More Than Pennies
Since 835 A.D. the Church has celebrated the Festival of All Saints on or around November 1. Among Germans it came to be called Totenfest which literally means "Dead Festival." Why do we celebrate a festival for those who have passed away in Christ before us? Because we expect more than pennies from heaven.
The "Dear Abby" column regularly has letters about "pennies from heaven." This is when you find a penny on the ground and the date on the penny means something to you and your deceased loved one. These letters are very sad to me. One last November was from a woman who finally believed in pennies from heaven when she found one dated 1974. She was "converted" because she only had one keepsake from her dead brother, a high school necklace with the inscription "Senior 1974." She closes the letter saying, "I am not religious and never thought this could happen to me...My mother is astounded. Now she knows her son is where she hoped he would be. I absolutely believe it is a 'penny from heaven.'" Abby responds, "So do I. And since that penny had the power to reinforce your mother's faith and restore yours, I'd say that penny was heaven-sent - wouldn't you?" I say that God sends more than pennies from heaven to comfort us concerning our dead in Christ. He sends us His Word.
His Word tells us the saints who have passed on ahead of us in Christ are not lost to us. The saints are those joined to Christ through faith in His Blood, through Baptism which sprinkled them with His Blood, through Absolution by which His Blood was applied to their specific sins, through Communion which placed them in His Blood and His Blood in them. These saints with whom we ate and drank the Lord's Supper, heard the Absolution side by side with, and remembered our Baptisms in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with are not lost to us. Even though when one of our members dies in Christ, we report it to the Synod as a loss, it's really a membership gain. A member of the Church Militant, the Church on Earth, has been transferred to the Church Triumphant, the Church in heaven.
The monks of a certain monastery confess this reality whenever they have a roll call of their members. They read the names of those who have passed on in Christ. Monks in the room answer, "Present," for those who have died. The festival of Totenfest did the same thing. In some Lutheran congregations it was called "Dead Sunday." On this Sunday, the names of those who had passed away that year were read. Speaking their names aloud again was a reminder that our dead in Christ are not lost to us; we know right where they are this very minute, with Christ; they are not gone for good but merely gone on ahead. St. Chrysostom said it this way in a 4th century sermon, "Say not..'He is perished and shall be no more'...; but say, 'He is gone on a journey and will return with the King.'"
Yes, our loved ones in Christ, my mother, father, your sister, brother, your husband, wife, our grandparents and friends are on a journey right now, and they'll be coming back with King Jesus. This is true despite the fact that the river of death which separates the Church on earth from the Church in heaven looks deep, wide and uncrossable. This is our perspective, but this is not reality. Death looks to us to be a foreboding river stretching out far before us; the other side looks like a tiny strip of land barely discernable. We have no means for crossing the river death and coming back; all we know is that all who have crossed this river have never come back to us.
That's not true, is it? Christ our Lord did cross this dark, deep river on a Friday we call Good and came back on a Sunday we call Easter. This Man who is God holds the keys of death in His hand. The river of death is but a thin, trickle of a stream that He easily strides across. To us the river of death looks like the Mississippi River at New Orleans a mile or more wide, but in reality to Christ and in Christ it's the Mississippi in Minnesota; just a trickle of water people easily go back and forth over. Our loved ones in Christ aren't lost to us far away on the other side of a deep, dark, unfordable river; they're just on the other side of a pencil think trickle of water.
Stop picturing your loved one in Christ as standing across the Mississippi River in New Orleans; see him or her standing across the Mississippi trickle in Minnesota. The Scriptures picture death in Christ not as a permanent, uncrossable bearer, but as a temporary one that isn't really one at all in Christ. Our loved ones in Christ are not at all lost to us though we say we "lost" them last month, last year, last decade, or even the last century. So even though we are told by others that we need to "move on" after the death of a loved one, we don't need to move so far that we act as if they had never been here or are now far away from us.
This does not mean that we are to keep their clothes or their bedroom as shrines. This does not mean we are wrong to sell the house and literally move on. This does not mean we are wrong to remarry or have another best friend. What I'm saying is that we aren't wrong to still think of them, remember their birthday, anniversary, look at pictures, or keep remembrances of them. You see when we "move one," the truth of the matter is that our dead in Christ move with us. They aren't frozen in a moment of time way back there somewhere, but they've gone on living, being, existing just as we have. They went on praying and worshiping the same Jesus they did on earth only now they do so in heaven.
