An alien from space could walk into this Sanctuary this morning and have an idea of what we are about today even if he, she, or it had never before entered a church. Unless one is 15 feet tall, which I suppose our space alien might be, the height of the ceiling draws one’s eyes to the heavens where the Almighty reigns. The rows of seating face in the same direction, and it would be obvious we will honor the One whose Being is represented in the symbol on the back wall at which we all look. But it is the pictures on the table that tell the story of the day. Grandparents, moms, dads, beloved aunties, cousins, wives and husbands, uncles, children, dear friends, the sisters or brothers of another mother, their faces look back at us who sit in the chairs facing the chancel and its cross, and we are reminded of the empty places in our lives and our hearts which once held those beloved faces.
And we grieve again. Not that we ever stopped grieving, but for most of us it has changed, the sharp points of it softened, so good memories may overcome sadness with happiness. But seeing them like this, in the sanctuary today, their names written in the Book of the Saints sharpens the edges of loss, and we mourn again. But we mourn differently.
In the first sharp pangs of grief, especially for an unexpected loss, I do not think we take much comfort from the idea that we will see our beloved dead in heaven or at the time of the resurrection of the dead. We want them back, NOW! I suspect that many of us grit our teeth and bear it when a well-meaning friend tells us our loved one is in a better place. We’re Christians, we believe that Jesus saves, but we want Him to save later, so grief does not tear our hearts out, now. That might not be the case when death comes late in life or there is much suffering. Then, truly, we may be relieved that the suffering is over, and there is peace for our loved one and for ourselves. Henry’s mother, for instance, longed to put an end to earthly suffering and to see the face of her Jesus. But all Vi’s yearning to stand straight and without pain in the presence of her Lord does not fill the hole left in our lives by her earthly absence. Three times since July I have found myself buying a Christmas present for a woman who has no need of one, bringing grief to the surface again every time.
But I acknowledge that grief to be a temporary suffering, a needful pain but a short-term one. For I have hope, hope that I will see Violet again, even as I, too, see Jesus face to face. We who are Christians do not mourn as those without hope. This will always be the point of All Saints Day. We do not, as Paul told the little congregation in Thessalonaika, mourn as those who do not know Jesus and so do not know hope. We do not fear that death conquers life, that all is lost once breath ceases, that hope dies when a heart falters and beats its last. We know that death is the grave and the gateway to new life, to a life that will never again be diminished by human frailty or blotted out by illness, injury or old age. This will be good news to most of us, I hope, for I doubt we will spend eternity improbably perched Oon fluffy pink clouds plucking at harps. But there will be life, life abundant in ways we can only imagine, life filled with the fullness of God Himself, the Creator of all that there is and ever will be. Biblical metaphors of the fullness of heaven paint it as a throne room filled with a splendor and a beauty far above that of any earthly ruler, or a meadow filled with everlasting verdant grass and sweet, rushing waters, or a home of many rooms, each of which is the residence of a loved one taken back from death’s cold clutches so that they might together know the richness of living in the presence of the Almighty from age to age.
We have this hope, this balm for our sorrows, because it is promised to all who believe in the atoning death of the incarnate Son of God on the cross and His resurrection from the dead. Now, we need to speak honestly about the limits of faith and hope for us here now who still tread, however unsteadily, upon the earth. Many of us may have had the sad experience of being nattered at by someone who insists that we will not be saved unless we believe exactly what we believe and live just like they live. I use the word nattered instead of preached because what is said is often a misunderstanding or perversion of biblical texts or is unorthodox theology.
So, for example, our first reading today is from the book of Revelation, and in it we hear of a great many, 144,000, sealed with “the seal of the living God.” Some will tell you this is the full number of those allowed in heaven, which is not what the text says. Our forefathers in the faith used numbers to describe the power and glory of God, not for purposes of accounting. So, that 144,000 is 12 times, the number of tribes of Israel, 12,000, and all of those numbers are “perfect numbers” and perfect numbers signify the perfection of God’s governance. Indeed, the text for today goes on to speak of God’s heavenly court as filled with a multitude without number from every tribe and nation. So, it is not the case that you are doomed to hell unless you become a member of a cult that natters on about heaven’s carrying capacity being a mere 144,000 souls.
Nor do you need worry about perfection of life as a disciple of Jesus Christ despite what some will say. From the direction of biblical fundamentalism or its polar opposite, progressive Unitarianism, there is always someone willing to tell us we’re hellbound unless we do what they say. Yet Christ Himself only asks of us to abide in Him, to be a part of Him, and while He asks us to live righteous lives He would not have willingly died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins if He expected perfection of lifestyle from us.
Salvation does indeed, belong “to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb,” as John tells us in the tenth verse of our reading from Revelation. There is no man or woman living who can withhold from us the redemption promised us by Jesus Christ Himself. It is the mercy of Christ Himself on which we depend, and not on any act or though of our own. And how much of a relief is that, when we know that our love of the Lord is too often limited by our fear of the Lord’s creation? What saves? Vaccines? No, the grace of our loving and merciful God saves. Vaccines may diminish the severity of disease or protect us from catching it, but even the best medicine has to offer us is a few more months or years of life on earth. Only Jesus saves, and does so eternally.
So when our Lord Jesus Christ climbed up on that mountain to preach, He did so knowing that He preached to peoples unable to save themselves. To peoples utterly dependent upon His own loving forbearance, Jesus gave His blessings, the first of which is the kingdom of heaven. Even for those of us unable to reach for the vastness of life in the Spirit, or who grieve, or are timid and subject to bullying, or are filled with sadness for the brokenness of the world and the prevalence of sin, conflict, persecution, and hatred of the goodness and loving mercy of God, even for such as these, there is the hope of salvation, for Jesus would have it so.
And because He would have it so, because He in His own body and blood wills our salvation in accord with the will of the Father and the Holy Spirit, we may rejoice. For we, and our beloved dead, in all our imperfections, are truly blessed.