All Saints Sunday
Texts: Luke 6:20-31;
Eph 1:11-23; Dan 7:1-3, 15-18
BECOMING SAINTS, BECOMING HUMAN
We begin on a lighter note this morning. I’m not a Cub fan, but I’m a baseball fan, so I really enjoyed the end of the World Series this week. It was fun to see Cub fans celebrate after 108 years! This little comic captures the fact that many Cub fans lived and died and never saw their team win. Did you see the story of the man who watched the World Series in the dark sitting next to his father’s grave? Just so he could celebrate with him?
For me, I think of my sister’s brother-in-law Steve, a life-long Cub fan. He was diagnosed with cancer this summer, at the age of 58, and died within a matter of weeks. As the Cubs sprinted out to the best record in baseball this summer, his family wondered if he might at least make it through the World Series this year. He didn’t make it. His widow Sharon must have had mixed feelings this week, imagining Steve celebrating in heaven, but missing him here on earth.
Today we remember all the Saints who have gone before us into God’s heavenly place, held in God’s power of life. We take a few minutes in the prayers to remember the ten saints from our Faith family who have died this year. But it’s a day to celebrate the promise of life after death for all our departed loved ones, God’s saints. In Jesus Christ we are assured that life vanquishes death, and love conquers hate. And this morning I also want to reflect on how it is that, in Jesus Christ, our sainthood can win out over the sinful part of us. Luther proclaimed us saints and sinners at the same time. But I’m not sure he emphasized enough that, according to St. Paul especially. With Christ living in us, our saintly natures can begin to overcome our sinful natures. In the promise of God’s Spirit at our baptisms, we are in the process of becoming saints.
In our First Reading from Daniel 7 today, we skip over one of the most important parts: the promise of the “Son of Man” who comes to confront the four beasts. Jesus never really called himself Son of God, like we do. He was shy about calling himself Messiah, or Christ. The witness from the Gospels is that he constantly referred to himself from Daniel 7 as the “Son of Man” who was coming to confront the beastly powers of this world’s emperors and kings. Jesus saw himself first and foremost as coming to show us how to become more truly human, how to let our saintly natures win out over our sinful natures.
So I’d like to reflect for a few minutes this morning about the nature of our salvation. What is this salvation thing all about? If you’re like me, you were taught that it’s primarily about “going to heaven when we die.” Yes, we’re saints and sinners here on earth, but in heaven when we die is when we truly become saints.
But this emphasis on heaven is being challenged today as the heart of salvation. It’s certainly part of the salvation story. But it’s only a part of the story, and it’s not even the most important part.
Consider our readings from Scripture today. On this day when we celebrate the Saints, remembering especially those who have gone before to God’s heavenly place, couldn’t we find and choose some passages that are about “going to heaven when we die”? The rather surprising answer to that question is, “No, we really can’t, because the Bible never really talks about ‘going to heaven when we die’ — at least not really in those words, and not in the way we’ve come to think about it.
Now, you might be thinking, ‘There goes Pastor Paul again with his new-fangled ideas.’ And you might be tempted to tune me out, at this point. I understand that reaction. I really do. But before you tune me out please consider that these might not really be new-fangled ideas. In fact, what this is about is having a better basis, through modern archeology, of knowing how Jesus and Apostles really thought and talked about these things. So the truth is that our way of thinking about it, the way we were taught, might actually be the new-fangled way of thinking about salvation — not the way Jesus himself thought about it.
And, even more importantly, please consider that what I’m sharing with you this morning: I truly see it as exceeding the Good News we grew up with! I have found it very much that way. Yes, there is the great comfort of being held in God’s power of life when we die, but the Good News of Jesus is even much bigger than that! It’s bigger, first of all, because there’s something that comes after life after death as we usually think about it. . . . resurrection to a new spiritual body!
Why?! Isn’t heaven the ultimate destination? Why would we hope for something beyond that? The answer, which may be shocking to us, is that “heaven” simply isn’t ultimate destination in Jesus’s Jewish way of thinking. The New Testament speaks of bodily resurrection after we die and live for a time in God’s power of life because — and this is the big because that we have missed in our reading of the Bible — God is saving the whole Creation in Jesus the Messiah. God created the universe and declared it, “Good!” Creating is God’s thing! God isn’t about to give up Creation because of human sin. So sending Jesus is about saving the whole Creation. And so the ultimate destination becomes not heaven but being raised to a special body someday to enjoy the fulfillment of all Creation. This is what the Bible proclaims in biblical visions like Daniel and the Book of Revelation. It is what is behind the term “eternal life.” It is the ultimate hope proclaimed in places like Romans 8, where Paul proclaims, “For the creation waits with eager longing . . . that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:19a, 21).
But it’s also bigger Good News because of this idea of sainthood beginning now, in this life, with the promise of God’s Spirit at baptism. Or in the language of St. Paul that we just read: “the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” In other words, with the renewing of Creation comes the renewing of what it means to be human. And we are to play a leading role in this renewal. That’s why the creation is waiting for us to get our act together first. Sainthood begins now! “Eternal life” begins now! Precisely because we are to play a role in renewing the rest of creation. We have work to do! We are being renewed to take up the role that God assigned to us from the beginning but which got sidetracked because of sin. As we begin to live into sainthood, we find ourselves becoming the stewards of Creation that we were created to be.
[Conclude with extemporizing around these slides:]
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Faith Lutheran,
Saginaw, MI, November 5-6, 2016