What You Need to Know About All Saints
Saints are forgiven sinners. Today we celebrate all those who died in that forgiveness. So that we would not be ignorant, grieve like the rest of men, or be discouraged, St. Paul tells us what we need to know about all saints.
The first thing Paul tells us is that they sleep in Jesus. Just that says a lot, and Paul says it 3 times so we don't miss it. People like to use euphemisms for death or one who has died: "passed on," "gone," "passed away" "deceased," "the dearly departed." People go out of their way not to say someone is dead.
Don't think that's what Paul is doing. He calls the dead literally "those who sleep" because that's what Jesus first called them. Jesus said that Jairus' dead daughter "sleeps." He said of Lazarus who had been dead four days, "He has fallen asleep." Paul calls death sleep because Jesus calls death sleep. Sleep is not a euphemism for Christian death; it's a statement of reality. There is great comfort here if we would only believe the reality rather than our fears. Early Christians did just that. They called the place where they buried their dead the "cemetery." That's from a Greek noun which comes from the Greek verb in our text. "Cemetery" literally means "sleeping place."
What you need to know about all saints that have died in Christ is they have only "fallen asleep in Jesus." Let Christian death = sleep be an equation of information, solace, and encouragement as Paul wants it to be. Death is unknown to you, but sleep is well known. Death is dreaded; sleep is often longed for. Death brings turmoil; sleep brings tranquility. There's no apparent end to death; a person wakes from sleep and that easily. That six feet of dirt the dead in Christ are buried under is no more a barrier to their rising than a blanket is to a sleeping person waking.
But it's hard to see dying in Christ as falling asleep in Jesus. Death is a wall, a wide river to us; of all the saints that have crossed over we haven't seen one come back. So where does Paul point us? To Jesus. After assuring us that we need not grieve like the rest of men over those who sleep in Jesus, he assures us our dead in Christ are on the path that Jesus took.
We live most of our life with the illusion that death is an "if" not a "when." It ceased to be an "if" the moment Adam sinned for in Adam, says Paul, "all die." Once Adam took the forbidden fruit it was only a matter of when this dust would go back to dust. The "cause of death" isn't cancer, heart disease, traffic accident, or old age. "The cause of death" is sin. It's not just the death row inmate on his way to the chamber that's a "dead man walking;" that describes us all because death is a when' not an if.'
Yet, comfort beyond all comfort, Paul says, "Jesus died." Jesus, True God begotten of the Father from eternity and True Man born of the Virgin Mary without original sin and guilty of no actual sin, died. And He died as you sinner deserve to die: without mercy, without peace, with shame, pain, and guilt for every commandment ever broken. We die, and our dead in Christ did die, without the sting of Death. Paul says the sting of Death is sin and the power of sin is the Law. Take away the Law, fulfill it as Jesus did; nail it to the cross with the Body of Jesus as the Father did, and where there is no law sin has no power, and therefore death has no sting.
O don't get me wrong. Death is still a when not an if. Our loved ones really did die and some of them even died painfully, bitterly, unsightly. That's how it looked on the outside, but that's not the reality, and that's not how you have to look at their death or your own approaching one. No, you can see dying as drifting off to sleep in an easy chair. Who shudders at that? Who doesn't long for that?
All saints are on the path of Jesus. He died; they died. He rose, "and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those have fallen asleep in Him." You expect Paul to say "we believe that Jesus died and rose; therefore so will our dead who sleep in Him." That is what it comes down to, but Paul is focusing on the fact that Jesus is the one who enables God to bring those who have fallen asleep back.
We saw that Jesus has lived the life we couldn't to keep the law, and that He died the death we fear to pay for our breaking the law. He did this all in our flesh and blood. Once Jesus the Perfect Man died, the Law, both it's obligations and its debts were satisfied, so Death couldn't hold Him. Death can't swallow God. The only reason it could on Calvary is because the God Man let it. Remember Jesus had said, "No man takes My life from Me. I lay it down willingly, and if I lay it down I can take it back up."
