By Paul Koch –
The celebration of All Saints Day is a wonderful opportunity for us to consider, again, the incredible blessings of our God. It is a time to remember a Word of God that is powerful enough to speak all things into being, and yet it is a Word that endures throughout all of created time to deliver his saints beyond this vale of tears to a new heaven and new earth. All Saints Day is a time where we focus on the church triumphant, the church at rest from its labors. It is a time when we sing some of the greatest hymns ever written, hymns full of the promises of our faith.
“Oh, blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; Yet all are one in Thee, for all are thine. Alleluia! Alleluia!”
But every year, when this celebration rolls around, I have a feeling that we tend to focus more on the discontinuity of the saints rather than our unity in the promises of Christ. That is, All Saints Day tends to be a focus on that immovable line in the sand called the grave rather than the Word of Christ which triumphs over the grave and delivers eternity itself. I guess what I’m saying is that on All Saints Day we give the grave more credit than it deserves.
When I was living in Georgia I enjoyed hanging around a group of, well, somewhat rough individuals. We met up regularly at a little bar called the “Crooked River Lounge”, but no one knew it by that name. Everyone simply called the place by its nickname which was “The Bloody Bucket.” Now, down at the Bucket there was always a delightful gathering of broken and interesting people who came together for friendship and support. They were usually happy to tell their stories and even buy a round from time to time. Like any other community, this wonderful group of colorful people would occasionally face that shocking line in the sand. Cancer, a motorcycle accident, an overdose: death was no stranger to them. And when death came, they would turn to me. I would get a phone call asking if I would come to the memorial at the funeral home to say a few words.
Now these weren’t funeral services in the church, and I was usually just one of a number of people who would get up to speak. Most of the time I hardly knew the one who had died but you could almost predict what was going to be said at the funeral home. People would tell heartwarming tales about the deceased, there would be tears, and then someone would make a passionate claim that now is the time to get prepared: to do what you need to do to get right with God. Such words, I fear, mostly fell on deaf ears, but you knew it was coming. After all, time is short and we must act before it is too late.
Death becomes the motivator to act. But where should we start? Every All Saints Day we hear our Lord’s words again from the Sermon on the Mount, the beatitudes. And the beatitudes have been used over and again as the great roadmap for preparing oneself for that line in the sand. If we want to inherit the earth, we need to be meek. If we want to receive mercy, we must be merciful. If we long to see God, then we must be pure in heart. And so, to a gathering of mourners, these many heartfelt pleas have become a desire to climb the ladder that will move us closer to our Lord. We must move closer to his gifts and blessings, so that when death comes we are not unprepared. To ensure that we, too, will rest with all the saints who have gone before.
Yet such a ladder doesn’t show us how to better ourselves; all it really does is reveal how broken we actually are. For it may surely reveal what is expected or what is required, but it does not give us the ability to do it. Our sin is too strong. It holds us and entangles us so easily. To stand up at a funeral and shout to a bunch of broken and hurting people that they need to change their lives or that they need to get right with God without giving them the ability to do those things, is only to crush and break them even more. Then All Saints Day would be a day where we remember those who rest, not from a hard and difficult life, but from the terror of not doing enough, of not being merciful enough or seeking righteousness enough, or being poor enough in spirit. We would live always unsure if our deeds are enough, or if the next funeral is our own, will we be ready?
But all this is a twisting of the beatitudes. It flows from our desire to give the grave too much credit. Listed for us is not a checklist of things to do, but a proclamation of what Christ has already done for us. Without any work or merit on the part of the hearer, Jesus declares, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” He gives his blessing; he speaks his gift not to those who work for it, but those who are poor in spirit. He speaks throughout not to an attitude acquired by the hearers, but to their condition as broken and mournful sinners. They are poor in spirit, they are the mourners, they are the lowly, they are those who hunger and thrust for a righteousness they cannot achieve, and yet Christ declares them to be blessed.
To be blessed by the Son of God is no small thing. For it is to be blessed by the one who embraced all your hurt and brokenness. He found you when you sought him not. He called you his own when you despised his name. He, then, took all of your sin upon himself. He embodied your shame and died for it all. But when the grave reached out and took ahold of the Son of God, it overstepped its bounds. So the Son of God smashed it. He destroyed its finality he destroyed its hold over us. He, then, who has broken the hold of the grave says to you, “You are blessed and yours is the kingdom of heaven.”
Notice that Christ does not say that yours will be the kingdom of heaven at some point in the future. In fact, the beatitudes reveal to us something truly glorious about this blessing of Christ. It is a revelation of what is and what will be. The blessing of the kingdom of heaven is present tense both at the beginning and the end of the beatitudes. And all the other blessings are in the future tense; they speak about a greater more glorious day to come. In Christ, the kingdom of heaven is already yours; you are already the saints of God. And yet he promises you something beyond this vale of tears. His blessing will carry you through this day to that glorious day of the resurrection of all the dead.
Then in this Word of Christ, in his proclamation of who we are now and his promise of what will come, we see that the line in the sand isn’t so firm after all. For those saints who have gone before us, are still part of us. Those who rest from their labors enjoy the same kingdom that Christ has freely given to you. Together we are blessed by God and blessed by his grace and mercy. We are blessed when he declares again and again that you are forgiven, you are free, you are the saints of God.
Those times I was asked to speak at a funeral, I usually tried to speak last: at very least, after the passionate plea to get right with God. I would look at those poor in spirit, the mournful and the lowly, and speak about a Lord who loves. I would proclaim a Lord who defeats the grave itself and declares to us all, “Blessed are you!”