Comfort for All Saints
Today we celebrate All Saints' and there is comfort today for all saints. Saints are not those declared so by the Roman Catholic church and not only those who've died having faith in Christ. Check out the epistles of Paul. Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians and Colossians are all written to the saints at those locations. So this sermon is written to all saints at Trinity Austin.
The comfort of all saints is not that the dead in Christ are asleep. This was all Winston Churchill expected at death - "black velvet eternal sleep" (Last Lion, III, 18). There was nothing after this for him. Once you closed your eyes here you closed them forever. But doesn't Paul in our text say that the dead in Christ are asleep? He says he doesn't want us uninformed "about those who are asleep." He speaks of "those who have fallen asleep in Jesus."
Paul is speaking of their bodies not their souls. Paul plainly says that the dead in Christ are not trapped in the ground right now. No, they are with God in heaven and "God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in Jesus." All we have right now is their earthly remains, and they are asleep. Our English word cemetery comes from the Greek word koimeterion which means sleeping chamber.
But why refer to their dead bodies as asleep? Because that's what Jesus did. He assured Jairus and his wife that their dead daughter was only asleep (Mark 5: 35-43). Why? Because death is scary. Sleep is not. We often personify Death by capitalizing the word. Death is the Grim Reaper. Death stalks us. Death has a face. Sleep is seldom personified. Death is unknown, sleep well known. Death is dreaded; sleep is often longed for. Death brings turmoil; sleep brings peace. There is no apparent end to death; a person easily wakes from sleep. "'Sleep' is not a euphemism for death' where the Christian is concerned, but a literal explanation of it" (Sermon Studies on the Epistles, 357).
The comfort of all saints is not that the souls of those in Christ are asleep but that the bodies they have left behind are only sleeping. In some way even non-Christians know that the dead are just sleeping. "Beside the dead, men speak in whispers, as if the deepest rest of all could be broken by the sound of a living voice" (Phantastes, 103). One living voice can and will wake them that of the One who died and rose again. Jesus returns with the souls of those who have died in Him. He descends from heaven with a shout, which literally is a "cry of command." Paul goes on to describe it as the trumpet of God, the voice of the archangel. And there is no doubt what Jesus trumpets, what His voice commands, "RISE!"
Before we get to resurrection, let me point out that there is limited comfort in the truth that saints have bodiless souls in heaven. Revelation 7 definitely depicts them that way. And they are safe, happy, healthy singing the praises of the God who redeemed them in Christ. While from our point of view their death broke bonds and relationships, Revelation 7 shows that "death makes or restores more bonds than it breaks" (Krauth, Con. Ref., 85). The dead in Christ move from their place among us in the Communion service to being among angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven.
But Paul doesn't go here. He doesn't comfort with pictures of happy, blest souls in heaven; he goes to the resurrection of the dead to comfort all saints. Every non-Christian religion you can think of knows of an afterlife, a place where souls go, a bodiless heaven. But Christ Jesus came into the world in a flesh and blood body to redeem flesh and blood humanity so that He might raise flesh and blood humanity.
The millions of sacrifices and offerings that the Old Testament Church offered could not take away sin. Hebrews 10 tells us, "It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins." Then Hebrews quotes Jesus, "When Christ came into the world, He said: Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You prepared for Me" (Hebrews 10:4-5).
To take away sins from flesh and blood bodies, the Law that condemned fallen flesh and blood to eternal death had to be kept by flesh and blood, both its requirements and penalties. So in the womb of the Virgin Mary, God the Son took on ten fingers and toes being made exactly as we are except without sin. Being born under the Law just like we are, He had to keep it in His flesh and blood. He was tempted in every way we are, yet never gave up or in. All A's on every report card. Never did He do a thing wrong, speak an ill word, or think an untoward thought.
The Law had to declare Jesus was the perfect Man not only in soul but in body because He kept perfectly all that the Law required of flesh and blood. But if He was going to redeem flesh and blood, He had to pay the Law's penalties, and it would take dying to get that done. Actually, it would take eternal dying. It would take suffering eternal damnation in not just soul but body. The outward sufferings of Jesus that Scripture records the beating, slapping, spitting, whipping, nailing, thirsting, bleeding, sweating, crying, and dying are not the worst of it. The closest you ever come to that is in your nightmares where your guilt or shame is exposed and you wake up so glad that it is was just a dream.
