More than a Name on a Wall
25 years ago the Statler Brothers released a song about a grieving mother visiting the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial which is a black wall with a list of the almost 60,000 lost in Vietnam. She's praying to God and saying, "Lord could you tell him/ He's more than a name on a wall." Actually, being with the Lord he would have already known that. She, you, and I are the ones who need to know that our dead in Christ are more than names on walls, tombstones, and backs of pictures.
Today, November 2, the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, All Souls Day, is not about the saints in general but the ones we personally know who've passed on in Christ. Read the bulletin for the background of this holy day, but know this: All Souls' Day is older than All Saints' Day. All Saints dates to the 9th century and All Souls to the 7th.
Makes sense doesn't it. All Saints celebrates the Church triumphant, all the company of heaven. The faces of loved ones get lost in that crowd. Today we remember that boy in middle school tragically killed. That high school friend who died too soon. Grandparents and parents, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, children and coworkers who were taken by our Lord by age, disease, tragedy, accidents, or war. We still may struggle with the pain or we may have found a place for that death to live in our life, but we don't forget. Today we remember God doesn't either.
But I am duty bound to point out that today is the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed not all the departed. When the military, civic groups, or cemetery associations have memorial services, they commemorate all the dead. In the military the programs are a function of the command structure not the chaplains but the military admits they have a religious orientation. And though the speakers try to focus on remembering what the dead did in life, they can't help but speak of where they are now, and no one puts them anywhere but in a better place regardless if they were in Christ or not.
Sorry, though men and women die bravely, honorably, nobly, painfully, tragically, heroically, that doesn't enlist them in the ranks of the faithful departed. Whether on All Saints' Day or All Souls' Day the Church is not commemorating all the dead but only their dead because they are not really dead at all. That's a bold thing to say, but I can say it confidently because there is no "if" about our text.
Did you hear the "if"? The NASB translates, "For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus." When you hear this you can think, "So as long as I keep on believing Jesus died and rose again, God will bring with Jesus those have fallen asleep in Jesus?" The ESV has this right. It's not the conditional use of the word but the consequential. It's not "if" but "since." Since we believe that Jesus died and rose, we also believe God will bring with Jesus those asleep in Him.
Even if no one believed, Jesus still would have died and rose again. In fact, that first Easter no one on Earth believed. All the disciples fled, and the women came on Easter to properly bury a dead Jesus not worship a resurrected one. Even when the women reported the resurrection to the apostles they thought it nonsense. The death of Jesus for the sins of the world and the resurrection of Him for the justification of the world is not based on anyone believing it.
You have faith playing the wrong role if you think this way. Then faith is a power that causes things to happen. Then Jesus looks to see if you believe in Him, and if you do then He keeps all God's Commandments in your place, and rises from the dead on the third day to proclaim the Father has accepted His death as payment for your sins. There is no comfort in if, no Gospel in if, no help in if, and if on All Souls' Day you tie what's going in you to the state of the faithfully departed how sad a holiday this is for you.
I have always been haunted by Rudyard Kipling's poem "If." He wrote it in 1895 two years before the birth of his son. It says in a nutshell: If you can do this, this, and that and that, at the end of the day "you'll be a Man, my son!" A month after his son turned 18 he was killed in WW I. I've always wondered, did his dad's "If" drive the boy to enlist at 17? Did "If" always hang over his head demanding to be satisfied, demanding he do something?
No, the condition of the faithfully departed is not tied to if you believe or if you believe strong enough. It is tied to what God did to His only beloved Son. Death had a claim on all men because all have sinned and fall short of God's glory. God sent His only beloved Son into the world in place of all men. In our flesh and blood, He stepped under all the commands of the Law that can only accuse us, can only make us feel guilty, can only show us our sins, and He kept them perfectly, beautifully, completely.
