Where are they now?
The Statler Brothers released a song in 1972 titled "The Class of 57" that addresses that question most of us have about people from our past. Where are they now? That's a question often asked of me concerning the dead in Christ. Where are they now?
They are six feet underground. That's where they are. That's not meant to be mean, but to meet people where they are. When they're asking the Where are they now?' question, the fact that they know their loved one's body is under six feet of dirt has a lot to do with it.
First, it's not always 6 feet. That depth came from a law passed in 17th century plague-ravaged London. In America, the depth required varies by State. Those cremated don't have to be buried at all, and of course you have many those lost at sea, in war, in disaster - whose remains are never found. And those in Christ have been dying ever since Cain killed Abel and where is his body? Less than dust blowing in the wind.
In the opening pages of Moby Dick, Melville has a preacher lamenting those who have no body to bury. "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" (54). Take heart; all the dead in Christ whether lost, burned up, or decayed past dust, remain in this created order. You may not be able to say, "Here they are", but you can say that the material part of them still resides in this material universe. And God knows where.
About 500 years after Abraham died; 300 years after Isaac, and 200 years after Jacob, God declares to Moses: "I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." "I am" present tense. Whether it's 10 PM 10 AM or any second in-between God knows where all of His children are body and soul.
God sent His beloved Son into Mary's womb just so He could take on not only a human soul but a human body. Why? Because we needed redeeming body and soul. You experience your sinfulness first in your soul through shame, guilt, bad feelings. But as you age it creeps to the surface. Probably because your entire aging, sickening, decaying body testifies to you in flesh and blood that you are a sinner.
This stuff flesh and blood needs redeeming. This is the flesh that burns for what does not belong to it; this is the flesh that is an endless aching want; this is the blood that rises in anger, in fear, in lust, in greed, and it needs redeeming. So, God the Son took them both on and walked a lifetime in my shoes. Doing what I could never do, and not doing what I always do. And He, though innocent, suffered for it. Drop by bloody drop His body bled, and His skin sweated and ran with salty tears to pay all I owed for the sins done in my body.
No matter if your loved one in Christ is 6 feet under dirt or scattered by tragedy or time over miles of dirt, God in Christ knows where each particle of them is. He has marked them with His name in Baptism, and even though their bodies be dead to us, they are not to Him. After Jesus points out that God is the God of those dead even for hundreds of years, Jesus says, "He is not a God of the dead but of the living, for to Him all are alive." Their soul is not just alive on some ethereal plane, but their hearts still beat; their mouths still speak; their bodies are still present to Him.
I know this is going to sound macabre, but given the truth I've just told you it needn't be. Every 4 or 5 years the Malagasy on an island off Madagascar take their dead from the tombs, toss them and catch them; wrap them in new silk. They celebrate with dancing and singing before putting them back (Asimov's, Book of Facts, 475). Western cultures wouldn't do this because it's hardly letting the dead Rest in Peace, but If we celebrated Famadihana, "the turning of the bones" or "body turning", we would emphasize that God is not done with the bodies He has claimed in Christ.
Where are the dead in Christ now? Whether 6 feet under dirt or not, they are in this material universe in some form to us but a living one to God. And they are beyond "the outhouse of this life". That's an expression from Luther. He said, "'If our Lord God has given us such noble gifts in the outhouse of this life, what will there be in that life eternal where everything will be perfect and delightful'" (Brecht, Luther, III, 246). Or we could say with our text they are 10 ways to Sunday in heaven. The actual saying is "9 ways to Sunday" and no, one knows the origins of it, but all agree it means "completely". And the Elder in heaven says 10 things about those who've come out of the great tribulation that is this fallen world.
Scripture doesn't picture a bloodless Christianity that is a feature of much Protestantism. Bloodless in this sense refers to "lacking in spirit or vitality." You've probably heard Lutheran pastors, even Confessional Lutheran ones, say something like: "No one in heaven has a body till the resurrection on the Last Day, so we should not picture them in heaven in bodily form." I say, "Tell that to St. John." The revelation he got from Jesus gives a picture of what the dead in Christ are doing right now. We know from Revelation 6 that it is set before the Last Day.