It was no dream for Jesus. The eternal guilt, shame, and pain you deserve to suffer in your body, Jesus suffered in His not only in your place but in place of all flesh and blood. And He was successful. God recognized Jesus had completely fulfilled the Law that condemned flesh and blood men to eternal death by raising His flesh and blood on Easter. And you've got to appreciate just how successful Jesus was. He succeeded in bringing resurrection to all flesh and blood. That's what Paul says, "As in Adam all died, so in Christ shall all be made alive." That's what Jesus says in John 5. "Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear His voice and come out."
Yes even the Hitler's and Hussein's of the world will rise from the grave, but if you don't go into the grave in Christ, you don't come out in Him either. If you die with your sin, guilt, and shame on you because you defended them, made excuses for them, or tried your best to make up for them, then they go into the grave with you. As the blood of the innocent remains active even after it falls on to the ground, so do sin, guilt, and shame. They continue to rot body and soul, so that those outside of Christ come out of the grave in un-glorified bodies fit for Zombies.
But that's not you; that's not any saint trusting that he has been baptized into the flesh and blood of Jesus not only for death but resurrection. That's not any saint who having confessed their sins wants no part of them and sees them carried away on the flesh and blood of Jesus. That's not any saint bodied and blooded to Jesus in Communion believing that with the Body and Blood he gets forgiveness, life, and salvation not just for his soul but for his body too.
Yes, the comfort of all saints is that their bodies are merely sleeping till Jesus will descended from heaven with their souls and wake their bodies with a shout. Initial here if you've gotten this comfort. You know how you have to do that on some contracts or forms? You have to initial something to show you understood or agreed with it.
People have always put initials on gravestones. The pagan Romans would but D.M. This stood for Dis Manibus. This was the conventional inscription preceding the name of the deceased. It stood for "For the ghost gods." The full expression was "Dis Manibus Sacrum" which means "sacred to the ghost gods." The god referred to was Manes, the Roman spirit of the dead. How much better to be sacred to the God who lives in flesh and blood? We say that's the case in the graveside liturgy. The pastor proclaims, "May God the Father who created this body; may God the Son who by His blood has redeemed this body together with the soul; may God the Holy Ghost who by Baptism has sanctified this body to be His temple, keep these remains unto the day of the resurrection of all flesh."
Well, then we certainly don't want the initials D.M. on our tombstones. How about D.P. I found these initials attached to my note on D.M. I know that it stands for the Italian Dormi Pur. What I can't find out is if Italians ever put it on headstones or it was just an expression used at bedtime like "sweet dreams." Dormi Pur means "sleep pure" or "sleep clean." DP on your grave would be even more fitting if it could be understood "asleep cleansed" because that's how all saints go into the grave: cleansed of all their sins.
Then again how about the initials HSB or SSB? This comes from a joke that is also a truth. Some guys are talking about what they would like to hear people standing around their casket say. One says he'd liked to hear, "He was a good father." Another, "He provided for his family." Another, "He had a long life." "Not me," says another. "I want to hear, Look, he's still breathing!" That's not what all saints want to hear who've been told by their God that He barred their access to the Tree of Life so they don't eat of it and live forever in a fallen body in a fallen world. All saints who sing, "I would not live always," don't want to hear we're still breathing here but we're still breathing there, in heaven.
We inscribe on our bulletins the initials VDMA which stands for the Latin "The Word of the Lord endures forever." So does anyone born of the Word, forgiven by the Word, or eating and drinking in faith the Word made flesh and blood. The same Word that sends these bodies into the ground "Dust you are to dust you shall return" will call them back out. And all risen saints will know "of restored friendships; of revived embraces, of love which said in had never died; of faces that had vanished long ago, yet said with smiling lips that they [had known] nothing of the grave" (Phatastes 127). Resurrection of the dead is the comfort of all saints whichever side of heaven they are living. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
All Saints' Sunday (20131103); I Thessalonians 4: 13-18