All Saints' Sunday
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
I Thessalonians 4:13-18 Sermon
November 2, 2008
Hymns (from the Service Book and Hymnal):
437 "Ye Watchers And Ye Holy Ones"
144 "For All The Saints, Who From Their Labors Rest"
141 "For All Thy Saints, O Lord"
376 "Jesus Thy Blood And Righteousness"
ROMANTIC NOTIONS AND HEAVENLY MYTHS
TEXT: (vs. 13-14) "Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him."
This morning, the theme of my message to you bears the title, "romantic notions and heavenly myths." At the outset, this might sound a bit odd. We know that heaven is a reality. It is a very real place, just as the Bible says.
But as real as heaven is, there is still this air of mystique about it all. When we look at the Biblical pictures of heaven, those pictures are all metaphorical. This is because we have absolutely no comprehension of the absolute magnitude and beauty of heaven. And so we read words like, "gates of pearl," or "streets of gold," or "shining as jasper," to give us at least an idea of the beautiful place that it is. There is nothing on earth to which we can compare it, so we have to rely on the various metaphors Scripture employs to give us a mental image, albeit an imperfect one.
In our Epistle lesson this morning, the Apostle Paul is writing to the Christians at Thessalonica. The Thessalonians were a dedicated and faithful group of Christians, who stood firm in the faith even in the face of persecution. However their understanding of heaven and the resurrection of the dead was not clear in their minds. What about those fellow believers who died before Christ's return in glory? Were they going to be in heaven too?
Well of course they were, and Paul takes this opportunity to explain it to them. Paul shares with them the hope that all Christians have in the face of the earthly death of a fellow believer, and that is that they have indeed inherited their heavenly reward. Certainly there would be sorrow and grief over the death of a loved one, but it wouldn't be the same as the grief an unbeliever might feel. The Christian has this eternal hope of heaven, and that is something nobody else can lay claim to. The unbelieving world faces death with uncertainty, but the Christian looks at death through the eyes of the resurrection and eternal life.
This is a hope that we continually affirm in our worship services. When we pray the Lord's Prayer, we begin: "Our Father, who art in heaven." We're praying to someone we know who dwells in a place we know. This is factual. We don't pray to God by saying, "Oh supreme being, come out, come out wherever you are." No, we pray to our Father who is in heaven. And furthermore, we believe that this is the Father in heaven with whom we will dwell for an eternity. The Lord's Prayer begins with us making an absolutely true statement of our faith.
Today is All Saints' Sunday. It is a time when we focus our attention upon the saints who have gone before us and who are currently in heaven, along with the saints still dwelling upon this earth. With this in mind, we need to remember that a saint isn't just someone who has performed some sort of great action or deed of Christian service.
A saint is someone who is either in heaven now, or who is headed there. A saint describes the likes of you and me. Dr. Luther likes to employ the Latin phrase, "simmul eustis et peccator," which translated means, "at the same time saint and sinner."
Paul reminds the Romans in chapter 3 verse 23, "...for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," Then in verse 24 he continues, "and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus."
Paul indeed describes the saint and sinner--somebody who knows and sees their sinfulness, and trusts only in Jesus Christ as their Saviour. The saint is one who is a true believer in Christ.
These believers are drawn together in what the Apostles' Creed calls: "the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints." Those two terms are synonymous; they refer to the same thing. This is what we call this special group who are united by faith in Christ. The Germans even have a special word for this "communion," which is called "gemeinde." This carries a sense of a community with a common belief.
This morning, just as Paul doesn't want the Thessalonians to be ignorant of the facts regarding heaven and the resurrection, he also wants us to be well informed. It's with this in mind that I'm going to look at some common misconceptions with regard to heaven and the afterlife, and I'm going to use a true/false type of format.
All people go to heaven when they die. That's false. Heaven is a place for true believers in Christ, and that's it. But people like to be sentimental, thinking that God will overlook something like openly rejecting him.
I was talking with a woman one time, and I heard her tell her young son that his daddy was in heaven. I asked her how he died, and she told me he committed suicide. She also indicated that he was never baptized, he never went to church, and he was openly antagonistic with Christians.
I told her that from all outward indications, he was probably as far from heaven as he could be. She agreed with me, but went on to indicate that it was easier to tell her son that his daddy was in heaven. She decided to placate her son with a lie. What will her son grow up thinking if he continues to believe that lie? Will he somehow think that everybody goes to heaven when they die? Will he know the importance of knowing Jesus as his Saviour?
I know grandma (or some other person) is up there in heaven watching over us. That's false too. But people have such an emotional attachment to some people, that they actually believe that they're up there someplace controlling their lives and being their constant protector.
It amazes me how many people believe that their dead relatives suddenly become some type of substitute God when they go to heaven. Or that they believe grandma or grandpa is with them at Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or at a wedding, or some other type of special event.
There are definitely times in our lives when we remember the dear departed, especially during those close family times. The memories are so fond and warm that it is almost like they are there with us; but we know they're not. As fond as those memories are, they aren't going to bring a dead relative's spirit back to life so they can sit at the Thanksgiving table with us.
