I would've offended some of you if I had titled the sermon "Deadfest '99" in a shameless attempt to be contemporary with New Orleans' Jazz Fest; New Braunfels' Wurstfest, and Austin's Aquafest. But "Deadfest" would be a literal translation of what the Germans called this Sunday. Since the 300s Christians have been formally remembering their dead at festivals called All Saints and the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. The Germans, however, both in Europe and America, called their service Totenfest which translates "dead festival."
Doesn't that sound like something belonging to Halloween? Doesn't that sound like something pagans would do? Why have Christians for well over 1,600 years had a festival of the dead in one form or another?
For one reason, the dead are close by. People are always worried about mentioning a person who has passed on to a loved one left behind. They think, "O, I don't want to make them start thinking about him/her." But those of you who have lost loved ones know that someone mentioning the name of your loved one doesn't make him or her jump into your mind. No, we live with our dead close by, don't we?
By having a festival like All Saints, Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, or Totenfest each year, the Church lets us know that our dead are not forgotten by the Church either. Up until the 12th century, the Church read from a list called a diptych which had the names of the dead to be remembered in the Holy Communion. Still today in America there are Lutheran congregations who celebrate Totenfest by reading the names of those who have died in the parish that year.
Our dead are close by, the Church recognizes this not just on a special festival day but every Sunday in the Holy Communion. The Proper Preface, which dates to the 400s and is one of the least changed parts of the liturgy, always closes with: "Therefore with angels and arch angels and ALL THE COMPANY OF HEAVEN we laud and magnify Your glorious name, evermore praising you and saying:" In this we acknowledge that gathered around our Altar with us are not just angels and archangels but all of those who have died in Christ. Heaven touches earth in the Holy Communion because wherever Christ is there is heaven.
A good picture of this reality is in the movie "Places of the Heart," which was filmed in Waxachie, Texas. At the end of the movie, during a Communion service, those who had died in the decades which this movie spanned appeared one by one in the pews. So it is with us. Our dead in Christ share the same Lord, same Church, same faith as we do. Though unseen by human eyes, even as the angels and archangels are, our Church is crowded with all the company of heaven each time we celebrate Holy Communion.
We live with our dead close by. The Church recongizes this, and doesn't forget our dead. But more importantly having a yearly festival of the dead reminds us that our God hasn't forgotten them either. The Bible teaches us this in several ways. Poor Lazarus though unnoticed on earth has a name in heaven. Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration are real people with names and personalities. Our dead in Christ have not passed into some sort of great cosmic consciences. The Book of Revelation pictures their souls hidden under the Altar of God, clothed in white robes, very much alive, very much individuals.
But what about their bodies? We leave them in the ground or in vaults and they're gone to us. But not to God. When Jesus tried to teach the Sadducees about the resurrection of the flesh, He quoted the passage about God proclaiming Himself the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and then said, "He is the God of the living not the dead." Our God knows where every molecule of our loved ones are. He created them bringing together those molecules to form them. When they die and return to dust and ashes, their molecules don't cease to exist; they don't go back to a common stock pile. They belong to them and their God knows right where they all are and He will call them all back together on the Last Day.
Because we live with our dead close by is not the only reason we have an All Saints Sunday each year. It's also because we can be haunted by the unworthiness or the worthiness of our loved ones who have died in Christ. My mother was this way about her mother when she passed. She was a "Rosary the Riveter" in World War II, and she talked like one. Her favorite name for us grandkids was "Little" and something that rhymes with ships. My mom just could not picture her mom in heaven.
It can go the other way too. You lose someone who was very sweet. He or she was always very kind, innocent, pleasant to be around. You can easily picture them in heaven, but their worthiness haunts you. You're not as sweet, kind, or innocent as your loved one.
Well, where does our text, and our Introit too for that matter, leave salvation? With the Lamb and only with the Lamb. The Lamb is the Temple, Light, and Guard of those in heaven. Everything flows from Him. Who are those according to the Introit who make it out of the tribulations of this fallen world? Those whose robes have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. Friends, where does the Blood of the Lamb flow for sinners today? In the Font of Baptism, in the forgiving Word of God, in the Holy Communion.