Without this foretaste of heaven which allows me to picture my loved ones in Christ praising, singing, and holding palm branches in their hands(!), I have nothing but pagan pictures. In some versions of the Orpheus myth, he charms the gods enough to be allowed to retrieve his beloved wife from the underworld. But something happens and he is sent away empty-handed. He was shown a mere phantom of his wife and not given the woman herself (Homosexuality in Gr. & Rome, 182).
Don't point me to heaven to see phantoms, shapes, and bodiless souls of my dead in Christ. Revelation says I can picture them whole, healthy, bodily. The Elder says not "These are they who have come out of the great tribulation" as if John is being shown images of something that happened in the past which would be the case if this is after the Last Day. No, this is a present participle. "These are those coming out of the great tribulation." We are to be seeing a continuous line of those in Christ coming out of the suffering that is this fallen world into the glories of heaven.
The Ancient Church celebrated Communion conscience that the visible Church on earth is in communion with the Church beyond the sight of mortal men (Ch. Age to Age, 127). Christians use to testify to the fact that we aren't in fellowship with phantoms and shadows but their loved one's in Christ they knew, body and soul by placing a palm branch in the hands of their loved one's as they lay in the casket, (Sermon Studies, Epistles C, 169).
Well, what are they doing beyond the outhouse of this life? They're not hoovering in the clouds or floating in light, they are standing before God's throne and the Lamb. Standing, a perfect, active participle, means they have been stood there and forever will so stand. To stand, you have to have legs.
What a vibrant, active, focused picture God shows us. In the 1998 movie What Dreams May Come we're shown a heaven out of the 1960's. Everyone is doing their own thing. They are going here and there not focused on anyone or thing, but having a good time. Our dead in Christ are standing with palm branch in hand, before the throne of God and of the Lamb worshipping day and night, in the sanctuary of God, and the One who sits upon the throne spreads His tent over them, so the sun doesn't beat down on them nor any scorching heat.
Now if you're familiar with the Book of Revelation, either God has messed up (which cannot be) or we are being shown something in heaven that we can relate to on earth. Why? Because Revelation says there is no night in heaven. Revelation says there is no sanctuary (same word as here) in heaven because the Lord Almighty and the Lamb are the sanctuary. And heaven has no need of shade because heaven has no sun shining on it "for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is the lamp."
You see? You are not to have this bloodless disconnect between the reality you know body and soul and heaven. You know what it means to ache for shade from the sun, to feel your skin starting to burn, to hunger, to thirst. Our loved one's in Christ are free of all that, not simply because they checked their bodies this side of heaven but because in the heaven they're in right now they are free of those bodily problems.
Get out of the land of shapes and shadows because that is the land of fear and doubt, and manifestly the Book of Revelation doesn't want to induce them. It shows the dead in Christ in heaven being shepherded by the Lamb of God. It shows them being led to springs of the water of life. The Greek words shepherd, tent, water, and lead are all found in the Greek translation of Psalm 23. Don't see the dead in Christ in some vast featureless place of clouds let alone mist, darkness, hovering spirits. See them with all the tangibility David saw the Good Shepherd in Psalm 23.
The Good Shepherd of Psalm 23 is also the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He's the Lamb of God who shed His blood to cover the sins of the world. He's the Lamb of God who gives you His Blood on earth today as Wine and His Body as Bread. See all the physical pictures: Your loved ones are wearing white robes. Shapes and shadows need no clothing, bodies do. And those robes have been washed white in the blood of the Lamb. The blood that we know as only staining on earth, in God's hands whether on earth or in heaven cleanses, washes white.
Shepherding, leading, and especially wiping tears out of the eyes are physical pictures. The last picture is not of God wiping tears off cheeks, but of a mother bending down to take her thumbs and wipe the tears out of the very eyes of her child. That has happened for those in Christ. I am not denying that their bodies have yet to be risen. I'm saying don't deny the bodily comfort God Himself shows you in Revelation. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
All Saints' Sunday (20171105); Revelation 7: 9-17