But our text says "Jesus died." He didn't deserve to die, let alone to suffer and be rejected by God, but we did. So Jesus took our place here too. Think of the greatest pain you can imagine and then pass out because you can't imagine the pain of all God's wrath, all God's rage, all God's judgment against even just your sins let alone the world's coming down on you. But it all came down on Jesus. Till it was finished, spent, over, done.
But the text doesn't just say "Jesus died." It also says "He rose." Death couldn't hold on to God. Death had to spit divinity out, and since flesh and blood are joined to it, when divinity came out of the tomb so did humanity. Since we believe that Jesus died for all sinners and rose from the dead to prove the Father had accepted His payment for all sins, then our dead in Christ are not lost to us at all. They have fallen asleep in Him and where He goes they go. When He returns, they return.
Don't think calling death "sleep" is a Christian euphemism for death, a way of avoiding saying someone is dead. No, for Christians "sleep" is a literal explanation of what death is. Death for those in Jesus is no more permanent than sleep; no harder to wake from than a nap; no more distant from the living than the person asleep in the next room is. And no matter how painful, how horrible, how gruesome, how tragic the death of a Christian was, every single one of them fell asleep in Jesus. They may have gone screaming, begging, crying, or pleading, but that was the last gasp of the sinful nature taking its rage out on the body it relinquished to the grave for sleep and on the soul it relinquished to heaven for joy.
Those asleep in Jesus are more than a name on a wall or a face in our memory or a body in a grave. They are not behind us in the past but with us in the present. Not one of them is left behind. That Greek word shows up twice. Strangely, it doesn't refer to those asleep in Jesus but those alive when the Lord returns, but the point applies to all. No one left behind.
The Army Rangers are known for the motto "No one left behind." It's part of their creed, but it probably predates them by centuries spoken by warriors everywhere. It's a nice sentiment, but it's not true. About 2,000 GI's were left behind in Vietnam while in World War II about 58,000 were. No branch of service wants to, intends to, is glad to leave anyone behind, but it happens. Man hasn't the strength to keep the promise "No one left behind," but God certainly has.
First off, our faithfully departed, even if we know where they are buried are in one sense not there. When Jesus returns, the text says God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. Don't think of your faithful departed in a box, underground, in an urn, lost at sea, or blown to bits. O every cell, every molecule, every atom no matter where it be is them, belongs to them, but it is like the glove that goes over the hand. You can bury your glove, burn your glove, tear your glove into bits, and your hand lives on. What animates the glove of the body of the faithful is with God in heaven right now and will return with Jesus.
Picture this: The Lord Jesus descends from heaven with the shout "Rise!" The voice of the archangel sounds and the earth moves and graves open. The trumpet sounds and the dead in Christ step out of their graves, out of the sea, out of a million places their remains have been scattered to over centuries. Then the rest rise, but Paul isn't interested in speaking about them. But it is important to know Jesus says, " All who are in their graves will hear His voice and come out."
Paul doesn't end with the resurrection of the faithful departed. He ends with those who remain until the Second Coming meeting the Lord and the faithful departed "and so we shall always be with the Lord." This is true even now. It's not that we are with the faithfully departed only in our memories. Whether on this side or the other side of the great divide of death the faithful are in the same Christ.
There is a 1988 painting titled "Reflections." It shows a haggard businessman in his 40's leaning with one hand pressed against the Vietnam wall memorial. Reflected in the wall is a squad of combat soldiers. One of those soldiers also has his hand stretched out and is touching the place where the businessman's hand is on the wall.
It's true. All our dead in and outside of Christ are in our memories and are reflected in our lives in all sorts of ways. But those asleep in Jesus are in touch with us because they and we are in touch with the same Jesus. This touching doesn't take place through granite, paper, film, jewelry, or memory but through Bread and Wine that is the Body and Blood of Jesus. The faithfully departed are in Communion with Jesus on their side of the wall of death; we are in Communion with this same Jesus on our side of the wall. They are no more just names on a wall than we are. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
All Souls' Day (20141102); 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18