(Click picture for larger image)
• • •
For All Saints Sunday
Today, we hear a cantata admirably suited for this Sunday, on which many churches commemorate the faithful departed. Bach’s cantata BWV 26, “Ach wie Flüchtig, ach wie nichtig” (Ah, how fleeting, ah, how fading), takes its theme from the Gospel account of Jesus raising Jairus’s daughter (Matthew 9:18-26).
As Simon Crouch explains, the subject of human mortality is not considered with a somber tone, however.
Listening to this fine chorale cantata without paying much attention to the words may give you the impression that this is a very joyful piece. However, this is a meditation on the Gospel story, reflecting on the fleeting nature of human existence. The subject is dealt with by the music, not with gloom and resignation but with the knowledge that redemption is the goal of human existence, rather than the pursuit of Mammon here on Earth.
Ah how fleeting, ah how insubstantial
is man’s life!
As a mist soon arises
and soon also vanishes again,
so is our life, see!
Sermon: When the Saints Come Marching Home (1Thessalonians 4:13-18)
Prayer of the Day
Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
During the final weeks of Ordinary Time this year we are considering teachings from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. We are linking these teachings with the emphases of Martin Luther and other reformers during the Protestant Reformation.
Two weeks ago we talked about the principle of CONVERSION. Conversion signifies that Christians are people who are always and ever being converted, or changed, by God. If we are true Reformation believers, we are always changing, always growing, always dying to the old life and being raised to walk in new life with Christ.
Last week, our special Reformation commemoration focused on the principle of REVELATION. God has spoken to us in his Word, and that Word has been communicated most fully in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. Last week I read one of Luther’s actual sermons, urging the people not to put themselves under new rules and laws, but to let God’s Word change their hearts and lead them to true freedom.
Today, on All Saints Sunday, we look at a third Reformation principle, that of RESURRECTION. We’re going to skip ahead just a little bit in the text of 1 Thessalonians and look at a passage in chapter 4 that is most fitting for this day when we remember the faithful departed: 1 Thess 4.13-18, where Paul writes
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Each week in the Creed we confess that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. We also believe in the communion of saints, the resurrection, and the life everlasting. Christians are not simply people who are justified by faith. Christians are not just people whose faith works itself out in love. We are also people who have HOPE — what the book of Hebrews calls, “hope — a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.” We are people with a future in a world where all will be made new.
We have hope that those who leave this life through death still live and are now being cared for by God. Also, as the hymn says, we who are still on our journey through this life have “mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won,” and this communion of saints strengthens our hope. Furthermore, we have hope that one day God will raise the bodies of those who sleep in the grave and they will be made new and whole again along with all creation. Jesus promised us, “Because I live, you will live also.” He also said, “I am the resurrection and the life; the one who believes in me will live even if he dies, and the one who lives and believes in me will never die.”
This is what Paul writes about in 1 Thess 4.13-18.
Paul’s friends in Thessalonica had some questions about those in their congregation who had died. They were obviously sad and mourning their deaths, but they also weren’t sure what their future would be when Jesus comes back. So in this section of the letter, Paul gives them a picture of what it will be like in terms that they would understand from their own culture.
In the Roman empire, sometimes an important government official or leader or perhaps even the Emperor himself would visit a city to strengthen ties with the citizens there. This was called an Adventus. Do you recognize that word? We have a season in the Church Year called “Advent,” in which we look forward to Christ’s coming.
An Adventus was like a royal parade. Preparations would be extensive, and when the time came the honorable dignitary who was visiting would approach the city with his impressive delegation. The leaders of the city, along with specially chosen greeters would go out of the city gates, beyond its walls, and welcome the eminent person and his entourage with great ceremony, then they would escort them in a royal parade back into the city. The citizens of the city would also come out and line the way, celebrating the entrance of their esteemed guest.
Paul uses this scenario to describe what will happen when Jesus, our risen King, reappears to bring ultimate peace and justice to this world. The dead in Christ will be raised, and they will be the first people, the specially honored and designated people to greet and escort the King. Then, those who are still alive at that time, Paul says, will be transformed and join them in the royal parade to celebrate Jesus’ coming to reign. Paul uses striking imagery, much of which comes from the OT — loud cries of victory, trumpets sounding, angels singing — to describe a scene that is magnificent. Heaven is going to come to earth, Paul is saying. The King will reappear among us to rule. And not only will we get to experience that, but the very first thing that will happen is that those who have died will be raised and will join Jesus as honored guests to welcome him.
Paul tells us this, he says in the text, so that we will not grieve as people who have no hope. We will grieve, yes. But we are not hopeless. We need not utterly despair.
Listen very carefully here. Paul does not say that Christians don’t grieve. He does not say that Christians have an easy time or an easier time than any other person when it comes to losing a loved one. Death always breaks close and loving connections, and that tearing apart hurts and sometimes even cripples us. Just because we have faith in Jesus doesn’t mean we get to skip out on being human and suffering what all other human beings experience. Don’t let anybody tell you it does. Life can hurt you — bad.
However, in Christ there is also an element of hope. There is reason to go on. There is reason to keep going. There’s a great parade planned, and you and your loved one who has passed on will be there together. There is something to look forward to. It’s not going to be like they used to say in Narnia, “Always winter and never Christmas.” Today, All Saints Sunday is a day we remember that. We not only honor the faithful departed, but also look forward to the great family holiday party that is coming.
I know well as a hospice chaplain that some days knowing these things doesn’t even take the edge off the pain of your sadness and sense of loss. But it’s real, it’s the very promise of God himself, and it is a handle you can grasp to keep from despairing.
Those names we said out loud this morning? Do you know what we were doing? We were reciting the names of the honored guests who will be specially chosen for recognition at that parade and at that party. They will be first to be raised. The first to greet Jesus. The first to escort him toward his throne. And we who live will be caught up with them in the great celebration with shouts and trumpets and angels’ voices.
May we, as Paul says, encourage each other with these words. Amen.