Home with God – All Saints Day 2021

Revelation 21: 1-6

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

Sermon Text

 Today we celebrate “All Saints’ Day.” Growing up I was largely unaware of what today meant for the Church. I knew that it was the day after Halloween, so named because it was the day before the feast therefore called “All Hallows’ (Saints’,) Eve.” I also knew that it was in some way tied to the remembrance of those who had died. These two facts were all that I really understood about the holiday. Add in national observances like Dia de los Muertos, and there was a strange mystique to something that should have been fairly commonplace. We in modern America have allowed ourselves to put remembrance on the back burner. We do not think of the dead, and we do our best not to mention them too often in public either.

Why have we done this? Why is it that we cannot take time together and feel that mixed feeling of sadness and joy that comes from thinking about loved one’s that we have lost? I think that a lot of things have brought this to pass. Firstly, we are skittish about our own mortality. To talk about people who have died is to acknowledge we will die one day too, and even with the promise of Heaven, we prefer thinking of life rather than death. We can also be pressured into a sense of shame for feeling nostalgic for times we had with our loved ones. We think that if we have any feelings for those who have died and that impede our life in anyway after the first week or so of missing them, that they are somehow bad. Finally, we have let ourselves believe, counterintuitively, that because our loved ones are in Paradise, that they are too busy to think of us. So, we save their memory for private moments, for birthdays and anniversaries, but never for anything out loud and seldom in a way other’s might hear.

The early Christians were a strange group to be around during funerals. They would cry and mourn like anyone else at the time, but they also had triumphant celebrations on the way to the burial place. They would sing psalms, they would wear white instead of black, they tried to make a celebration out of the act of giving someone over to God. This display was not a denial of the pain that came with saying goodbye, but it was a celebration of the fact that the dead were not gone forever. Christians were also some of the only people in Roman society, Jews being the other, who went out of their way to preserve the bodies of the dead rather than cremate them. Because they believed in the resurrection, the Church preserved the dead as best they could, not out of necessity, but respect for the fact the body would one day be used again.

Recently I took a morning to read The Cult of the Saints, which looked at the development of the idea that Saints are specific individuals set apart from other believers.[1] I won’t go into that particular aspect of the study this morning, but I do want to talk about some of the details it gives about Christian attitudes toward death. The Roman and Jewish societies in which Christianity developed had similar ideas to death that we do. Keep it out of sight and out of mind. Tell the story of your ancestors, but keep them far away from the public eye all the same. Christianity caused a stir when it became a more widely recognized faith in part because we did not have this attitude. Death was at the center of our faith, it was Christ’s death that freed us from our own death. Cemeteries moved from outside of town into public spaces, sometimes even under places of worship. We saw in death, not an interruption or an end, but a continuation.

Nothing has changed about our beliefs, but a lot has changed in our attitudes. Part of this is simply cultural. We are not the same people as who Christianity flourished in two thousand years ago. We are descendants of Scottish, Irish, German, French, Italian, and broadly European communities. We bring with us the practices and ideas of all these cultures as they have slowly meshed together into the particular culture we have here in Appalachia. The way we mourn and remember will necessarily have its own flavor compared to how anyone else in any other region mourns, and our celebrations of life will likewise have their own twist to them.

I have talked as long as I have about death and mourning and funerals and memorials, because today as we gather to remember those who have entered Heaven ahead of us, we are not remembering people who no longer exist. Secular memorials are made to people who have no consciousness, they have died and gone into the earth and nothing more is said about them. As people of faith, we believe that those who have died are not gone, but that they are merely somewhere other than in their body. We believe that someday there will be a resurrection of all who have died, that God will bring the souls of all who have died back to their body and give them that body as it was meant to be. Like Jesus visiting his friends, familiar but somehow completely different, we will all be ourselves but as we were always meant to be.

There are some in the Church who see the time between death and resurrection as a time of rest. The dead, this line of thinking goes, are not conscious even as they continue to exist with God. To sleep from now till the Kingdom of God is realized fully in all the universe, that sounds well and truly restful. For me, however, I do not hold to this vision of our time between death and resurrection. Jesus tells the thief on the cross that he will be in Paradise, that day. Paul talks about the dead as sleeping, but Revelation gives us a vision of the dead gathered around God worshipping the Triune divinity day and night. There may be a more full experience of God when the resurrection takes place, but to see the faithful dead as simply sleeping till then, it just does not sit right with me. Maybe Paradise is different from Heaven, one for now and one for the end of time, but either way, I trust those we miss are with God now, not just asleep in the ground.[2]

Whenever the Church gathers, we do not gather simply as the people in this room, or even as the whole of the Church on earth. Every celebration that the Church takes part in has an entire congregation of people who are present with God worshipping alongside them. Whenever we sing a hymn, there are those in Heaven singing the harmony with us. Whenever we pray a prayer, there are those sitting in front of God praying just as intently. Whenever someone gives themselves over to God’s plan, the whole company of Heaven – angels and saints – joins together to celebrate. Today as we celebrate communion, we take juice and bread and even for just a second draw near to the eternal bliss that those we love already have begun to enjoy.

The people we miss are able to miss us too. The people who we loved, still love us from their rest in Heaven. There is no end to a person simply because their body has stopped functioning. Though it is hard for us to think of, no matter how holy and prayerful we may be, that there is a life beyond the senses and experiences we know now – we go on beyond this life. That means that, if we really believe that to be true, we do not become a robot after we pass into Heaven, we maintain our personality. I was always told growing up that once I got to Heaven I would never think about earth or my life before I had died. As I grew up, I began to think that could not be the case. I may be praising God 24/7, I may understand my time on earth through the lens of my present Heavenly experiences, but to take away the people and things I cared about in this life completely would be to eliminate what makes me, me.

We are given two powerful visions of what our destiny looks like in Eternity. The first is in Jesus’s appearances to his disciples after the resurrection. Jesus looked different, so different at times that people could not see that it was him they were talking to. Yet, never once did Jesus’s personality or soul change after the resurrection. Granted, Jesus has the advantage of having lived a perfect life before his death, so there would be no disconnect. For us, I imagine the rougher parts of our life will be removed. I will probably be a much nicer person once God has cleaned me when I make my way into Heaven. However, unless our personality is mostly made up of sin, then we do not have to see our Heavenly selves as anything but a better continuation of our earthly selves.

The second image is directly from our scripture today, God bringing Heaven and Earth together so that they can never be pulled apart. Genesis tells a story a lot like this. God was with humanity, walking with them daily in the Garden, then we ran away through our sin and lost what it meant to be with God constantly. God never stopped chasing after us though. All of scripture attests to God’s nostalgia for Eden, God always wanted to be back with us in the Garden. We are all waiting for a reunion. Even creation waits for the day Heaven is back in touch with Earth, for when everything is fixed and nothing is broken anymore. God waits to be back home with us, and alongside God are all the faithful who have left us here, all of them waiting for the day we are together again.

As we celebrate All Saints’ Day, we take time to remember that our loved ones are still with us. Though they know perfect bliss, they wait for the day we can be together again just as much as we do. One day we will all enter the New Jerusalem together, singing hymns and songs in languages we never knew we could know. Then, when the light of Heaven shines bright all around us, we will see the truth we acknowledge today. God is with us, alongside all the saints. – Amen.

[1] Peter Brown. The Cult of the Saints. (Chicago, Illinois. University of Chicago Press. 2015)

[2] John Wesley makes this distinction in his own writings, saying “Paradise,” is the experience of God’s presence before God reconciles all things, and “Heaven,” is only truly known to us afterward.

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