Ah, but some of you are bothered by the fact that "only those whose names are written in the Lamb's Book of Life," are in heaven. But this should comfort all of you. Do you know what it means? Salvation cannot be a matter of our worthiness or unworthiness. Our text teaches powerfully that no one can be good enough to go to heaven, and that no one written in the Lamb's Book of Life could be too bad to not go to heaven. Ah, but that's the rub isn't it? This nebulous Book. How much easier to understand if it was a ledger of good and bad deeds, but a Book belonging to the Lamb that has the names of the saved in it is scary. How can one know?
Our Lutheran Confessions teach clearly that the only place you are to try to read the Lamb's Book is in the wounds of Christ. What do you read there? In the water and the blood that comes from His pierced side, I read Baptism is for all nations. I read that His blood is shed for the remission of all sins. I read a wideness in the wounds of Christ. I see His blood poured out to cover all sins; I see His body given in behalf of all sinners. I read that nobody is so bad that he or she is beyond the wounds of Christ, and nobody is so good that they don't need those precious wounds.
We have a Totenfest, a Deadfest, each year not only because we live with our dead close by, not only because we can be unduly haunted by the worthiness or unworthiness of our dead in Christ, but also because we are living in a concrete Paradise Lost. We see all around us, day in and day out, that we are not in the Garden of Eden anymore. We are where sin, death, and the devil appear to rule concretely. Therefore, we need to know concretely that Paradise is found in the Lamb. Friends, Christians have never believed in some ethereal heaven where people exist forever without bodies to float among the clouds on wisps of wind. Christians believe that we will make it back to the Garden. Our yearly festival of the dead reminds us that our Lord redeemed us souls and BODIES.
That's why the Epistle reading appointed for All Saints has always been from Revelation where our salvation is pictured so concretely a city, walls, streets of gold, gates of pearl, trees of life.. Our text for example, shows us that bodily illness doesn't have the last word with our loved ones in Christ. I read through the 216 deaths recorded in our official church records. What a sad litany of heart attacks, pneumonia, cancer, stillborns, and other diseases. But our Lord shows us a place where the Tree of Life which we lost by being cast out of Eden is restored to us. It bears life year round, and not only that, but where foliage in fallen Eden was used to cover sin and shame, in heaven the leaves are for the healing of the nations. Our loved ones will not be raised with bad hearts, sick bodies, or fuzzy minds. All will be restored as our God meant for things to be.
But the Lord is even more concrete than this. It's not just that our bodies are restored, so is all Creation. There is not only a new heaven, says Scripture, but a new earth as well. However, in this New Creation there is no night for evil to roam in. No evil to roam period. No shortage of food or water. We will have as little to fear in this new creation as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden.
But even this isn't the full blown comfort. There is something better than restored bodies and a restored Creation waiting for those in Christ. It's a restored relationship with God. Remember in Eden how the Lord use to walk with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening? In heaven we will see the Lamb, our Lord, face to face. Right now we can only see Him in Water, Words, Bread and Wine dimly as in a mirror. But in heaven we will see Him face to face. There will be no separation between Him and us, between sinners and Savior. The Lamb will dwell with His sheep forever.
It's important that we regularly remember that our dead in Christ are not only NOT lost to the Church's memory or to God's memory, but they are not lost to this fallen world either. Our loved ones didn't just barely get out of here with their souls having to forfeit their bodies to sin, death, and the devil. No, their bodies will be regained by them never to lose them again. They will know again the pleasure of a deep breath, the smell of sweet flowers, the touch of warm skin.
Folks everybody remembers the dead. You could see this in World Series. The sportscasters made a big deal of how before every game Roger Clements, the Yankee pitcher, would go over to a plaque of Babe Ruth and touch his image. Friends, when we wish to remember our loved ones, we may go to their grave, touch something they cherished, look at pictures. All of that is fine. Everyone remembers the dead. But from earliest times Christians not only remembered their dead in Christ, but they celebrated their dead with festivals that always had Holy Communion, the Body and Blood of Christ. Christ's Body remember is the Church on earth and in heaven; the Body of Christ cannot be divided even by death. We have festival, a celebration because we're remembering that our dead in Christ aren't gone from us but only gone on ahead of us. Moreover, we're still in touch with them in Christ. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
All Saints Sunday (11-7-99), Revelation 21: 9-11, 22-27; 22:1-5