Joined to the Divine Nature, joined to the Person of God the Son is the human nature, the Son of Mary. Ever since the womb of the Virgin, those two cannot be separated. Where one is there is the other. On the cross is both the Divine Nature and the Human nature. In the Person of Jesus, God suffers, cries, bleeds and dies, and thanks be to God because who but God could satisfy God's Law? But don't stop there. In the Person of Jesus, not only does God come out of the ground on Easter but Man does too because where one goes the other goes.
This is what you need to know about all saints. They are asleep in Jesus; they are on the path that Jesus took, and they will return, come back, awake, as sure as Jesus did. All saints are joined to Jesus. Having been baptized into Him, they have put Him on. Can you make any distinction between water on your skin and your skin? Aren't they so close together that they feel, move, and look as one? Even more closely does Baptism join all saints to Jesus. All saints are joined to Jesus having been bodied and blooded to Him in Communion. You can't partake of anything more completely than by digesting it. Jesus willed to give us His Body for Bread that could be eaten and His Blood for Wine that could be drank, so He might join us to Him that closely, that intimately, that certainly.
There is question playing in the back of your mind like a discordant note. "Am I to think of my dead in Christ as sleeping?" No, their dying was like falling asleep, and their body now is in the sleeping place, the cemetery, but they are very much awake. With all the saints they're doing exactly what the Book of Revelation shows us: singing the praises of the Lamb of God who redeemed them even as we will in "This is the Feast."
The point Paul addresses in our text is that God has not forgotten the bodies of the dead in Christ. Yes their souls are right now forever with the Lord and He will bring them with Him when He returns, but He hasn't forgotten their bodies that sleep in the ground or wherever their temporary resting place might be. The Lord hasn't forgotten them anymore than you have or can. God the Son went to the cross with the body and soul of a human being, so He could redeem both. He paid a great deal to redeem not just the souls of all saints but their bodies. If we don't pay for a major appliance at Sears and fail to pick it up, let's not think the Lord Jesus could be so forgetful.
Jesus will raise the sleeping bodies of all saints. And notice Paul says, "And the dead in Christ will rise first." Paul knows what Jesus says in John 5. "The hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and come out." Paul isn't focusing on the "all" here but just the dead in Christ, just those who sleep in Jesus.
Paul describes the Word of the Lord that will raise the dead as " a loud command," "the voice of the archangel," "the trumpet of God." Whether by God's command, the archangel's voice, or the trumpet's blare, the bodies of those who have fallen asleep in Jesus will come out of their graves as easily, as surely, as happily as they use to wake from a good, long nap. Don't picture their bodies in the Halloween horror of the living dead; picture them in the bodies God always meant for them to have. After all, Jesus is rejoining their bodies to the souls He has had with Him in heaven. A perfect, redeemed, glorified soul, needs a body to match.
What you need to know about all saints is that they will in the end, body and soul, be forever with the Lord. Remember how Paul says, "If we only have hope for this life, then we are of all men the most miserable?" If our hope ends at funeral homes, at caskets, or graves, that's not really much hope at all, is it? It's only years, perhaps decades, and then Death comes and crushes it. No, our hope is one that laughs, that scorns, that despises death. This is not understood by those outside of Christ.
In a book about World War I called The Great War and Modern Memory accounts of how the British would begin a charge out of the trench by kicking a soccer ball into No Man's Land are told to show how naive and foolish those soldiers were. The Christian author G.K. Chesterton saw this frivolity differently. He speaks of "those boys in France and Flanders who called out Early Doors!'as they went so early in their youth to break down the doors of death" (Collected Works, Vol. XX, 577). Early Doors!' referred to specific doors in a theater that were opened early to allow poor people a chance to scramble for cheap theater seats. It was a good, grand, joyous thing to be there for Early Doors. Those young men could describe approaching Death as Early Doors' because as Christians they distained its fears, it's threats, it's permanence because of Christ.
All saints have the power, the privilege, the hope that says in the words of John Donne's famous poem "Death Be not Proud" One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,/ And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die." In Christ it already has, and in Christ is where all saints are. Amen.
The Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
All Saints' (20091101); I Thessalonians 4: 13-18