Grandma's in a better place now. And that's true. Even though this is one of those platitudes people will often say to someone at a funeral, yet we know that the true Christian is now in paradise with Jesus. Certainly heaven and the eternal peace there is a far better place than the vale of tears we have here on earth, or the eternal agony one would experience in hell.
Grandpa's not in pain any more. This is also true. Heaven is a place where pain and suffering and sickness do not exist; neither will there be any sorrow or mourning. This is another platitude people will often say to someone at a funeral. But even so, the reality of it all is very comforting, especially when we see someone suffering for a long period of time, like when a loved one is slowly being eaten away by cancer. Through their earthly death, God has provided a blessed end to their suffering.
Unbaptized babies don't go to heaven or hell; they go to Limbo. That's entirely false. This is an invention of the early church to provide some sort of explanation where they feel one was needed. In Latin, it's what we call a "pius fraus," which means a "pious fraud." This is a term usually applied to fake miracles performed by religious hucksters. In this case however, it is used to refer to an invented doctrine. Even though the intent might have been good, it is still a lie or a fraud nevertheless.
Christian parents who have experienced the tragedy of an infant death or stillbirth can be comforted with the fact that if God in his mercy called the child to himself, he certainly will care for that child in his heavenly kingdom.
When people die, they go to purgatory until all of their earthly sins have been atoned for. Again this is something that is entirely false. Purgatory, which is described as a place where a person's sins are "purged," is something like a temporary hell with some sort of hope at the end. People throughout the ages have paid huge sums of money and prayed for hours on end to get a loved one's soul out of purgatory.
This is one of the things against which Dr. Luther rebelled at the time of the Reformation. John Tetzel was selling indulgences, which were pieces of paper guaranteeing someone's release from purgatory. His sales jingle was, "When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs." This was another "pius fraus" used to raise money to build St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
What makes this so sad, is that it robs Christ of his glory by saying his sacrifice wasn't enough. Faith in Christ alone guarantees the forgiveness of sins and entrance into heaven for eternity.
Dogs, cats, and other pets go to heaven when they die. I'm sorry to disillusion anybody, but this is another falsehood. This one is especially hard when a family loses a beloved pet that they have loved and enjoyed for a long time. But the truth of the matter is, human beings are the only living creatures with a soul.
In today's society, attempts have been made to elevate animal life in order to place it on a par with human life. Some have even attempted to do this with plant life or insects. But it doesn't work. In fact when there are attempts to do this, the result is often the lowering of human life to the level of animals or plants.
Human life is unique and special. Humans are the only creatures that can know Jesus as their Saviour, and the only beings for whom he gave his life. Animals, however dear they might be to us, are not human. God has given them to us for companionship, protection, or whatever noble purpose there might be for this life only. Animals are not part of the Communion of Saints.
People become angels when they die. This is false, even though it is a rather common belief. Angels are special creations of God, neither male nor female, made to serve him and his purposes. Even though angels inhabit heaven and serve God, we are different.
Our first lesson today from Revelation 7 makes this distinction. There are angels present around God's throne, but then there are others, those in white robes. Verse 14 tells us: "These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." That describes the saints now in heaven.
In heaven, we will be eternally happy. This is most certainly true. Even though I could come up with more of these "heavenly notions," this is the one on which I'm going to end.
We can only understand heaven in metaphorical pictures; therefore our understanding will be incomplete. But there is one undeniable fact-heaven is a place of eternal happiness. And I can take that one step further and say that anything that is required for our eternal happiness will be in heaven awaiting us. I can assure you that we will not be bored, or miserable, or lacking for something to do. We're not going to be there and wish that we were someplace else.
Satan has tried to trick us into thinking that heaven is a place where people float around in nightgowns amongst the clouds playing harps. He tries to fool us into thinking that hell is a far better place, full of fun and frivolity, almost like a never ending party. But that's a trick. That's a lie.
Remember why Jesus came to this earth. He loved you so much, and thought that your eternal happiness was so important, that he lived his life on earth and died the most cruel death of all so you could be in heaven when you die.
Jesus knew that Satan would throw every trick in the book at you to keep you in his place of eternal torment and misery. That's why Jesus exposes him for exactly who he is time and again in the Bible.
Your Father in heaven wants you to spend eternity with him. He's given you a mansion there. He wants you to be part of his family, a member of the communion of saints, or the "geminde" as the Germans would say.
Jesus came to this earth to pay the price for our sins and experience the punishment we deserve. Through faith in him as our Saviour, those sins have been completely eradicated from our record. Through faith in Jesus our Saviour, we have indeed "washed our robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" just like our first lesson this morning says.
Heaven is ours through nothing more than faith alone. We won't get there by any good works of our own, but only through what Christ has done for us.
Therefore we can live our life with the hope of heaven always in front of our eyes, knowing that Jesus will take us safely there.