Yes, we get on with our lives, but it is fiction to believe that we can do it in such away as to leave behind our dead in Christ. No, they move with us, and since those deaths in Christ are really lives, it's a comfort to have them with us. You see dear friends the Lord does far more than drop pennies from heaven with particular dates on them. Though He has taken our sainted loved one to heaven because Jesus did redeem them by His Blood for all eternity, not only are they not lost to us, they in fact are found very near to us. They are in the very same Church as we are.
We do speak of the Church on earth and the Church in heaven, but this is an artificial distinction. There is only one Holy Christian Church. The Church in heaven and the Church on earth are one Church just different parts of the same building so to speak. You can hear this in the "Te Deum" we will sing after the sermon. We see ourselves praising God right along side the angels, the apostles, the prophets, the nobel army of martyrs, the saints in glory and the holy Church throughout all the world. Our loved ones in heaven say the same Creed as we do; they say the same Lord's Prayer as we do; they hear the same Word, worship the same Jesus.
Their faith is the same as our faith; therefore, they are in the same Church as we are. They too trust not in what they have done for salvation, but in what Christ has done for them. They trust in His keeping of the Law, not in their keeping. They trust that He is perfect not that they are. They don't look at the magnitude of their sins, but at the abundance of His mercy. They look not at what they suffered in life and death but at what Jesus suffered in life and death and know that by His sufferings they are healed for eternity.
A Sally Field movie set in Waxachie, Texas gives us a visual picture of what it means to still be in the same Church with our loved ones who have passed on ahead in Christ. The closing scene of the movie "Places in the Heart" shows Sally Field in Church. As the Divine Service goes on one by one the people who have died in the movie show up again in the congregation. There is the guy who died so violently and horribly; there's the person who passed away peacefully. There all there, and where else would those in Christ be but where Christ is? Our loved ones who have gone on ahead in Christ belong to the same Church we do. When the Church is gathered around Jesus Christ, her Lord and Savior, they're here too.
Too wonderful for you to believe? Is it really? Scripture says the Church has one Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. Scripture says that Jesus only has one Body and that Body is His Church. So if you think it's too wonderful to believe that you're in the same Church as the dead in Christ are, that's nothing compared to being in the same Body, that of Christ. Galatians 3:27 explicitly says that "as many of you who have been baptized, you have put on Christ." Our deceased loved ones baptized into Christ put on the same Christ we do. Our Baptism joins us to Christ and to all those baptized into Christ. Being in the same Body, we have the same Head, that of Christ.
What a closeness we have with those in heaven. We share the same Church, the same Body and the very same Table. We gather around the very same Table as the saints in heaven. The Church has always made much of Holy Communion being a celebration of those in life and those after death gathered around Jesus. The early Church had Communion celebrations on the very graves of those who died for the faith on the day they had died. The graves themselves had altars over them. From the Medieval Church of Luther's day we have woodcuts depicting the celebration of Holy Communion. Jesus Christ is depicted on the altar as pastor, people and angelic beings adore the Mystery.
One of the oldest and least changed parts of the liturgy, the Proper Preface, confesses the fact that the Lord gives us more than token pennies to remind us of our loved ones in heaven. Every Proper Preface closes with the pastor saying, "Therefore with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify Thy glorious name..." It's a joint Communion service; heaven and earth touch in the Holy Communion; the saints in heaven and we saints here on earth gather around the same Lord Jesus Christ at His Table.
Do you miss your loved ones in Christ? Do you feel far away from them? Do you long for some token like a penny from heaven to know they're okay? Here around Christ is where you'll find those who've died in Christ. They're adoring the same Jesus you're adoring. They live from the same Body and Blood that you live from. As sure as your Jesus is present here, all those in Jesus are present here too. Bodied and Blooded together in the same Church, the same Body, around the same Table by the one Jesus.
It's really quite a crowded Church right now. Here present to the eyes of faith are angels, archangels and all the company of heaven...including our loved ones who have gone on ahead of us. But don't look for them to leave behind any pennies. Pennies from heaven might remind you of a dead loved one who is absent, but the words of Jesus reminds us that our loved ones who have passed away in Him are still present where He is. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
All Saints Sunday (11-3-02), Rev. 7:14