will be able to forgive us: many of us, if not all of us, feel some guilt about things we said and did, or didn’t do, toward those who have died. Who doesn’t still have unresolved issues with their mother and father and the grief we carry for failing them in some fundamental ways. Now, walking around the New Jerusalem they can put their arm across our shoulder; look us in the eye, and say, “I forgive you.”
And in the mercy of Christ we get to say back to them: “I forgive you, too.”
Just imagine how healing that will be! And if we can imagine such a reunion of forgiveness and healing in the future, Christ invites us to imagine it in the here and now, for we are already united with them in the Communion of Saints.
In a moment we will gather around the table to celebrate Holy Communion. Who do we think that holy communion is with?
We say, We are communing with Christ. And that is true, but not the whole truth. As Ilia Delio says, “In receiving Eucharist each person receives the whole Christ—head and members—so that the entire body is present in each member.” See Ilia Delio The Emergent Chri page 68
Our lost family and friends are part of this Holy Communion, to be sure and I encourage you to imagine them surrounding you as you open your hands to receive the Body of Christ.
But the Mystery is bigger than this, for as Jesus teaches in his parable of the Wedding Banquet the king sends his servants into the highways and byways, “gathering all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.” Matthew 22:10
So at Holy Communion also present with us are Coptic Christians living on the garbage dump outside Cairo; Palestinian Anglicans living under harsh conditions on the West Bank; Roman Catholics in China, fundamentalists living in Appalachia, and Evangelicals living in Texas, as well as all those filled with Christ we know nothing about who belong to other religions.
We’re invited to Holy Communion not just with some saints, but all saints; not just middle class American saints, but refugee and immigrant saints, not just friendly saints, but all saints.