On All Saints’ Sunday we remember our communion with those who have gone before us in life and death. As we give thanks to God for their lives and for the heaven we look forward to for them and us, let us also consider the impact which this faith has on our lives now. Let us pray.
When C.S. Lewis was wrestling with his belief in God, for a time he thought that religion was simply outdated. Lewis later reflected that he had been guilty of “chronological snobbery,” as he put it, “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to one’s own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”[i] As Lewis matured he began to look more critically at his own time and with reverence upon those saints who came before him.
On September 30, Pope Francis declared that Pope John Paul II, among others, will be made saints in the Catholic Church next April. For Protestants, our focus on All Saints’ Sunday is less on those departed who were extraordinary models of holiness, than on the ordinary saints who lived among us and taught us about the grace of God, the nobility of service and the hope in Jesus Christ by how they lived.
Last Thursday, the greater Protestant church recognized Martin Luther’s start of the Reformation with his 95 complaints. Perhaps Luther’s main theological point after reading the Apostle Paul’s letters was that none of us are saintly enough to deserve to be in heaven, but might be there by God’s grace. Mark Twain once quipped that “Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.” It is because of God’s grace that we saints have hope. The Reformers were suspicious of the medieval church’s focus on praying for particular saints to help them.
Today, we give thanks for all saints, not because of what they can do for us, but because of what God has already done through them. This morning we’ll remember those saints of Bradley Hills who died in the past year as well as others who made a difference for us: wise teachers, friends, parents, family members, mentors. In doing so, we, like Lewis, recognize that experience is an asset and wisdom a virtue.
Lewis’ reverence for experience developed over time and it led him to greater interest in and hope for the future. Chronological snobbery didn’t seem as appealing when he realized that his own time, like ours, will eventually pass away as well. When we realize that, we too begin to think about the future. Many have turned to the Book of Revelations in such times. The Revelation to John was written to an audience that was struggling with its understanding of a challenging future. Followers of Christ were being forced to lay down their lives for their beliefs. Their great hope was that Christ would soon return.
Because our time on earth is limited we wonder what the afterlife will be like. Turn on your television to one of the church channels early on a Sunday morning and you’ll hear preachers using the book of Revelations to describe heaven. One of the best-selling books of the past three years is Todd Burpo’s Heaven is for Real, a story of a four year old who survives an emergency appendectomy and during an out of body experience describes what his parents were doing in another part of the hospital while he was being operated on, relays stories told to him in heaven by people who died before he was born and shares obscure details about what heaven looks like.[ii] I find some of the descriptions helpful. Although when the boy claims that John the Baptist was really nice, I start to question it.
I saw a cartoon the other day of a widow standing over a grave at a funeral. She says to her friend, “I know wherever he is he’ll be upgraded.” Our culture looks to artistic depictions of what heaven is like and promotes the idea that heaven is a faraway place for us to be taken away to. That is not the vision of John. We don’t know from Revelation or other parts of the Bible what heaven will look like exactly. We do know that heaven is real. Heaven exists and that is good news of great comfort when we are missing a loved one or someone special. And good news for our futures. The key point for John is that rather than heaven moving us far away, his biblical vision of heaven moves God’s glory towards us. For example, his vision of heaven in the Revelation includes a new Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven.” There will no longer be a temple there. The temple in the old Jerusalem was the place people went to meet God. Particularly before synagogues, the Jerusalem temple was the seat of the holy.
In John’s vision, a temple is not needed because God will be all around us. Rather than God being hidden in an inner sanctum, up in the clouds or even somewhat hidden in Christ which only some people understood in his time, John’s vision is of a God who will reveal Godself in a direct way on earth so all will see. In Revelation we learn that the voice John hears says, “See, the home of God is among the mortals. He will dwell with them…God himself will be with them…” The separation between heaven and earth will be removed. The glory of heaven is coming.
The Revelation to John is intended to tell us that heaven exists, not to describe details about its landscape or timing. Just as Genesis tells us that God created the heavens and the earth, not that it necessarily happened in six twenty-four hour periods, the Book of Revelation tells us that heaven exists, not what it looks like. But in describing a day when the glory of heaven will make everything new on earth, John is telling us enough to change my life and yours today. Because the effects are, as John puts it, that God will “wipe every tear. Death will be no more. Mourning and crying and pain will be no more….” Heaven is coming.
If death is not the end, as John and the Apostle Paul suggest, if a resurrection like Jesus’ will happen for us, if someday mourning and crying and pain will be no more, if our loved one is ok, if there is a heaven to look forward to for them and for us, then that changes how we live today. The Protestant focus on All Saints’ Sunday is not what some extraordinary person did long ago; it’s on what God had done and therefore is capable of doing again through us. That changes our viewpoint looking forward.
Many of us feel hurt or alone or confused or consumed by grief. If the grace of heaven is moving towards us, even if its timing seems slow, we are not standing on our own strength, instead we live with the power of heaven. Heaven is not only the place we’ll be once we leave this earth, but the motivation for what we do while we are here. How we live and the manner in which we treat each other is forever different if we believe that the place where tears will be wiped away and death will be no more is coming towards us.
Bronnie Ware is a palliative care nurse who in 2012 released a book entitled The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departed.iii Ware describes what she learned caring for people over many years. She focuses on the final three weeks of people’s lives and writes about the common regrets that Americans have on their deathbeds. The five most common regrets she noticed were:
Fifth, “I wish that I had let myself be happier.” Many people did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. Fourth, “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.” It is common for anyone in a busy lifestyle to let friendships slip. It is all comes down to love and relationships in the end. Third, “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.” Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Number two, “I wish I didn’t work so hard.”
And number one, “To have the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled.
The life transformed by these encounters is her own, as Ware makes changes in her life inspired by these reflections. We should not wait until it’s too late to live the life we are called to live either. We should live lives in glory now.
Last Friday morning, several of us attended a breakfast for Habitat for Humanity and heard about the work many are doing through that organization to help fulfill dreams. As we approach our interfaith service with BJC and our partner mosque on November 17 we give thanks for the nearly $50,000 our three congregations are together committing to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth for people who need housing and help. Regardless of where we are in life, we all can help bring the kingdom of God to earth in our corner of the world. In God’s glory there is a freedom from worry about our loved ones and an inspiration for us to further the work of God’s kingdom.
I find the people with the greatest belief that someone is watching over them, belief that Christ has paved their way, belief that there is a cloud of witnesses in heaven, are the most open, most likely to take God seriously, and most likely to give of themselves to relationships, to good works and to God in gratitude.
As we honor our saints who have gone before us, those we miss and who touched our lives, we celebrate that our eternal home is ultimately with our loves ones in heaven. But our theology tells us that a heavenly attitude is not reserved for heaven. If the separation between heaven and earth will go away, if through Jesus, death and mourning have no power and if glory is coming to us, then our outlook should reflect that glory now.
We are all souls created, gifted and loved by God. Chosen and blessed. When we gather around this table, we commune with all those who have come before us, connect with the cloud of witnesses, gather with God, join with Jesus and celebrate with our saints. Communion renews our faith because it is a foretaste of heaven, to be experienced here. Jesus has gone before us, and heaven is coming for us. So why wait? Let us live lives in glory now. May it be so. Amen.
[i] Surprised by Joy. Chapter 13, p. 207-208.
[ii] Todd Burpo. Heaven is for Real. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2010.
iiiBronnie Ware. The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departed. Hay House. 2012.