For centuries it was popular to make a death mask of a person's face out of plaster or wax following their death as a remembrance of them. That strikes me a morose way to remember a person, but I wonder. Is our remembering of those in Christ who've gone before us to heaven much better?
"Remember when..." That's how we usually think of our loved ones. They're in the past. They're "back when." We use past tense verbs in speaking of them. "He was good with his hands," not, "He is good." "She liked to cook," not, "She likes to cook." Our loved ones in Christ are alive to us, but in the past. Is that really less morose then looking at a plaster mask of their face made moments after death?
One of the reasons the Church has celebrated All Saints' Day is to bring the dead in Christ into the present. Though our sermon hymn described death as a narrow stream, I doubt that's how it seems to you most of the time. Most of the time, it's a river not a stream, and it's not narrow, but like the Moon River, it's wider than a mile.
Death seems to have our loved ones locked in the past, far away from us. Celebrating All Saints' brings them into the present. It's like that recent movie Forgotten. A mom daily says her child's name that she believes to have died, and the child's memory stays alive though everyone around her says the child never existed to begin with. And that's how it can seem with our dead in Christ. The sands of time quickly blow over their footsteps filling them in as if they never were. That shirt, that plate, that chair, that cup were they ever used by anyone? Then All Saints' Day comes around, and we speak their name again out loud, and we remember when. Now that's better than not remembering at all, but there's something better still.
We remember today in this present time our loved ones in Christ in the past; God, however, knows them in the present. God doesn't know them as someone who use to be. He doesn't know them as an individual who loved, liked, or was, but as a person who loves, likes, and is. How come? Because as Jesus says in our text, "God is not the God of the dead but of the living." Jesus said this in response to people who denied that the dead rise. Jesus says the dead most certainly do rise because they are alive right now to God, "for to Him all are alive."
That ought to give you goose bumps; it ought to send a shiver down your spine. Not just the souls of our loved ones, but their bodies are alive to God. You know how every now and then certain sights, sounds, or smells can make your loved one suddenly present, with you right then and there? Well, to God they're always that way. They're not a nameless, faceless soul floating about before Him. They're as alive, as real, and as individual as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are to Him.
You still don't get it. I'm not just saying that God knows our loved ones in Christ as living before Him right now. I'm saying He knows them body and soul that way. Though our loved ones' bodies are buried in the ground, returning to the dust God first made them from, though we might not even know where our loved one's remains are, though our loved one might have been burned up with fire, lost at sea, or destroyed in war, God know where each and every molecule of our loved one is.
The early church used this wonderful scene to bring this point home. God stands before the grave of Adam, and says, "Adam." Adam's body calls forth from under the dirt, "Here am I." And God responds, "I will raise you!" Don't think this is far fetched. Though the soul of our loved one in Christ is praising God in heaven right now, God has not forgotten about their body; He knows where every particle of it is because "to Him all are alive."
Think DNA here. Science can state with a certainty above 99% that this hair, this piece of skin, this tiny drop of blood could only belong to me and not any of the other billions of people on the planet. Do you think science knows more than God? God not only can identify which molecules belong to our loved ones in Christ; He knows where they all are right this very second, and they are not dead, nameless bits of information, but they are as living and real to God right now as when we held them, they talked to us, or we laughed together. And they can and should be that alive and real to us not only on All Saints' Day but everyday.
You know why they're not? Because Death is too strong for us. Death is a deep, wide, uncrossable river to us, but don't think that Death is stronger than God. Don't think that God gets to the river of Death and has to turn back. And don't think I speak only of God the Father in His majesty. I speak also of God the Son in our flesh and blood. He too is mightier than Death. Death is a shallow, narrow trickle of a stream to Him.
Scripture calls Death "the last enemy." Right after Adam and Eve fall into death in Genesis 3 and Cain brings death into their home in Genesis 4; the litany of death begins in Genesis 5. "And he died," is the response to the versicle "and he lived _____years." You've heard the litany of death chanted all your life. Your grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle, spouse, Army buddy, son, daughter "lived so many years/ months/ days" "and he/she died."
Death marched on devouring generation after generation of people, but then Death ran into Christ, and it was like hitting a brick wall. Rather than Death swallowing Him as it had every man, woman and child before Him, He swallowed Death. And then He taunted it. "O Death where is thy victory? O Death where is thy sting?" St. Paul goes on to explain this taunt. "The strength of Death is sin; the power of sin is the Law."
"The strength of Death is sin." What makes Death so permanent, so unbeatable to us is sin. Our loved ones who died, even though they died in Christ, they were sinners. Even though we have a tendency to make our loved ones saints in the wrong sense once they die, we know deep down they were sinners. The closer we lived with them the better we know their sins. The power of Death is sin. Their very real sins keep our dead loved ones across that deep river called Death and in the distant past.
But Paul didn't just say the strength of Death is sin. He also said, "The power of sin is the Law." Death gets its power over us from sin and sin gets its power over us from the Law. So take care of the Law, and you take care of sin; take care of sin and you've taken care of Death. You can take care of the Law one of two ways, by living a perfect life or by being in Christ who lived a perfect life in place of all sinners and died in their place under the penalties the Law required. St. Paul says the first choice, living a perfect life, is no choice, because no one is able to do it. His answer to the Law being sin's power is, "Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!"
The reason we can see our loved ones in the present and know that the river called Death is no more than a trickle is because they have the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. And where is one place we go for proof that they have Christ's victory? We go where little Tori went this morning. We go to Baptism. Victoria is the feminine form of victorious. Today, Victoria is given the victory that Christ won for her on the cross about 2000 years ago. Paul in Romans 6 says that as many have been baptized into Christ have been joined to His death on the cross and His resurrection from the tomb. Today Christ took Tori's sinful, old Adam and put it in the grave and brought forth a new creation in her that will live forever. Victoria is victorious by Baptism today.
So are our loved ones in Christ. Baptized into Christ they were clothed with Christ, they were reborn into Christ, their old sinful nature was buried, and a new nature came forth with Christ when He rose from the dead. Or do you think the head of a person could rise from the dead and leave the body buried? Of course not! Baptism joins you to the Body of Christ, the holy Christian Church. Where the Head, Christ, goes, the Body must follow.
Let me ask you? Do you know where your body is at all times? Has it ever happened that your head lost track of its body? That doesn't happen to Christ either. Those who've died joined to Him by Baptism, bodied and blooded to Him by Communion, regenerated to Him by Absolution, are known by Christ as well as you know the back of your hand. He knows where they are right now, and they are not far away from Him.
The saints in heaven are always gathered around Christ. Where He is, there they are. Though their bodies might be found in dust and ashes scattered in a million different places, Christ knows where each molecule is and will call them back together as easy as He called them into being in the first place. But Christ doesn't see them as particles of dust strewn all over creation, and neither does He see them far away across some foreboding river called Death only living in memories, He sees the saints alive and present in this moment of time. At this Communion rail you should see them that way too. When you laud and magnify God's holy name you do so not just with angels and archangels but with all the company of heaven.
We all use the expression, "Remember when," to refer to our loved ones in Christ, but better to say as the church father Chrysostom recommended, "Remember he/she is gone on a journey and will return with the king." And let me add. The king returns in just a few moments and He brings with Him more than gruesome death masks or sweet memories of your loved ones. He brings your loved ones. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
All Saints' Sunday (20051106); Luke 20: 37, 38